The Inside Story on What the Most Engaging Storytellers Know

Recently, I coached an accomplished CEO as he was preparing to deliver a university commencement speech. He had fascinating stories to share that revealed profound truths about life, work and meaning. He spoke with confidence and warmth. And yet somehow still, listening to him, I felt bored and detached.

I stopped him and asked what thoughts and emotions—especially ones that weren’t congruent with his successful leader brand—he had experienced when these stories occurred. Fear? Insecurity? Shame? Apathy? Jealousy? Greed? Uncertainty? Anger?

Then he showed me who he really is.

His platitudes about hard work, persistence and positive attitude turned into powerful statements of courage, self-forgiveness and grace.

And I was captivated.


There are two ways to tell most stories: tell what happened, or tell how people felt about what happened. Most of the time, we assume that the former is sufficient, but it’s the latter that shows people who we really are. And showing who we are is what’s most engaging.

As I wrote last week, connecting to emotions is what creates mutual engagement, whether with a university auditorium or in your weekly status meeting at work.

Here are some ways you can share the inside story of who you are more effectively:

  1. Process the emotions. Before you can share emotions you have to recognize and name them. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Recently someone had led me to believe that they’d accepted a work proposal. Then, after weeks of me following up, they responded with an empty put-off and asked me to “leave the ball in their court.” I was angry! How could they be so disrespectful as to lead me on for so long? The anger, though, was masking a deeper emotion—embarrassment. In fact, I’d felt stupid for getting my hopes up and pursuing so hard only to be rejected.
  2. Give the inner view. Many leaders resist being too vulnerable or letting their insides out in a professional context because they fear it’s a sign of weakness or that they lack capability. But not admitting to being afraid or insecure, faking assurance or avoiding incompetence—these are the kinds of things that actually make you appear untrustworthy.
  3. Recognize the opportunities for transparency. Of course it’s not always appropriate to wear your heart on your sleeve. Some people or places aren’t safe for transparency and other situations might not allow space beyond the facts. But I’d challenge you to identify more opportunities and see the value of being vulnerable. It could bring trust and connection to a new level.
  4. Make emotive words safe. When describing your emotions, how often do you say things like, “I was concerned,” or “It was a struggle,” rather than using the more truthful, often harder to say and hear phrases like, “I felt really scared,” or “I felt insecure.” These patterns start in adolescence when we’re somewhat unaware of our emotional life and too unsure of ourselves to admit it. But you’re an adult now, and it’s time to let go of the ego protection habits of adolescence and get more comfortable with the true emotive words. When you do, you’ll make it easier for the people around you to do the same.
  5. Nurture the hangover. Brene Brown calls it a “vulnerability hangover”—the period after we’ve been honest about who we really are when we wonder whether we were too transparent, how it might impact what others think of us, and if others will use the information against us. If you are pushing the limits of your emotional comfort zone, you should expect this reaction and be ready to quiet the voices that make you ashamed and regretful of being truly human.

John March once said, “I can listen to someone share content for three minutes. I can listen to someone share emotion for three hours.”

Do you want to connect and engage more deeply with others, personally and professionally? How can you give more of the inside story?



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  • Kevin vinRiedel
    May 6, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Good observations. Felt myself easily relating to what was being expounded on with respect to vunerability before people you may or may not know. Biblical wisdom often finds it’s way into mainstream culture. Look no further than King David who with unabashed openness before God (and often before men) expressed his fear, anxiety and insecurity. Yet, this was the same man who led his people into battle, and they were willing to die for him.