I often say the statement, “There’s a story in every seat,” in my university classes at UNC-Greensboro. My students have heard me say it so much that they roll their eyes as soon as they listen to me start the phrase.
I say it because I want it to sink in. As soon-to-be teachers, my students must understand that each child sitting in one of the seats in front of them comes with their very own story.
You may not be a teacher, but as speakers, writers, and leaders, you will connect with people who have distinct stories that have great meaning and emotion attached to them. Each story has a beginning and middle, and that person’s future is still to be told.
But in each seat, each person holds information about their family stability, the love or neglect they’ve faced, the food they have abundantly, or the food they wish for daily. While some of these stories are easy to see physically in our audience, many of their stories stay untold until the listener becomes trusting.
If you’re a parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle, you know what I mean. Trust does not come easily for children these days, and rightly so. Children are told to be aware of strangers, not to go anywhere with adults they don’t know, and the boundaries placed on children are often set from the day of their birth. This is done out of love and is wise for every parent to do for safety!
As leaders, we understand that our audience will not learn from people they do not trust, especially if they have a history of trauma, abuse, grief, or a host of other issues.
How do we build trust with people quickly? I start by telling them something personal about myself. I share a challenge I’ve faced, an error I’ve made, or a time when I was fearful or anxious.
My goal is to connect with my audience by allowing them to see themselves within my story. If they have had a similar challenge, made an error like mine, or have faced fears, they will begin to trust me.
This part takes time and effort, but the outcome will result in genuine connections. Once you have the attention of the audience, they are willing to listen to what you have to share.
There is a story inside every person who sits in your audience—whether you are teaching a class, speaking at a retreat, delivering a conference address, or leading a small group.
The next time you are speaking in public, look around:
- Each person has a story.
- Every story holds meaning.
The stories inside the people in your audience may include an illness, a divorce, a child who has passed away, the loss of a job, or like me, an autoimmune disease that makes me feel tired a great deal of the time.
As you view your audience, imagine what their story might be. Or, if you have the time, talk to them, and find out what their story is.
Here’s what you’ll discover:
- You have something in common with almost everyone you meet.
- You will learn to be more compassionate of others.
When we look at someone without talking to him or her, it’s easy to let our bias take a step forward, write the story for us, and perhaps create a negative impression. However, if we speak to the person, we are more likely to see our commonalities and realize that the individual is more like us than we thought.
When you have a teaching or speaking opportunity, arrive early. Pray over the seats as you envision the person who will soon enter the room and sit in that audience.
Ask God to give you wisdom and insight as you get ready to stand up and deliver your prepared presentation.
Remember, each empty chair represents the story of the person who will occupy that seat.
Question: What steps do you take before you speak to a group of people?