Hello, I am a public speaker, and I can make you cry if I want to. 

But, can I make you laugh?

Many in the field of suicide prevention are aware of the importance of safe messaging. 

Safe messaging stems from the Werther Effect and is meant to ensure that as we are communicating about suicide, mental health, and prevention, we are not also unintentionally doing damage, creating stress, or perpetuating stigma. While the concept of safe messaging is something many professionals understand the importance of we also know it is an ongoing struggle to help others outside of the field understand why safe messaging is so important.

Along a similar line is the concept of safe storytelling. While this is a newer concept, it is just as important as discussing and understanding safe messaging. Messaging and storytelling share many characteristics and are also unique to themselves.

Years ago, I put together a workbook centered on safe storytelling. The content was drawn from my experience as a speaker and advocate. Essentially, I wrote about all of the things that I learned were not helpful for me as an individual and how I had to unlearn what I had been shown was normal in this field. We have been modeling practices that don’t often center our needs and best interests as healthy humans.

To be honest, the stories I shared when I first started speaking were less thought out and more self-centered. If I’m being fully transparent, these stories also took a lot less time to craft and develop. They were 100% true to my experience but were one-sided narratives that left me less than who I really am.

The stories I told were centered around ensuring the audience felt the depth of pain that I had endured, not in the hopes that they, too, would experience pain, but in the hopes that they would remember. Whether that be remembering me, the story, or the after-effect of sitting in my audience, I cared more about emotionally driving them to action and utilizing a harsh human connection as a mechanism to force empathy. 

In other words, I pressured people with pain to heal hurt. 

Sadly, standing before an audience and breaking their hearts with my story was far too easy. It was not skillful, adept, or really even caring. 

(But this is the quiet part too few of us are saying out loud.)

As I learned and realized the harm I was fostering for the audiences and myself, I began to shift my approach drastically. The first thing I did was cut specific personal details from my speeches. I no longer focus on the incident, the graphic details, the minutiae of morbidity. I don’t lead, line by line, from my loss.

Do I still leave the audience with immense emotion? If they need it, absolutely, yes. 

But today, the kind of emotion I leave them in depends on them. It isn’t about empathy for the sake of empathy or pity to push them to follow me on Linkedin. It’s about the amount of stigma saturated in this specific space. It’s about the threshold for compassion and understanding. And sometimes, it’s about the withheld humanity that has created an emotional dam that keeps people from seeing people.

I shifted my practice of whipping out pain-soaked stories and broadened the emotions I drew from in order to be a more impactful speaker. I switched from easy and forced myself to develop meaningful content steeped in intention and purpose. I went from, “I guess I’ll share my story” to “What story is needed for this space, and how can I weave it so they walk away wanting to do something with what they’ve learned?”

To learn true skills in public speaking, I spent an entire year immersed in comedic strategies. I wanted to know how I could employ humor as a speaking tool. My learning stretched from thousands of hours of watching stand-up comedy (how horrible I know) to reading about the various types of humor and comedic concepts. Yet, this is a fragment of where I spent my attention and time learning how to be a better speaker for those I was serving because people deserve more of me if I am going to stand on stage and profess I know anything about anything.

For some reason, the fields of suicide prevention, substance use, recovery, mental health, and countless others all prioritize focusing on trauma, sorrow, and grief when we engage the public. I can’t tell you how many rooms I stepped into as a speaker where I was told no one wanted to be there because their expectations of me were so low. They had checked out before they even knew what I had to say because someone before me pushed in with pain and left their audience emotionally tapped out. I find it odd how we continue to employ these emotions as preventative strategies when those on the receiving end often work to avoid being engaged by them. 

We are speaking in circles around empty seats. There is a divide between the audience and the speaker. The audience is emotionally drained from our singular approach. They are far more adaptive than we are, tuning us out because they know what to expect from us.

And speakers? 

We fear the word safe. We believe the word safe means unskilled. We think the word safe does not leave anyone impacted. We have told ourselves that the word safe does not emote, and yet the reality is that a safe story takes far more craft, skill, and determination to develop and deliver. A safe story leaves out the obvious “draw from the cry” and weaves a journey where people can join with the journeyer and see us as whole people, not simply another sad story. 

Safe storytelling should be a responsibility that speakers adhere to for the sake of those they do not know. 

Safe storytelling demands more effort from us. When we are willing to work just a little harder, we will fully realize what destigmatization, connection, and impact can look like. 

Safe is not simple. 

Safe is not lacking in skill. 

Most importantly, safe should be the professional standard


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