Use story when you are the outsider

Jane Sheffield
Lead Trainer & Owner
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It’s difficult being the outsider when you’re presenting.

But it’s also common. Especially working in Government where external stakeholder relationships are key to many roles.

Whether you need to: communicate changes to policy, gain feedback from interest groups, or deliver hard news around deadlines, getting messages through to audiences outside your own organisation can be challenging.

And the harder the message – the harder the gig.

When we’re talking to an unfamiliar audience where there is resistance, historical grievances or a divide on some level, the feeling of ‘us and them’ in the room can be a problem. It can feel off-putting and intimidating for you, the speaker. And those barriers may prevent your audience from even listening to your message.

So, a useful place to start, can be taking the time to create a relevant connection between you and your audience. In doing so, you change your hat from ‘Government Official’ to ‘real person’. Someone who understands what it is like on the other side of the fence.

An effective way of doing this is with a story. A story that demonstrates a shared experience with your audience. I call them outsider stories.

I do this in my ‘Effective Speaker’ workshops. Often, I am training the unwilling. People who hate presenting with a passion! And who’d rather not be spending two days working with me…but have been told they have to.

So, I always start my workshops with a story about one of my own painful public speaking fails. I have many of these stories (sadly). But my favourite is when I spoke at a conference in Europe.

I had been living in London for 4 years. I was a novice Account Director for a corporate branding agency. I looked even younger than my 28 years, and this often made me feel nervous and intimidated around more senior and experienced audiences.

It was around this time that my boss asked me to step in for her, as a speaker, at a branding conference in Barcelona. While I often spoke to my clients, I had never spoken at a conference. (Gulp). The audience were Senior Marketers from companies all around Europe. All people who had more experience in the branding world than I had.

The thought, “what the hell are you doing here, Jane!” was top of mind for me. (And probably for my audience too).

On the morning of my presentation, I felt the most physically sick I have ever felt when nervous. I was breathing so fast I was hyperventilating. My hands were shaking so uncontrollably, that I could not hold my cards.

There I was in the highest heels I could walk in, and the most corporate outfit I could find, trying to look ‘the part’. However, once I started talking and my voice refused to stop shaking, I knew I was in trouble. Exposed for the imposter that I was. So, I freaked out. I stopped looking at my audience. And I proceeded to read my script, word-for-word. Think, ‘school speech’ rather than ‘industry thought leader’!

Look, I wasn’t booed off the stage. However, I did receive a very light round of applause. And no one (I mean no one) said ANYTHING to me following that speech. A couple of people gave me a wee pity smile and shrug, but most just avoided eye contact with me completely.

Given how it went, why do I tell this story?

Is it to help me process my traumatic experience? Hmmm, tempting, but no.

I tell this story to level the playing field.

To go from outsider – to insider.

I start my workshops as a professional speaker/corporate trainer/communication consultant. But as soon as I finish this story…I become someone my audience can understand and relate to. Someone who knows the true meaning of imposter syndrome. Someone who has survived the humiliation of failing on the corporate stage.

This story doesn’t instantly make my audience more comfortable communicators. But it does create an appetite in the room for my message. It gets rid of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ and makes it just us.

Outsider stories’ will not instantly guarantee buy-in, support or feedback for your idea. And it may not permanently remove existing barriers between you and your audience. But an honest and well-crafted outsider story may push those barriers aside for long enough that your audience will be willing to listen to your message.

Stop presenting. Start talking. Jane

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