There is an art to speaking well. You can notice this every day as you listen to people gifted in speech on the radio or television. However, the ability to speak well in an intimate setting is very different from what is needed in a large public setting. In order to serve and love others in an intimate, community setting, you need to be able to speak well and listen well. (You’ll address listening later.)
Speaking well in a community includes telling personal stories. Your story is more than what you can write on paper. For your story to achieve its ultimate purpose, you must share it with others in an effective and genuine fashion. Though you may have been greatly blessed by the process of assembling your life story, the true impact comes from sharing it with others. Sharing stories with one another, as you will experience, is a powerful instrument for building community.
Individual Aim: To learn how to share your life through personal stories in an inviting and influential manner.
Group Aim: To consider how the way you tell your stories affects the process of building community.
Complete Life Story: Step C beginning on page 77.
Read Session 4: The Art of Speech.
Read Life Story: Step G beginning on page 95.
Thinking about your life as a story broken up into chapters and themes is a different way of looking at personal history than you may be used to. People often communicate stories as a string of events. Unfortunately, this approach gives no emphasis or highlighting. For instance, “I was fifteen when I got saved, and then I worked that summer as a lifeguard, and then I went to college, and then I was not walking with God, and then I . . .” Ideally, by diligently examining your life and working through its chapters and themes, you will avoid this type of communication.
When you share a personal story with others, even a simple story about how your day has gone, you don’t need a charismatic personality. The story should invite others into your life. It should also influence them as it acknowledges God, as it tells your story as one character within His story. Group members may learn, face challenges, find encouragement, or respond with thanksgiving and worship as a result of hearing your story. If nothing else, they should see God’s grace and faithfulness.
It’s important to tell an inviting and influential story. You won’t fully achieve the purpose of sharing your story if you can’t effectively communicate it to the group. But storytelling scares some people. Maybe you hate being the center of attention or fear you’ll look foolish. To alleviate any fears, let’s look at several key elements of communication that are particularly relevant to telling stories.
Communicating with others at the level of intimacy involved in sharing personal stories requires the engagement of both the speaker and the listeners. In his book Creating Understanding, Donald Smith describes this level of communication:
It may be called reciprocity, dialogue, or co-response, but whatever the name, the basis of effective communication is mutual involvement of sender and receiver. It must be the special concern of the initiator of communication to ensure the involvement of the participants.
Elsewhere, Smith states, “Communication is a relationship. We do not get involved in order to communicate. We communicate by being involved. Involvement is the foundation of all communication.” When sharing our stories, we reach a level of involvement in one another’s lives that bonds us together.
However, anytime we invite people into our lives and hope to communicate who we truly are, we feel a level of insecurity. We might fear rejection: “If I tell them that I ran away from home in high school after getting my girlfriend pregnant, they will never look at me the same way. Maybe they’ll withdraw from me.” This kind of insecurity can make us hold back the most significant aspects of our stories. In fact, there may be times you are just not ready to tell certain chapters from your story. However, if you develop a pattern of holding back your most life-changing chapters, you will limit intimacy. People won’t see any way to engage with you if you don’t engage with them in this way. Insecurities must be overcome.
Another aspect of engagement is to involve yourself in what you are saying. Communicate your story with the emotion that is inherent in the content. It’s your life, so it’s significant to you. Avoid thinking it’s irrelevant to others. People want to hear you tell it, so tell it with passion. When you do so, you will naturally engage with others.
It is important to give a warning at this point against “dumping” your stories on people without the appropriate context of relationship. Though we want to encourage you to share your stories, we don’t want to encourage you to go through life telling every person you run into your most personal stories. That can make others feel awkward and wonder why someone they don’t feel they know well or trust is telling them such personal things. Trust is built between people over time as they reveal more and more personal things and feel that the other people increasingly honor what they share.
In order to use all of the information you cataloged in “Life Story” to its greatest potential, you need to bring the many details together into concise units of meaning. Haddon Robinson notes,
The ability to abstract and synthesize, that is, to think in ideas, develops with maturity. Small children think in particulars. A child praying at breakfast thanks God for the milk, cereal, orange juice, eggs, bread, butter, and jelly, but an adult combines all these separate items into the single word food. An idea, therefore, may be considered a distillation of life. It abstracts out of the particulars of life what they have in common and relates them to each other. Through ideas we make sense out of the parts of our experience.
The “Life Story” tool has guided you in this process of turning details into meaningful concepts. As the chapters of your life take form and themes emerge, your work is transformed into a story. When telling a story, you’re communicating not just factual information but also a meaningful message about your understanding of yourself, the world, others, and God. Use your presentation as an opportunity to practice and develop your ability to tell stories in a more meaningful way.
As with engagement, insecurities can prevent you from effectively communicating a cohesive story. As you prepare to share a concise account of twenty, thirty, forty, or more years of life, you may fear that your listeners won’t fully understand you. This insecurity may tempt you to exceed an appropriate amount of time and inundate your listeners with every detail of your story. But all these details often muddle a story rather than clarify it. The goal of synthesis is to bring meaning, and the goal of the presentation is to create understanding. Bringing out every detail won’t help you reach these goals; instead, it will hinder you. The key to communicating a cohesive story is to note the significant points and develop them in relation to the themes of your life.
Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who knows himself to be profound endeavors to be clear; he who would like to appear profound to the crowd endeavors to be obscure.” Don’t try to appear more profound or complex than you are. Your life is an important part in God’s larger story; it doesn’t need to be dressed up. You don’t need to belittle or augment your story.
You will be most effective when your delivery and style are natural. If you are a low-key person, don’t try to be gregarious. If you are an upbeat person, don’t try to be somber. Seek to develop a style of communicating that is consistent with your personality. There are laid-back people who are just as compelling to listen to when they tell personal stories as life-of-the-party people.
However, insecurities can once again prevent success in this area. Insecurities can affect delivery and style in ways that impede true communication. At one extreme are those people who are so self-conscious of how they come across that they don’t communicate naturally. Focus on communicating effectively and creating understanding rather than on protecting your image. The other extreme of insecurity surfaces in those people who put on a major production of their stories. They hide behind storytelling performances that might dazzle a group, but they would be far more effective in connecting with the group if they engaged and were willing to be themselves. Donald Smith adds,
Sending and receiving messages can be coldly impersonal, a separate thing from real communication. Effective communication that leads to deep comprehension and response occurs only through involvement in each other’s life and interests. Without involvement, the most skilled use of media and techniques may be only an imitation of communication.
The setting in which you communicate will affect your delivery, cohesion, and engagement. You may engage differently in a private setting (such as a home) than you would in a public setting (such as a restaurant or office). If you’re driving while telling a story, you can’t have optimal eye contact.
Also, time constraints affect the degree of cohesion you can develop. You may not have time to tell all the essential details of the story.
Finally, the setting may affect your style and delivery. For example, the way you would tell your husband you’re pregnant would depend on your surroundings. In an upscale restaurant with a quiet atmosphere, you would likely tone down your boisterous demeanor when communicating your excitement. But if sharing the news at home, you might be louder and more expressive.
Envision yourself waiting with a friend and coworker for a meeting in the foyer outside a conference room. The meeting is scheduled to start in five minutes, and you won’t have any time to talk with your friend afterward. You want to tell this person that your father was just diagnosed with cancer and that you have been struggling with the news. In light of the circumstances, you have to determine the most private setting available, so you motion for your friend to move to the corner of the room with you. Given the parameters, you may not be able to share all the memories of your dad that you’ve been thinking about. However, you will be able to share the heart of the matter: You’re afraid your father might not live much longer. In addition, you want to share that you are really struggling to hold yourself together. You will obviously need to communicate all this with the emotion appropriate to the circumstances. At some other time, you’ll need to reveal these heartaches in more detail with those to whom you are closest and in a very private and unhurried setting.
This example involves engagement, cohesion, delivery, style, and setting. It demonstrates how these four components can, when understood and developed, contribute to deep, fulfilling relationships. Developing these skills will help you become a better member of a community.
As you prepare to present your life story with your group, remember that you have a predetermined amount of time to convey your story. Strive to honor the time constraints. You are communicating to a small community that is developing trust. The group members are friends, not foes, who should provide a setting of encouragement. Invite them into your life and influence them through your story.
Complete Life Story: Step D beginning on page 81.
Read Session 5: Listening.