To Find Your Story, Go Back in Time With Beginner’s Eyes

“Should I dive?” Biggsy asked, with uncertainty.

I met Biggsy a couple of decades ago, as we sat on suitcases on the top of an old school bus, winding down from the green mountains of Nepal into the dry yellow flats of India. Quickly we become friends, bonded by the wonder and confusion of a new land, as we ducked trees and tunnels, and shared stories of our rites of passage through solo travel. And by the time we landed in Varanasi, we were also sharing the awkward challenge of another traveler’s rite: getting sick. It had been suggested by the owner of our guest house (whom we called “Monkey Wallah” for his ability to fend off the monkeys that hung in the trees around room) that the solution to our belly problems was to “swim in the Ganges.”

That’s how Biggsy and I ended up on a shaky rowboat out to the middle of the Ganges River, pondering a swim unlike any other. The sun cast it’s orange eye over the ancient buildings of Varanasi, kids bathed on the stone steps, and Biggsy stood up carefully, and looked out into the murky barely-moving river.

“Should I dive?”

The Ganges is a holy river, named for the Hindu goddess Ganga. Local lore said that swimming in her waters would free anyone from their sins and even liberate them from the cycles of life and death. Perhaps this explained the hoards of swimmers every morning, right next to the smoldering cremation ‘ghats’ that lined the river’s shores, beginning the final pilgrimage of thousands of people as their ashes slid into the Ganges en route to the Bay of Bengal.

Belly troubles or no, I was not about to jump in that water.

But Biggsy, his English spirit set aflame, was ready for the challenge. He took off his shirt – leaving his clean white track shoes on, just in case – and stood up in the boat. “Or maybe I should jump?” He said in a barely discernible whimper. Mantu, the rowboat captain who had taken us out there, gave the ‘yes/no’ nod that always meant ‘maybe.’

“Um, yeah, jump.” I suggested, looking at the mirky water, and shielding my face from any impending splash. Biggsy nodded and, holding his nose, and jumped off. Water sprayed on my arms and I quickly wiped it off.

When I looked up, I saw an apparition! Biggsy was standing on top of the water. Had he transcended the cycles life and death?

No, in fact. The water, it turned out, was only six inches deep. Biggsy trudged on for a while, seeking deeper waters. But they never deepened. And he eventually we rowed up to him, and Biggsy stepped back in the boat, his white shoes now mud-soaked, and his sense of adventure dampened.

From Moment to Memory

I write this today, because, in my experience, that this is where speakers often often end up. You may have a week or a month to prepare for a talk, and you’ve been so very focused on getting the facts down, the data down, the strategy down, that you realize you lack a good opener. You know you have to take them deep into a journey. But you glance over the boat and the water is murky. It seems very shallow. So you jump off and hope for the best.

And you end up in the shallows, with your shoes sticking a bit in the mud.

And here’s the thing. To really connect, you have to find something in the depths. That might mean you have to go to upstream a bit, where the waters are more clear. It might mean you have to really block an hour to just wander through your life, or your recent days.

Either for myself or my clients, I’m always looking for new material – and these often live in undefined but prominent life moments. These I call ‘shining moments’ because they seem to glimmer, frozen in time, trying to tell you something. But what? I’m always surprised how some moments stick to us like glue, when others just fade into the past. To find out what the moments have to reveal, I walk with my clients around them, inviting them back to these moments to see differently, sometimes with current eyes, and sometimes with beginner’s eyes.

Exploring your stories, or building them out of these unlikely moments, might sound soft, or like a warm and fuzzy luxury compared to your important job of getting your facts straight. But I’m telling you it’s dead serious for speakers. I truly believe that workshopping these moments are the difference between connecting, being memorable, and being forgotten.

Here are some suggestions to help you find and work with some shining moments of your own:

  1. Go deep into your audience. Think: What do they really need? Where are they now, what do they believe, and what do they feel? What do they think about your topic currently, and where do you most want to move them? What do you want them to understand or believe that they don’t currently?
  2. Find the moments that stick out. Take a walk or go to the gym or take a drive and think on this: what were five great moments in your life that you so enjoyed? Or a few where you really struggled? You don’t have to know WHY it’s important yet…you can think on that. Choose one moment that you might like to depict around the dinner table, but haven’t shared in public. What was so interesting, so alive, so strange about that moment?
  3. Shape one into an insight or lesson. What did you learn in that moment? What changed for you? Or what can you take from it now? Make it into an “Ever since then, this has changed how I see things.” Or “As I consider this now…” This could be a small lesson or a big one. Consider how it connects with the audience and their needs/desires.
  4. Move to the territory of story. The difference between a great moment and a story is how you start the moment, and how you end it. By setting up the moment with a bit of context, of how you saw the world before, we know the importance of the moment. We know the change that you are setting up. And by providing what changed for you after that moment, either directly or metaphorically in how you see the world, you give us a story, not just a slice of life.
  5. Move from from a message to metaphor. When thinking about your key takeaway from the story, or your message, what are different ways you can say it to make it more memorable? This is the thing they will be thinking about tomorrow, and it will tie to your story. For example: If you want to talk about how important your support staff is to your organization, do you say “Our team is important?” or do you say “Each of us walks together?” So consider…what is the key thing you want your audience to understand? What are different ways of speaking to that?
  6. Get it in your body. Once you’ve got a story that you want to share, and a metaphor you want to land, run through your story 10 times. While you’re driving, while you’re walking, and while in front of a friend or associate that will give you a few minutes to fail at your story as you refine it and land your message, and your metaphor. Get it in your body. Find ways

So whether you’re standing up in front of 1,000 people, or sitting down in front of five particularly important people, spend a bit of time with these moments. They might just give you the lift you’re seeking.

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