One of my favorite compliments to receive as a speaker is, “you are an [insert flattering adjective of your choosing] storyteller.”
Most speakers, myself included, spend a lot of attention and energy on unlocking our “signature story” – the story (or series of stories) that has given rise to our current work in the world.
However, it’s equally important to develop an arsenal of stories beyond this key one. In my presentations I use stories for myriad reasons: to show an audience I’ve been where they are right now, to counter objections, and to illuminate what is possible when adjusting and developing one’s mindset, skillset and network.
While I work with a variety of private speaking clients, one theme shared by many of them is their gift with words.
Gabriela Pereira is at the top of this list!
A writer, teacher, and self-proclaimed word nerd who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education, Gabriela is the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com (the do-it-yourself alternative to a Masters degree in writing), and her mission is to empower writers to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.
In this super content-rich interview, Gabriela shares actionable tips for telling provocative, audience-centered stories applicable to writing books as well as writing (and performing) presentations. Be sure to read through to the end for details on Gabriela’s own book and some free goodies she’s created you won’t want to miss.
I know you believe that everyone has a storytelling superpower. What’s yours, Gabriela?
I am most definitely a disruptor, which makes sense given that I’ve always been driven by wanting to change the status quo. In essence, the whole DIY MFA brand is built on disruptor principles.
But there’s a wrinkle: I don’t think anyone is ever 100% one archetype. In fact, in the second-to-last video in the series, I dig into how the same person can shift archetypes depending on the situation. That’s totally true for me too. I’m a disruptor in most cases, but some situations will bring out the underdog in me, or even the protector. I think it’s important that as writers and speakers we be aware that these shifts are possible, because they allow us to modulate how we present ourselves, either on the page or on the stage and best serve our audience.
What’s the biggest source of resistance you find that entrepreneurs struggle with when they write?
I think most entrepreneurs equate writing with what they learned in a high school English class and they assume that they’re just not good at it so they give up before they even start. The truth is that writing is just a matter of crafting your words so you can connect with people. If you can have a conversation, you can write. If you can get up on stage and present your work, you can write. In fact, writing is a lot easier in some ways because you can always go back and finesse those words later.
The second biggest pitfall–and it’s a close second–is that sometimes entrepreneurs get caught in a vicious cycle where they self-edit themselves to death. I see this a lot in perfectionists who will rewrite chapter 1 a million times but never get to chapter 2. The trouble with constant self-editing is that until you’ve captured the whole piece on the page (whether it’s a book, or a speech, or a sales page) you don’t really know what it looks like. So if you edit that first part over and over it’s like if Da Vinci tried to repaint the Mona Lisa’s smile without having the rest of her face painted in. It’s impossible.
My advice: write the whole thing out. Make a glorious mess on the page. No one else has to see it but you, after all. Then once you have it down, you’ll have the raw material you need so you can carve and polish until you’re happy with it. But if you start editing as you go, you run the risk of never finishing the project at all.
As someone who speaks (as well as writes, of course), what writing practices do you bring into crafting your presentations?
One of the most important things a writer has to do when crafting a story is to understand the character’s motivations. “What does the protagonist want?” is THE fundamental question that drives every story. As speakers, we can tweak this same question and use it to help frame our presentations. What does the audience want? And–more importantly–how does my presentation help satisfy that want?
In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek talks about how when presenting a new idea it’s important to explain WHY it’s important first, then explain WHAT the idea is and HOW to go about it. Ever since reading his book in 2011, I’ve used this WHY-WHAT-HOW sequence to frame all of my conference talks, courses, and presentations. If the audience doesn’t understand why your idea is important, then they’re not going to pay attention to what the idea is, much less how to implement it. The best way to communicate your WHY is to understand what your audience wants, and frame your talk accordingly.
When preparing a story for the stage, what are your top tips?
My speaking advice is very similar to my writing advice: You need to draft the whole thing before you start tweaking and polishing it. Just as I never have a real feel for a book or story until I put the words on the page, it’s also hard for me to know the exact shape of a talk before I’ve drafted it out and practiced a few times.
There’s a bizarre glamour around this idea of “winging it” both in writing and in speaking. It’s as though when you whip out a story or speech on the fly it makes you a creative genius, but if you practice or polish your words before you share them with the world, you’re somehow less creative. I think that’s ridiculous.
I believe the rough draft is just a messy starting point. It’s the raw material you need to create something amazing. It’s really no more “creative” than a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. The real artistry happens when you shape that jumbled mess of words and ideas into something beautiful.
Also, it’s easy to play the comparison game and beat ourselves up because our words aren’t as perfectly crafted as the ones we read in a printed book or hear in a polished speech. But we have to remind ourselves that those words are the final, polished product, not the raw material. Anne Lamott famously talked about the importance of writing sh*tty first drafts, but even that chapter about messy drafts is far from messy itself. It’s edited, polished, and crafted with intention.
In short, my advice is this: Give yourself permission to write a messy draft. Remind yourself that the real art (and work) happens after you’ve created that raw material. And don’t compare your messy rough draft with other people’s final, edited versions.
You’ve got a book coming out, and you’ve created a bunch of goodies in advance. Dish!
My debut book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community is out now and to celebrate, I’ve created a Storytelling Superpower quiz and video series. The idea behind the Storytelling Superpower is that all writers (speakers and other creatives, too) have a superpower. It’s important to know what that superpower is and play to your strengths.
In writing, that usually has to do with the type of characters you are drawn to and good at bringing to life on the page. The video series digs into the four basic character archetypes (or personality types) and talks about the strengths and weaknesses of each one. The goal is to help writers and other creatives identify what they’re already good at and help them harness and amplify those skills.
Gabriela and I would love to know what you are taking away and how you’ll apply it in your writing and speaking. Love notes as comments to this post encouraged and appreciated!