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“I walked out of speech class at the beginning of my own speech,” I said, “and when I returned a minute later, my hair was dripping wet and I was carrying a paper bag with a hairdryer, a brush, and Paul Mitchell super-clean sculpting gel.”

The audience waited for more. I was participating in the inaugural “Storytelling Night” at a cafe I popped into a few times per week to write, read, and chat with the regulars. Most of these regulars worked for one of the various companies based in the office complex that housed the cafe on its ground floor.

I made eye contact for a few seconds with several of these professionals, including Tiana the sales manager, Liliana the brand strategist, and Christopher the CPA. Elizabeth, the retired schoolteacher who ran the complex’s resource center, was also there, and so was Jessica, who operated a yoga studio in the building.

Hairy Memories

The story I was sharing that night recalled a required public speaking I class I took as a 19-year-old college freshman. I’d been terrified of speaking in public and rarely raised my hand to answer a teacher’s question throughout my K-12 years. But this class forced me to write and deliver a series of speeches, including a speech “demonstrating a product.”

“I decided to take a big risk,” I told the storytelling night crowd in the cafe. “To have fun with it, to do something unexpected and memorable, to not take it all so seriously. When I started blow-drying my hair and describing how the gel was adding such body and movement to it, the reaction of my classmates ranged from laughter to shock. My goal was for it to me memorable. And it was. And I got an ‘A’ on the speech, and an ‘A’ in the class. It was a breakthrough moment for me as a young man.”

“Your hair’s looking great tonight, John,” yelled Tyler, a financial advisor who’d recently launched his own business. “Must be the styling gel.”

“I wish I had that same head of hair I did when I was 19,” I said. “Okay. Since I volunteered to go first, and took great care at making fun of myself, hopefully each of you realized that you’re going to do so much better when you get up here and tell your own story. Or maybe you’re seeing how awkward this can be and you’re gonna bolt out of here when no one’s looking.”

I paused. “For those in the latter group: I see you. I’ll find you.” My friends laughed. I smiled.

Appropriate Self-Deprecation

Not taking yourself too seriously, with a touch of self-deprecation, is one key component of effective storytelling, which I define as the art and science of influencing others through skillful communication and personal brand; not just telling great stories, but being a great story.

But remember: self-deprecation is not the same as shaming yourself or putting yourself down in an attempt to get sympathy or demand some kind of group therapy from your audience. It’s sharing just enough, with authenticity and levity, that the audience can relate and be inspired to tap into their own lightness and appropriate amounts of vulnerability.

 

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.