How much personal narrative should you include in your content?
When you’re writing for business or speaking in public, you will often be told to make it about your readers or audience: “It’s not about you, it’s about them.” Good advice.
But equally, you’ll be told to bring in your personality, tell personal anecdotes and stories, make yourself real and maybe a bit vulnerable too, so that people can relate to you. Equally good advice.
Within my public speaking work, “How much narrative is too much narrative?” is currently a hot potato. When evaluating, we look out for too much and frown. At competition level, too much narrative will lose you the prize!
And I don’t know about you, but I’ve received a few newsletters recently that have clearly gone too far the wrong way. I.e. they’ve started with personal stories that go on too long, aren’t relevant and frankly leave the reader asking, Who cares?!
Obviously, as with all things, there’s a balance to be had. But how do you achieve that balance?
So how much personal narrative is too much?
Don’t switch off if I say there is no definitive answer. Because of course there isn’t. But there are some red and amber flags, and rough rules of thumb that might help you steer your way between too much and too little of you!
And here they are:
Step 1. Basic safety checks
Me v you
It may seem simple but before you hit publish (or start to speak) check your content. How often have you used the terms I or me as compared to the word you? (While you’re at it, just check whether you’ve used the word they or other third person terms when you could have used you.)
If your use of first person references significantly outnumbers your use of the second person, stop! It won’t necessarily mean you’ve got the balance wrong but it’s a very good indicator.
No more than 30% about you
Alternatively, give yourself an allowance. The percentages of that allowance are up to you but I tell myself not to make more than 25% of a speech about me. It’s not set in stone but it’s a good benchmark.
Step 2. Be ruthless
Now re-read your content again and ask yourself the following questions:
How much time did you spend researching or even thinking about your audience as you wrote? And how is this anecdote or story relevant to them and the challenges or issues they face? Did you think about their challenges as you wrote or were you just keen to share your news or experience?
Does your personal story support the main theme of your writing or speech? If not, what is its purpose? Personal stories are a great way to include some emotion, build rapport, explain something complex, introduce humour or be self-deprecating. Double check yours has a purpose and then double check that it’s achieved that purpose.
Is it interesting and engaging? Really? Is anyone likely to care apart from you?
Have you cut out all the unnecessary waffle? Personal stories can be really effective but the audience or reader doesn’t need the whole back story. Cut, cull and shape your anecdote to keep it crisp.
A bad example: I read a newsletter recently that contained three paragraphs of general blurb about the author’s day. He was trying to create a metaphor around the complexities of cooking breakfast and some aspect of business life for SMEs. It was a tenuous metaphor at best but even so, it could have been dealt with in 2 or 3 short sentences. Harsh I’m afraid but true. It’s called burying the lead and most people won’t bother sticking around to wait for you to dig your lead out again! And while metaphors are great…dont stretch them too far!
Getting it right
I’ve mentioned already some of the benefits of personal narrative. Done well it’s memorable and compelling. We sit up and listen, eager to know what happens next. We feel connected to the speaker or writer as they describe experiences or emotions that we’ve had. The author / speaker becomes real, personable – we feel like we know them.
You can also use personal narrative to showcase your expertise. Remember (or if you can’t remember – re-read my blog about it) that establishing your expertise and authority is part of being persuasive. And by describing professional experiences…well what a natural and unobtrusive way to showcase your expertise without having to read out your CV.
1. Use your structure
If you think about your writing or speech as having a beginning, middle and end (obvious I know but often overlooked), then it’s reasonably easy to decide which part of that to slot your narrative into – making sure that the rest of your content has a nice balance of other material.
I personally find using a personal anecdote as an opening the most effective. Bam! It gets your audience’s attention, sets the scene and subtly explains the content you’re about to reveal. All in a way that’s engaging.
From a narrative opening, it’s reasonably easy to then make the switch to less narrative content. It also gives you the chance to finish your content with a nice reference back to your opening narrative. The content has then come full circle, everyone knows you’ve finished. Great job.
2. Flip personal narrative on to its head
It is not hard to turn a personal story on its head and make it about the audience. I did this recently with a speech about joining the gym (don’t worry, I haven’t).
Instead of saying …I did this and then I did that etc. I simply used the word you throughout: “you arrive at the gym, you know what it’s like, you fall off the treadmill, your lycra splits and you knock yourself out on the weight machine”. That’s not exactly how the speech went (I hope it was funnier than that) but you get the picture. And the point is, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of re-writing to re-adjust the you / them balance. Just take those parts of a personal experience (OK, I did go for an induction day – it was hideous) which you know others will relate to and make it about them.
The other side of this is asking your audience to imagine a situation. It might have been your experience but by asking them to imagine themselves in it, it becomes theirs too!
Imagine your first day at the gym. You’re feeling awkward and your lycra shorts are a bit too tight.
From here you can also easily “show not tell”…
As you bend over to touch your toes in the warm-up, you hear a strange tearing noise coming from behind you and feel a slight draft around your behind. The personal trainer starts to giggle and your face burns as you stumble to the exit. Bingo – your experience just became theirs.