Wallflower or Dancer? Three Common Barriers to Personal Storytelling


By D. Sharon Pruitt from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, USA

During a networking breakfast, Maggie shared a story that had me transfixed: I vividly imagined her epiphany moment when she sat at her corporate desk in a large technology company at 8:30 one night and realized that she needed to leave her career in Information Technology. While searching internal job postings, she decided to roll the dice apply for a position in Org Effectiveness. She got the job and now co-owns a thriving consulting business that helps companies with the human side of technology adoption. Through this story – as well as the others she shared – I left Perkins later that morning feeling an emotional connection to her. The odd thing is that throughout breakfast, she kept saying, “I don’t think I’m any good at storytelling.” It didn’t add up – I thought her stories were sincere, heartfelt, inspiring, and memorable, yet she dismissed her storytelling abilities.

Maggie sparked me to ponder and explore this paradox because she is not alone. I’ve encountered many others, whose authentic stories are compelling and influential, yet they label themselves otherwise – “I’m the listener, my wife tells the great stories.” My observation is that what holds people back from embracing the power of personal storytelling boils down to three barriers:

  • Setting an unreachably high bar
  • Thinking your stories are boring
  • Lack of awareness and practice in telling stories

I love hearing and telling stories, but I am not an expert. So I offer my humble perspective on how you might dance with storytellers rather than remaining a wallflower.

Reset Your Expectations

If we compare our storytelling skills to those of stand-up comics, novelists, actors, or journalists, it is intimidating to imagine ourselves as effective in this arena. Jack Maguire, in his book The Power of Personal Storytelling, distinguishes between personal storytelling, which is not intended to entertain listeners but to engage them in one’s own experience. Through this engagement, we connect with, inspire, influence, and motivate others. Personal stories can deepen your impact in leadership, counseling and education, public speaking, employee coaching, advocacy, sales, and even parenting. To unleash the power of personal storytelling, the first step is to stop comparing yourself to professionals, and the second is to start observing the stories around you. Once you do, you’ll discover a wealth stories used in casual conversations, as well as formal situations, which spark your own ideas and memories. These episodes also offer a treasure chest of stories you can borrow, build on, and make your own.

Your Stories Aren’t Boring

Maguire observes a common form of self-denial when people unfairly dismiss large portions of their lives as boring, routine, or unremarkable:

  • “I grew up in the suburbs – what is interesting about that?”
  • “No one wants to hear about my job – it’s really dull.”
  • “Nothing much happens to me. I lead a pretty ordinary life.”

The mindset reflected in these statements is a greater deterrent than the stories underneath them. Delve beyond these superficial conclusions and explore the details that shed insight, trigger memories, and impart meaning to your life.

  • People – Think about the people who’ve touched your life. A teacher who taught you something you’ll never forget, a boss who gave you harsh feedback you needed to hear, someone you hero-worshipped, a friend who stood by you, someone you envied, or a colorful roommate are potential characters in your personal stories.
  • Places – Sharing mental images of your favorite places – a room in your home, vacation spot, city, nature – create feelings of warmth and comfort and reveal what’s important to you. Descriptions of unfamiliar or scary places help to build tension and drama. While mountains, oceans, and magnificent scenery spark imagination and adventure.
  • Events – Flunking your drivers’ test, interviewing for your first job, leaving for college, narrowly escaping disaster, recovering from a loss, or attending a reunion are stories that make you human and relatable. Think about life-defining moments in your life and the stories behind them.
  • Objects – Your first car, your favorite food, something you broke or lost, a cherished gift, or a frivolous purchase can become a story that evokes emotion – joy, pain, loss, humor – and reveals a little about who you are.

When you mine your life for these gems, there is a good chance that your stories are not boring.

Bring Your Stories to Life

People, place, and plot differentiate a story from an example. Use salient details to help your listeners imagine your characters in real life – how they look, what they say, their personality traits and quirks. Evoke the setting by describing the scenery, sounds, and smells of the place where the story occurs. Is it winter or summer, morning or night? Does a cold wind bite or a gentle breeze soothe the scene? Stitch these details into a plot or storyline that sets the stage, builds tension, climaxes in a turning point, and concludes with a meaningful message or emotional connection. Balance your story with nuances that add excitement and intrigue while eliminating extraneous details that meander your story into boredom and confusion.

Personal storytelling is a way of living, cultivated through practice and awareness. Overcome the common barriers to discover the storyteller inside of you, trusting your voice and the value your stories can offer to those around you. These stories can transform you from a wallflower to a dancer!

“Life might not be the party we hoped for, but while we’re here we should dance!”
Author Unknown


  1. Jay Harkness on December 11, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Jean’s dance partner says . . . interesting and insightful post. And I’m lucky to have the chance to make, tell, and hear so many stories together with you.

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