A vital decision when presenting a short talk or story

A colleague-friend years ago scolded me for how I was preparing for a short talk (to be roughly five minutes of stage time). I recall being very concerned that five minutes with the audience ‘just wouldn’t be enough time to make a credible effort…’

During these informal rehearsals, the intro would start with biographical remarks about myself, then progressed to the more relevant meat.

My observing friend looked at me with vivid critical sass after one of the rehearsals and said:

Your audience could care less about you.  They care about the experience you can create for them. They care about your teachable, relevant meaning that can help them.  So stop flaunting your ego with the bio stuff. Stop thinking five minutes is insufficient. Stop abusing your audience’s time and organize your thoughts in 15 to 30 second chunks, and get on with it!

Yikes.

I still recall the humbling crash my ego took from her words that day.  It was a hard realization to experience — that my love for speechmaking had (unintentionally) morphed into a sense of entitlement with time on stage:

Five minutes?! That’s not enough time to sneeze let alone for an audience to pick up on my depth of meaning…

That was my fumbling, fightin’, ego at the time; I shrink at the snobby condescension in my head back then.  But years later (and many short speeches and storytelling since) a fascination grips me as a presenter, storyteller, and devotee of the really short speech format.

It’s a fascination driven by one question:

How can any type of speaker, no matter their level of presentation or storytelling experience, create resonance with their audience in a five minute (or less) speech?

Even seemingly harmless content decisions in short-form stories or presentations can unintentionally distance an audience — vs bring them into your intended meaning.

This one content decision at the start creates stronger resonance: When making really short talks, all content decisions must ideally bridge this experiential distance or ‘separateness gap’ to make a more resonant impact — quickly, from the start. How to do this? Prevent that separateness from ever developing from the beginning.

Solution: Provide listeners with a specific, relevant scene in the first 15 seconds of your talk.

This decision will better convert your audience from a mental observation mode – to a more interactive & mentally more resonant participation mode.

Imagine Ms. Sara Sample Speaker as a hypothetical.

She’s about to give a five minute talk about holiday cuisine.  Her audience before she even takes the stage is in a mental observation mode consciously or not. Sure they know they are here in their seats about to watch Ms. Sara Sample. But their senses and train of thought are very much in observational on-the-outside-of-any-journey-of-meaning mode.

Keep in mind, as this Sarah takes the stage, she ultimately wants to get the audience to mentally journey with her, to mentally be involved in her content’s sense of progression. She wants listeners to be in full-on cognitive participation…not just observers merely consuming the sound of her voice and detached from specific meaning.

So she takes the stage and says:

“I love holiday flavors more than anything.  And each October, I remember as a kid how pumpkin pie would rule our house long before Halloween night arrived.  Dad even polished our special pie trays at the start of fall, and well before buying any Halloween candy for the trick-o-treaters.”

Our speaker Sarah, with this immediate scenic content decision at her beginning, has mentally transported the audience from observation mode — to a scenic experience which their imaginations can experientially identify with i.e. pumpkin pie and Dad fussing about. The simple scene progresses the audience to along with the speaker (again in the first 15 seconds).  Speaker and audience alike have now shared in live-time this family’s experiential delight for pumpkin and holiday anticipation.

This first 15 seconds of scenic storytelling (simple, non-complex!) easily starts off her short talk with topical relevance and unifies herself with audience expectation.

Ok, so why care?!

Why shouldn’t Ms. Sara Sample’s short talk begin instead with something like…: “I’m Sarah, a chef for 10 years and head of catering at Chicago’s Ritz Carlton. Before that I ran catering for special events, weddings, and holidays at different hotels in Miami Beach and New England. So today, I want to talk about holiday food with you all.”

That’s a passable way to start.

But this type of opener greets Sarah’s audience with a topical distance.

Or another way to describe the concern is this: Sarah is creating for her audience a sense of separateness by giving her mini bio at the start. As in, it’s highly likely that no one else in her audience can relate to being a seasoned chef at fancy hotels. Also her listeners hear her bio as being repetitive, since they’ve (highly likely) already seen it on the event agenda; the conference’s promo; and in a zillion twitter conversations before the date of Sarah’s stage moment even arrived.

But what does the audience have in common with Sarah-the-hypothetical speaker? Her talk’s topic aka holiday cuisine. That’s what they came for…not an oral re-enactment of her resume.

Other samples of scenic decisions at the very start of short talks:

Drew Dudley’s short talk: Everyday Leadership

“How many of you are completely comfortable calling yourself a leader? See I’ve asked that question across the country and I always find there’s a huge number of people in the audience that don’t raise their hand.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being apart of audiences across the country who have grappled with the speaker’s question.

Susan B. Anthony’s speech before court: On Women’s Right to Vote

“Friends and fellow citizens, I stand before you tonight under indictment for the alleged crime of having voted at the last presidential election, ….without having a lawful right to vote.”

The scenic moment:  The audience moves from their observer ‘seat’ to being involved with the speaker’s current legal threat with the right to vote as common ground between speaker and audience.

I so love the structure and possibilities in short-form presentation! Hope you enjoy and find this useful (comments welcome all the time). More thoughts to come about crafting short-form stories and presentation.

Photo attribution …a short fall by Eury licensed under Creative Commons

A trust issue: why speakers should not strive so hard to entertain audiences

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What cultivates trust with listeners when we express ourselves as public speakers or storytellers (or both)?

It’s common for answering this question in context of ‘to entertain is better’ vs ‘to offer teachable perspective is better’.  At least this was a common way to frame said debate when I was a coach to storytellers way back when!

I believe authentic clear perspective as speakers moves trust forward with audiences much more so than a dominant focus to only entertain. The “I only have to entertain” mindset is a common misconception that often creates big psychological barriers when folks including myself prepare to publicly speak. This outlook when preparing can cause many presenters (and even seasoned storytellers) to think they are inadequate since they are not sure how to entertain in the first place.

A myopic striving to only entertain an audience can so often lead speakers to indulging their ego — to be that ‘hilarious charming speaker’ — vs to be that timely source that satisfies an audience’s need for real perspective. Our audience needs and deserves the latter.

Here’s what I see about an exclusive desire to entertain audiences. It stifles many-a-speaker when preparing. It happens a lot. Their expectations to be entertaining dynamos like Meryl Streep (…sprinkled with a Sheryl Sandberg or Gary Vanerchuck quality) often inhibit their ability to establish an accessible point of view. Their clarity of mind usually suffocates under the self-imposed pressure to be funny enough, riveting, fascinating, provocative, etc.

So when preparing content and point of view, I suggest looking first at the teachable truth in your fund of knowledge.

Decide a few topics and then consider:

  1. How are these topics teachable from your point of view?
  2. How do these topics relate to and benefit different segments of people?
  3. What three problems can you solve?

Is it human to want our audiences to crack-up from welcomed laughter at our stories and overall presentations?!

Sure, it’s understandable. But I invite us to ask one question first when assessing a speech’s entertainment value: Does the content entertain while supporting a core idea?

Any wit, story, or piece of content needs to explicate a usable idea or perspective.

Our teachable experience is what we have in common with our audiences. As in, they want it and we’ve got it. No perfectionism or entertainment hoo-ha… just some usable, human truth and clear point of view.

Another tip: conquering leery self-confidence

Should you ever suffer from low reservoirs of self-confidence (ah we all do one time or another) – this mental exercise below may liberate you when preparing to engage audiences.

1. Mentally embrace the fact you have insight, which could help at least one person on this planet.

2. Then consider two people, then a room full of people, then maybe a whole department.

3. Believe that something useful and teachable exists in you, even if it is not clear to your self-confidence right this very minute. Assert this possibility in your mind as a meditative exercise for a good 10 minutes. Just sit with it.

Photo attribution entertain us  by fedee P licensed under Creative Commons

What I learned in 2017 from exhaustion and related inelegance

#1 What 2017 taught about boundaries and working at a large urban church:

Stress can still affect your health even when God is technically your boss.

Many structural and cultural shifts were underworks at my employer and personal church community Foundry UMC, a thriving Methodist church a few blocks from the White House. The staff and congregation were in what felt like a perpetual all-hands-on-deck mode especially since the outcomes of the 2016 presidential race (…the sermon Pastor Ginger preached a few days after that election gives incredible insight and encouragement…if your journey craves it!).

The work was a purposeful, spiritual dream, especially in hospitality. We’d work together in community to support disadvantaged and homeless neighbors or offer adult discipleship classes about many social justice topics, inclusive Christian beliefs, or fragile political culture. We’d share strong solidarity with LGBTQI neighbors and immigrants. So much more.

“God as boss is a noble thing!” the thought would float my mind sometimes during particularly stressful deadlines, or when passionate (well meaning) folks would approach me on my days off to help on work-related matters. My boundary setting skill wasn’t the most clear, at all.

The nobility began to transform into weariness but I didn’t fully recognize it. My husband started to comment that he would hear me say “I’m so tired” almost daily. Effects from physical and mental depletion continued (but without a vigilant, self-caring response from myself): lack of focus, ongoing frustration, ongoing anxiety, lack of restfulness from sleep, indifference, general irritation at professional hospitality projects and colleagues that were once held dear.

Then…

The turning point:

In a moment of raging dramatic angst-filled release – I screamed at my boss through various expletives and explosive (CRANKY) critique. It would be now a hilarious story if my exhausted viciousness wasn’t quite so uncontrolled, let alone unloving.

The next day, the exhausted anxious (humbling! awkward!) episode occurred again offsite when en route to work. It was the most vulnerable, strained episode of head pain, harsh breathing, dizziness, and the shakes. After an ambulance ride to the ER, it became clear that vast exhaustion was in the driver’s seat and mounting anxious depression was on the rise.

Outcome:

It was time to transition off church staff, rest up, heal up, and start anew in hospitality and storytelling work in a different dynamic.

Holy Cow 2017 taught my ego that working for a religious organization still demands vigilant self-care, better boundary setting, and moderation of pace.  Just because God’s the boss doesn’t mean ignoring one’s capacity to set healthy boundaries!

#2  What the year taught about creative avoidance:

Procrastination on personal projects (that you aren’t paid for except by passion for creative journey) causes as much fatigue and anxiety as procrastinating on work you get paid for.

It seems more obvious now that work which espouses one’s commitment warrants …committed attention. It does not matter whether that commitment stems from our heartfelt self-will and passion or from a boss that pays one’s salary. Once the commitment is self-administered — then action should simply commence; production should simply begin; …all the “don’t hold back” attitude should ideally ignite as a natural response to said commitment.

Argh to the wise “should” mentality!

Even still with hindsight – after outlining an on-the-bucket-list dream storytelling project recently, I sat on it for at least a month. As in, there was zero movement forward on it!

I’d rebel against the very project my heart had longed to do. Any and all randomness became the priority (vs actually asserting head on this storytelling work). Literally far less timely research projects would capture my focus, or a new yoga routine or meet ups with people that could’ve been easily postponed.

The turning point:

After about five weeks of this – sleeping patterns got rocky and inconsistent. A general internal hum made of both tiredness and an angst-ridden edge set in. Then an article found its way to my eyeballs about the negative effects of procrastination: it increases sleep debt and thus anxiety and fatigue (pausing to gulp that truth down).

Outcome:

After eventually asserting the project head on and finishing it – a distinct, more regulated steadiness returned in sleep patterns and inner contentment.

The work, tackled head on without restraint, will set the soul (and healthy sleeping habits!) free.

#3  What the year taught overall about fatigue:

Habitual tiredness does not equate to winning an award in workplace martyrdom.

Gently closing thoughts here with a neighborly reminder:  Beware of work martyr culture and mentality.

Here’s to you and an awesome, “all in” 2018 with lots of blessings and purpose, results, renewal, constant self-care, and patience.

Photo: “Napping” by Paula Gimeno licensed under Creative Commons

How reflections on truth-listening & truth-telling showed up in prayer

What does it take to build authentic relationships and thus, authentic ministry?
It’s a hefty question to grapple with that last week’s sermon took on without restraint.  I gained a lot from it. Pastor T.C. Morrow gave a fantastic sermon answering this question of building authentic relationship through key messages like:
  • “Don’t hold back in authentic truth telling – or truth listening – in your relationships.”
  • “Don’t hold back in remembering God loves you, even if you are telling a truth that’s uneasy to say (or listening to someone else’s raw but truthful viewpoint).
She worked thoroughly with the story from 1 Samuel 3: 8 about mentor Eli insisting with his young pupil and future prophet Samuel — to not hold back telling the truth.
This particular story was new to me (ha, much of the Bible still is!). But she made her “Don’t hold back” words of empowerment resonate in different, very accessible, ways based on this particular story:
  • Don’t hold back from seeing Christ in the unhoused neighbor, the sick, or the hungry;
  • Don’t hold back in seeking God’s voice; it is all around us but often we do not recognize it;
  • Don’t hold back to transformation ourselves through ministry with others (it’s not just ministering TO others; greater authenticity is enabled by our openness to be transformed when we are engaged in ministry truly WITH others);
  • Don’t hold back your pain, your peace or joy, your torment, or your experience of resisting evils.
Authentic relationship and works toward justice take all of the above and even more of regularly not holding back. The sermon continues to reverberate in reflections.
As an initial don’t-hold-back response to T.C.’s sermon, out came this prayer and some sense of play.

Have a great weekend!

Written version of the video-prayer is just below:

I pray for strength to grow your justice 

for neighbors hungry and denied… Oh God trust us /

we need you, we need your liberating hand

to free our minds from self-addicted strands /

 

Oh God pride, it’s our pride high-5ing in endless selfie thumps

Lord transform, God transform our ego-echoes with your Holy Fist Bump /

And expand our doubting squints toward our lost, lone neighbor

to a wide-eyed willingness to lift her labor /

 

Now compel oh compel any privileged toward acts of sacrifice

so deprived neighbors thrive on — more than beggar’s lice / 

Please freeze our greed & melt it away with merciful justness

God seam anew all ego-separations to grow your justice /

I pray for strength to grow your justice. 

Amen.

Racial justice and white ego

imageA friend’s heartfelt expression today on Facebook about “ugly racism” stays on my mind. She emphasized a more conscious return to love and taking each day “one day at a time….and to take care of our own porch and neighbors” among other insights.

I shared below in response:

Your comments have triggered a thought about love: It is the answer.

At the same time, I invite an overt understanding of how love can be easily misconstrued in society as a decision void of discomfort – especially to the white privileged in our country.

I’m not an expert on the perfection of love; but the enacting of it exceeds the proverbial porch of our own comfort or sense of ease.

We as whites need to fully look and listen to how structural racism has strangled opportunity for Black people, strangled their right to decency, and their basic sovereignty to live out a loving life due to entrenched racist structures. The violence we have seen these weeks is nothing to the immoral hegemony that our white race has created in this country.

Consequences of this play out in less violent but demonstrative ways. Like I heard a white mom friend get angry that a Black student, as example, won the scholarship instead of her white son. Why? Was racist judgement at the root of her frustration?  Or was she stressed at facing hefty tuition and I took her expression of disappointment in the wrong light? In that moment it felt uncomfortable to not question her. And it felt as uncomfortable to challenge a friend with such directness.

But in the moment, I believe to return to love as you mention is to also pursue truth and uplift it.  So I inquired about her meaning; she was surprised yet forthcoming. I said her comments sounded racist. It was awkward but damn we talked about it. Hopefully a little greater consciousness was achieved for two white people.

Or here’s another scenario:

I’ve seen white people question the authority of a Black leader in front of a crowd; yet they remain silent when a white leader of same capacity asserts the same authority in the same dynamic. Love means divining the courage to call that out….which frankly I failed to do.

These are just mere slivers of the non-violent racist attitudes and structures that rage, along with the obvious blood.

What is the loving response?

It goes beyond taking care of your own porch. The first black family in my mom’s home town moved in, then a week later their water heater blew up in flames so they left. An actionable love surely means to wake up at the discomfort of how our decisions and perceptions can dehumanize people, limit them, and inspire horrendous fear.

It goes beyond the immediate localness of our porch and into the murky unease of learning that being white does not equate to an entitled sense of ease at the expense of minorities especially Black people.

Surely to God love means not only taking it one step and one day at a time. But it must include taking the consequences of white supremacy and dismantling them one consequence at a time. We must achieve awareness and that takes rigorous adjusting (and deflating) of white ego.

Intertwined

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Where does compassion for others (or even for one’s self) really come from?

Answering this has been an interesting self study involving some ego bruising realizations. Many years ago at the start of adult life and building a path, I envisioned living out a sense of purpose in service for others, a longing to help “make the world a better place.” Then somewhere down the line, my ego unleashed its insecurity on a much more conscious and wounded level.

Something about “making the world a better place” no longer rang true, it was an empty way to frame my life’s productivity. I’m not sure how else to describe it.

It was as if a mental release valve popped off one year and out burst tons of confused or lacking definitions of real internal wellness. I realized my intended trajectory of a life’s work “based on service to others” had finally revealed a very unhealthy subconscious habit….what could be called a severe self-acceptance  deficit.

I had come to see that my well intended path toward helping the world had a very harsh condition attached to it (unbeknownst to my self awareness for years)… that being: this gift of life was deemed worthy only IF it was caring or serving the neediness of this world. As in, this heart deserved to beat only to place others’ needs ahead of my own. Any offerings of compassion or service or tenderness to others equated to some inner sense of value. But all those offers of care outwardly did not equate to extending a sense of care inwardly.  So after years of working from this deeply buried but active premise — the mental and spiritual energy just gave out, burning to ash any desire to benefit other people. That absense of both inward compassion and tenderness left a big ole hole inside where self-respect needed to replant.

Since then, it’s been a more humbling and conscious (still bumpy) path toward a new outlook: compassion intertwines with respect, for self and others, like a branch with its blooms.