How to share something personal with an audience without oversharing! Seven questions that will help if you are unsure
On the first night of my public speaking course, I tell people the story of my epic public speaking fail. You can read all about it on my Medium site. The short version is that I had a panic attack in front of the senior executive team of the organisation I was employed by. Six months later, I joined Toastmasters. Twelve years later, I became a public speaking coach.
I tell this story to every new group without hesitation. My clients have a fear of public speaking. It is a perfect way to start the course because it helps reassure them that they are in a safe environment with a coach who understands how they feel. It also gives them hope that it is possible to move past a crippling fear of public speaking.
The first time I told my story, I looked for reasons not to. I was concerned it would make me look weak. And I did not want to re-live the shame! I wondered if I could get away with something vague like, “I used to be a bit anxious about public speaking, and so I understand how you feel.” But I realised that would be dishonest and not nearly as powerful as sharing that I once was them!
Although it is the right thing for me to share my story, I was justified in hesitating. I have been on the receiving end of speakers who have overshared — and you probably have too!
Oversharing — an example
At a Toastmaster’s course, a young woman — let’s call her Hannah — spoke for twenty minutes about her ex-boyfriend’s terrible car accident that changed his personality. She stuck with him through his rehabilitation only to have him dump her a year later. It was obviously a devastating experience for her and one that was still affecting her deeply.
Afterwards, everyone told Hannah how brave she had been, which was true. But her speech left me feeling uncomfortable. Why? Apart from the fact that she was 15 minutes overtime, it was a raw and largely unresolved story. It was the sort of story she should have shared with her closest friends, but I don’t think she was ready to share it with a wider audience.
Perhaps the experience was cathartic for her. If it helped her heal, personally, I am OK with that. But she was attending a course to become a better public speaker. In my mind, that means giving something of benefit to the audience rather than assuming the audience is happy to be the support group.
Why Hannah’s story will improve with time
What do I mean by raw and unresolved? The experience profoundly impacted this young woman, but she was not at the end of the process. If you think of the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, Hannah was probably still in the depression stage. She was showing some signs of acceptance — moving on — but was still deeply affected.
She told us everything in great detail, but it lacked perspective. In five years, she will be in a much better position to tell this story. By then, the experience will be in her past. She will have learned a lot from it and will be able to share what she has learned and how it has changed her. She will be able to summarise the key points and tell the story in five or ten minutes rather than twenty.
More importantly, Hannah will be able to articulate how we can benefit from the insights she has gained. It won’t be all about her. For example, she might end up concluding that you can’t solve someone else’s problems for them — and that trying to can backfire. I would say she is still feeling the injustice of giving a year of her young life to supporting someone who eventually spurned her. There is clearly something of value in her story, but I don’t think she has identified it yet.
Some things to think about before you share
f you are going to share something deeply personal with an audience, it should be far enough in your past that you have resolved it in your own mind. You should be able to tell it in a way that moves others, but you can retain perspective. It is fine to show emotion, but can you tell your story without breaking down?
A good test is whether you can add some humour. If so, that is a good sign.
Another test is to think about how it will make the audience feel. It is OK (even good) for you to feel uncomfortable telling the story, but it shouldn’t make your audience feel uncomfortable on your behalf. You don’t want their sympathy — you want their appreciation for sharing something painful that can benefit them.
Being vulnerable or sharing is not a technique. It must be genuine, and your motivation for sharing should be to help others rather than impress.
I have seen too many Toastmaster’s contest speeches that go something like this:
The power of sharing
So far, this article has covered a lot of don’t. But I am not trying to put you off. Sharing something personal can be powerful and can help you connect with your audience. It can even help you with a fear of public speaking.
The fear of public speaking is mainly about the fear of being rejected. As soon as you can see that you have strongly connected with or moved an audience, the fear tends to dissolve.
Here is another example. A contact of mine, Emma is a young mother who once had an eating disorder. She could see that the same unhealthy relationship with food developing in her own daughter. This frightened her and led her to do a heap of research. She now has a business providing advice to parents on how to help children develop healthy attitudes towards food.
When Emma ran her first seminar, she was terrified. But as she shared her own story, she could see the impact it had on the audience. Parents were desperate for help, and they were lapping it up.
There are many examples of high-profile people sharing their stories of depression, anxiety or anger for the benefit of others. In New Zealand, the ex-All Black, John Kirwan, springs to mind. There is nothing gratuitous or self-indulgent about these stories — just the recognition by people like John that they can make a difference because of who they are.
The seven questions to ask yourself before you share If you have a story that you are not sure about sharing, ask yourself these questions:
Article written by Catherine Syme
I get huge satisfaction from seeing the relief, pride, and even joy that people experience when they complete a course and reflect on the progress they have made. See what others say for some inspiring stories.