Training exercises don’t usually make grown men cry but this one did.
Many years ago, I attended a workshop on public speaking, the technique I learned was so simple and so powerful I have used it ever since.
If I describe the exercise, you’ll understand what I mean.
There were 12 of us sitting around a board room table. The task we’d been set was to spend five minutes writing our business vision. Each person was then to read aloud what they’d written.
It was so boring – 12 versions of the same corporate blah blah. No wonder our staff nod off in meetings when leaders proudly pronounce their vision to the team.
What came next changed all that completely.
We were instructed to tear our first version into tiny little pieces.
Now the task was to dig deep within to find a deeply personal and vulnerable story. This story, when told, would segue neatly into our business vision in a way which touched people’s hearts and engaged their emotions.
One story from the headmaster of a large private school brought a tear to our eyes and left a lump in our throats.
His corporate speak version was something along the lines of, ‘The school I am building will create responsible adults who make a positive contribution to the communities in which they live etc etc.’ Boring!
The story he next told was different. It wasn’t the authoritative headmaster speaking, it was a quietly spoken, vulnerable human being speaking from the heart and this is what he said:
‘When I was growing up, my father was a prison warden. There was a corruption inquiry at the jail and my father was implicated. The case went to court and my father was found guilty. He was dismissed from the prison service and never worked another day in his life. He became a hopeless alcoholic.
My bedroom was next to the kitchen and many nights I’d fall asleep listening to the sounds of my drunken father throwing pots and pans and yelling at my mother.
To escape from this stressful home-life, I created my own fantasy world. Each night as I lay in bed I would retreat into my other world. In this life, I was married to a beautiful woman called Sally. She had shoulder length blonde hair. We had two wonderful children, a dog, and a family filled with fun, laughter and happiness. I’d live in that world every night.
Thirty years later, I am married to a beautiful woman and her name really is, Sally. She actually does have shoulder length blonde hair and we do have two beautiful children. We even have the dog. And yes, our house is filled with fun, laughter and happiness. Somehow I dreamed my fantasy world into existence.
And our school, is one which creates families like this.’
There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
What actors get taught that the rest of us don’t know is how to tell powerful stories. They know that the first thing they must do with an audience is to ‘plug in’ as they call it – connect with the emotional system of every person in the room as quickly as possible. Do this and people will hang off your every word. Fail to connect and you lose the room before you’ve even started.
There’s lots of research to behind this technique. It’s Friday morning and I’m not in the mood for lots of theory but if you are, read the works of Albert Mehrabian, he’s a leader in this field.
Now, whenever I speak, I only ever tell my own stories. It’s the only thing I’m truly an expert on – my own journey and my own stories. I embrace my vulnerabilities and admit to my many weaknesses.
This works for me and it seems to connect well with the people I speak to.
Of course, you must know your subject and have something of value to impart. The thing is, I’ve never met anyone I can’t learn from. We all have learnings to share if only we knew how. Story telling is what works best.
We all know how to be real and we all know how to be vulnerable. We all have valuable stories to tell. Often the hardest part is knowing how to begin.
To gain the confidence you need, try this technique, it works for professional actors, it works for me and it’ll work for you.
Rob Davidson is the Founder and Director of Growth at Davidson.