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Where To Find Personal Stories
by Bill Stainton

If you know anything at all about me and my speaking style, you know that I am a huge, huge fan of humorous personal stories! I think they are, hands down, the best way to add humor to your speech or presentation. I like them better than jokes, funny quotes, and cartoons. Why? Because they are unique, memorable, bombproof, and a small handful of stories will cover you in a surprisingly large number of situations!

In my coaching and consulting sessions with other speakers, however, I’m surprised at how often I hear somebody say something like, “But I don’t have any stories; nothing funny ever happens to me!” To which I reply, “Balderdash!” (Well, actually I use a slightly different expression, but the meaning is essentially the same.) Everybody’s got stories!

I remember reading an interview with David Letterman quite a few years ago. He was saying that all he asks of his guests is to come to the show prepared with two or three decent stories to tell. He went on to say, “If you’ve been on the planet for two decades or more and don’t have three decent stories, you’re doing something wrong!”

I couldn’t agree more with Dave. In my workshops, I go through a couple of exercises designed to help people find and develop personal stories. In one exercise, which takes less than 30 minutes, most people are able to come up with a dozen or more “story events.” These are events that have happened in their lives that can, with a bit of development, be turned into memorable and humorous platform stories. Remember, these are people who say they “don’t have any stories.” All of a sudden they’ve got a dozen or more possibilities. I won’t go into the full exercise here (but I’m certainly available for consultations and/or workshops…), but I will give you the key that unlocks the floodgates. First, though, a bit of history…

My background is as a comedy writer. I was a writer and executive producer for a multiple-Emmy Award winning comedy TV show in Seattle for 15 years. I’ve also written for Comedy Central, HBO, National Public Radio, and The Tonight Show Starring Jay Leno. And here’s one of the big things I’ve learned about comedy along the way. Comedy is when something goes wrong! If everything’s going along just fine, there’s no comedy. A person walking down the sidewalk isn’t funny. It’s when the person slips on the proverbial banana peel that the laughs start.

Okay, so how can you put this concept to use in your speaking career? Here’s what you do. Take a piece of paper and a pencil, sit down for a half hour, and think about the times in your life when something went wrong. Don’t worry, at this point, about whether these times seem funny to you. That will come later, during the development stage. And don’t feel like only the big things count. Sure, the time the car broke down while you were rushing to the hospital to give birth to your first child should be on the list, but so should the time you were having a week’s worth of groceries checked and bagged—with a long line of people behind you—and you suddenly realized you’d left your wallet at home.

A story doesn’t have to be of monumental magnitude to be a good platform story. In fact, sometimes it’s the smallest stories—the things that happen to all of us at one time or another—that resonate the most with an audience. This is because we, as an audience, can relate to your misfortune; we’ve been there! All you have to do is find a way to take the lesson that you learned from your mishap and link it to the message of your presentation. That's covered in an article titled, appropriately enough, Linking Your Stories to Your Message, but until then, you now know where to look for those great, funny, and memorable personal stories, because you know that "Comedy is when something goes wrong!"

Copyright Bill Stainton. All Rights Reserved.

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