The Problem with Always Being the Hero of Your Own Story (and a Few Other Stories to Tell Instead)

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A quick scroll through my LinkedIn feed shows endless blog posts about how important it is to become a masterful storyteller, and a few solid tips on how to get there. Learning how to craft a well-thought-out narrative can help you explain difficult concepts, create emotional connection with the audience, and elevate your presentation from just informative to actually entertaining.

The challenge lies in what types of stories we should be sharing. It’s easy to default to only telling the best stories of our successes because we know them well, and because it’s nice to pat yourself on the back every so often. Plus, if we’re invited to speak or train somewhere, we want the client/audience/etc. to feel good about their choice in hiring us. We want them to know that we know what we’re doing! Therefore, a good success story can go a long way in establishing credibility.

But (and this is a big “BUT”), if you’re always the hero of your own stories, then you become unrelatable as both a person and as a speaker, which creates a significant disconnect with the audience. As much as we want to celebrate other people’s successes, we’re also deeply insecure creatures who want to know we’re not alone in the spectrum of human feelings and experiences – both positive and negative.

Also, let’s be honest here, if you’re only ever telling stories of your successes, then you are at risk of being very boring indeed. And boring sucks.

To be clear, I’m not saying you should swing in the other direction and only use self-deprecation. I agree with Hannah Gadsby when she points out that “Self-deprecation isn’t humor, it’s humiliation.” You don’t have to tear yourself (or anyone else) down in order to build someone else up. This isn’t a zero-sum game. What it does mean is that I (and most people in your audience) want to hear about how you failed, fucked up, or otherwise made a mistake and then I want to know what you did next. What did you learn? How has your life changed since then? What did that famous 20/20 hindsight teach you?

The story of failure and learning is just one type of story you can use besides the “hero of your own story” format. To get your creative juices flowing, consider these other types of stories to share in your speeches and writing:

A story about a time you failed – miserably! And what you learned from it

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I mean, like really biffed it. There’s now a whole movement called “F-Up Nights” where community leaders and professionals get together to give 7-minute speeches about a time they really failed. It’s like the anti-TED talks, and it’s fantastic!

Someone else’s hard-earned success story

This could be a friend, family member, client, etc. What happened to them? How did they overcome their obstacles and solve their challenges? What did they learn? Be careful though, don’t use this type of story to sneakily tell us how you saved them. Then you’re just the hero again. Stop it. You’re better than that!

A true story of a historical figure that relates to your main point

Popular figures for this strategy continue to be Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Edison (both of whom are famous for failing and then becoming very successful), so I’m pushing you to do a little bit of digging on lesser-known historical figures to develop your story repository. Consider what Lin-Manuel Miranda did for Alexander Hamilton, and how he went from relatively obscure Founding Father, to compelling person everyone wanted to learn more about.

Being human is hard. It’s confusing, embarrassing, and most of us are just feeling our way through the dark trying to figure it all out. But you can use your platform to shed some light in the darkness and help others make sense of the chaos. Instead of telling us stories about how great you are (even if you are indeed a fantastic person), consider either sharing someone else’s triumphs that you admire, or a time that you failed and what you learned from it. You will find that the audience finds you more relatable, authentic, and just downright likeable.

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