Speaking Your Story

Until two or three years ago most of my speaking opportunities were at memorial services in churches, telling people about someone they already knew and loved, or at least cared about, and then offering some further insight by sharing stories of life experiences and interactions with the person being remembered. I absolutely love these opportunities because the people come to the event emotionally alive, ready to engage in story, in faith, in music.

There is hardly anything more deeply satisfying to a writer than to have a whole room full of people (from a handful to hundreds) come alive and move with your words. To see faces pained with grief listening carefully to every word, then moved to laughter and tears, and then to hear swirls of mmm’s and ohhh’s, and the catching of breath, like the spirit moving over and through them. And then coming to moments of resolve and inspiration as they accept the challenge offered and decide that they must in some way follow the example of the person who has gone before us.

What I’ve just described is a thrill. To see and hear the response validates a writer/speaker on every level when the writing was honest, authentic, revealing, kind, and hope filled. But it takes hard work to make it that way. When I work on pieces like this I often stay up most of the night before the event, finishing my writing, editing, practicing, working through the wildness of my own emotion and practicing, over and over. By the time it’s my turn on the program I’m ready, and if my emotions break the surface and force me to stop for a moment, then that’s what happens. In addition to being validated personally a writer walks away knowing that they offered their best—a gift, something honoring to the person being remembered, a joy and maybe even a challenge to their family and friends.

As my professional life has moved forward I’ve also been asked to speak at many events addressing the needs of elders and how families can best prepare themselves for some of the challenges ahead. Admittedly this is not the same crowd and opportunity as described above, but it still works because there are many points that connect us emotionally when we talk about preparing for end of life care. There are stories, examples, and plenty of humorous incidents to relate on the road to old age. And there is joy. In the end, the thrill is the same when the audience is engaged in a way that can be seen on every face and with the sounds that let you know they’re with you. The honest and sometimes fear-filled questions that follow give great opportunity to point people to resources, and ideas for drawing up a family plan.

This last week I was asked to speak as a panel member at DHS conference related to aging and disability services. This was not so fun, the attendees were tired as they came to the last session of a long conference day. Our topic and discussion were hugely informative, but they didn’t come with emotional connection points built in. I was the last speaker to present and when it was my turn I put my papers away and simply talked with them. I used a little self-deprecating humor and a lot of solid information. But mostly I tried to reach them using emotion related to the human condition, and for the most part it worked. It was challenging; I didn’t know anyone in the room and they didn’t know me or what to expect. I was careful to keep the eye contact going with people across the audience and on the panel, and did my best to join myself to them by remembering why we’re in this business and what the goals really are. There were smiles and some nods of assent, but this time the emails following the event are the tip-off that I reached them and they heard me.

My advice to all writers is to take every opportunity to speak to groups small and large. It will teach you a lot about how people receive and respond to what you have to say. Keep your eyes moving and make eye contact with individuals, smile, let them see and hear who you really are. Then smile some more.

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