Part One: You Don’t Have to be the Trauma Mascot

I talk a lot. So much so that it’s become my career.

Yes, some may view me as the curiously “courageous,” sometimes misunderstood, and occasionally envied public speaker. Hoorah. My eight-year journey into speaking was more of a tumble, in all honesty. In all honesty, I fell in, ill-prepared and woefully uneducated on what to expect.

Over the years, as my career has started to grow, people commonly ask me how they can pursue sharing their personal stories or delving into the profession. This question comes up so often that I thought it was time to give some pointers to interested people. Therefore, this is a series of suggestions for those interested in pursuing this path.

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First, sharing a personal story often revolves around a specific life-event or series of events. Many times, we aren’t sharing the best of our lives either. For me, a lot of my speaking (more so in the beginning of my career than now) involves some of the most difficult times in my life. I started my journey specifically in suicide prevention and was driven by a personal loss and my own experiences with suicide. I found, for the first few years an expectation by those asking me to speak, that I would share my loss and I would do so in great detail. No one was specifically saying, “hey we want you to tell us about the horrible thing you lived through.” But they were saying it nonetheless. 

As a new presenter and speaker, I felt it best to meet their needs. And truthfully, there was this self-induced pressure to do what everyone seemed to want. So, I walked in and shared details and private information that I never felt truly comfortable sharing with everyone. And I did it over, and over, and over again.

If I had only known what that meant for me and for my audiences. You see, for me, I was often reliving the experience every time I was sharing it. Especially when there were event-related details involved. I would see the room, or car in my head as I shared. I could feel the fear and pain I had experienced. I was in the middle of displaying my painful moment for complete strangers to careen and gawk over…. or so it sometimes felt. After my speech, I felt emotionally and physically drained. Numb like the depression I so often would share that I suffered from. Here I was, inflicting this on myself over and over and most often without intention or purposeful goals.

For the audiences, I may have been highlighting my deep personal connection to the issue, but I was also putting so many at risk. I didn’t always know who was in the room, what experiences they had endured, and whether or not they were well enough to listen to something so deeply personal and difficult. What if someone sitting there was currently living through this same trauma? What if I had in some way re-opened a newly healing wound for another? Were these details necessary to them understanding the struggle held weight in my life? I couldn’t ever know the extent of the answers, because this setting wouldn’t allow me to speak to every single person and get to to know them on a truly human level.

This expectation to trauma vomit is so consistently common that I not-so-endearingly named it being a Trauma Mascot. As a speaker, many think that I am the bad thing that happened to me. Some want me to embody that bad thing so I can scare people into changing their behaviors. It happens like this, an event organizer reaches out and needs me to have a trauma story. They ask questions about it and gauge if it will “meet their event needs.” I also need to attach my story to some hopeful and insightful outcome so participants can see the light. But the reality is that sometimes things just suck and there is no light.

Reliving a trauma experience over and over is not healthy. It limits a speakers ability to grow and flourish. It also limits the conversations we should be having around an array of devastating issues. We know fear-appeals (messages intended to prevent negative behaviors) do not work. And yet we use this as our standard when it comes to our public health education and messaging. I say we do this because we are often too lazy to look for new and more inventive ways to create powerful messaging. Stories, like humans, evolve. The minutiae isn’t what can be most meaningful, it is the humanity of what we can do that is meaningful.

Stories can be told in such a way that we both share safe and effective messaging and positively impact our audiences. I know this, because over the years I have refined my messaging based on a variety of audiences, topics, and goals. My stories vary, my sharing varies, but my ability to prioritize my needs never waivers anymore. Speakers deserve the opportunity to expand beyond the worst points in their lives, and our audiences deserve the chance to grow through and with our growth. 

I encourage new speakers and those who are wanting to develop their stories to sit down and write out your story. If you find a place/time/concept that is difficult to write about, it will be even more difficult to share about in a public setting. Pause on it and ask, “is this vital to the message?” “Will this be easy for me to share?” If you answered “no” to both of these questions, then pull it from your speech. That is your memory to keep. Never let anyone tell you that you HAVE to share anything, that is force and pressure and it should not be welcomed in these spaces. It harms and re-induces trauma. Set your story boundaries for what is best for you and your wellbeing.

Write your story out, read your story, and refine it to a few key points. The most skilled presenters never share the graphic/gory details of their experience, and they speak in such a way that the audience doesn’t even realize they didn’t hear all the “bad things”. You deserve good things, create healthy sharing spaces for you to exist.

A few tips: 

*You don’t have to be a trauma mascot. 

*Craft your story intentionally. Write it out.

*See what parts of your story are necessary and remove the parts that aren’t. 

*Know how you will care for yourself after your speech. Speaker self-care is vital. 

-Susie [수지]  

Stay Tuned for Part 2….

Send me some feedback and let me know what you would like to learn about. 

You can learn more about safely crafting and sharing your story in my book: The Art of Safe Storytelling 

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