Why you should ignore advice to “get personal” (and what to do instead)

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Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

When I was started doing standup comedy, the more experienced comics loved to give me advice. One suggested I tell funny stories about the time I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska.

“People will want to hear about Alaska!” he said.

I was skeptical, but I agreed to try. Here’s one story:

I once went flying in a Cessna with a colleague who had less than 100 hours of flight time. As we were going through a narrow mountain pass, the pilot said, “Wow! This is a great place to learn mountain flying!”

That’s not what you want to hear when your tiny plane is shaking as you’re inches away from harsh mountain peaks, hundreds of miles from civilization.

People who’d been to Alaska or flown in a tiny two-seater Cessna thought this little story was hilarious. Unfortunately, most of my audience had done neither.

The story even backfired. My listeners didn’t see me as adventurous. They thought I was an idiot. Many of them had spouses and families. They wouldn’t get on a plane with a newly licensed pilot. Nobody laughed. Not even a chuckle.

I went back to telling jokes about topics like being single and fighting the cable company. These jokes went over well with my urban East Coast audience. If I went onstage in a small midwestern town, I might have bombed.

For business storytelling, you also need to tailor your stories to your audience’s sensibilities. For one thing, it’s important to engage the audience and not distract them with exotic settings and unfamiliar territory.

Recently a business owner told a rather long story about the insights she’d achieved at a yoga retreat in one of those five-figure cruises to a South Seas destination. Her whole life was transformed. Events that would have turned her into a nail-biting mess now leave her calm and confident.
But will this story resonate with her readers?

This type of retreat isn’t just expensive. It requires a level of intensity, commitment and fitness that will be beyond the level of most readers. They couldn’t achieve those results, even if they want to.

I’m currently trying to do yoga myself. I go for the easy poses and plan to stay at the beginner level for the rest of my life. So the story held some relevance.

A year ago? I wouldn’t have gotten past the first sentence.

The “I’ve been there!” Factor

Audiences aren’t looking to get to know the Real You. They’re looking for evidence that the Real You is like the Real Them.

If you want more evidence, look at the recent election, no matter how you voted. Both Hillary and Donald have shared elements of their personal experiences. Hillary writes that she recovered from the election with yoga and wine. Donald gets photographed eating burgers at McDonalds.

Both were personal, but only a certain portion of the voters felt connected…and of course, some didn’t care what they ate or drank.

“I’ve been there!” can refer to an experience or a state of mind, not just geography. Many audiences can relate to getting lost in a strange city, having trouble saying no to dessert, or getting caught in traffic on a hot day. Most can’t relate to high-flying adventures.

The need for a common denominator provides yet another reason to build a repertoire of stories, rather than have one story that is “your” story. Your audience may love you and hire you even if they can’t relate to your lifestyle, your family (or lack of family) and your geographic location. You can still connect with them with a story.

Learn more when you download 17 Surprising Ways To Use Storytelling To Grow Your Business.

Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time. http://cathygoodwin.com

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