Stories are among our most important relationship tools.
They have the power to educate, entertain and inspire, connecting people from disparate backgrounds.
But stories are also personal and sometimes the distinguishing details within are… well… too personal to share.
We all know the over-sharer who gives too much, too soon. I’ve been guilty of this even when I know better! Chalk it up to “chattiness.”
And we know the type that is too hesitant to share anything remotely personal, so much so that they come off like a corporate robot, one who is completely unreadable.
So, how to decide how much to share and with whom?
We start with the AUDIENCE – the key factor of any story.
Whether you’re speaking to an audience of one or of hundreds, start with the GOAL of the story. It’s more than the moral. It’s the meaning to the audience.
Ask these questions first:
WHAT is the particular story you’d like to share?
WHAT is the goal of sharing this story?
WHY is it of value to this audience?
HOW would you like for the audience to use this information or to feel, think, react and respond?
Here are two scenarios that demonstrate when personal information is valuable and when it is simply Too Much Information.
Employee A – let’s call him “Andy” – comes for a casual catch-up conversation. He’s armed with pen and paper, as he always is. A meticulous note-taker, he scribbles away at every meeting, so much so that it’s almost a distraction.
I’ve already told myself stories about Andy. He’s disorganized so he has to write everything down. He’s overly concerned with details and likely miss the big picture. During meetings, he must be doodling on his notepad and not really paying attention.
This one-on-one, I gently remind him, is just a catch-up. He doesn’t need to take notes.
Andy tells me he likes to write things down to make sure he remembers them. I immediately revert to my story about Andy being disorganized.
And then he tells me he occasionally struggles with short-term memory. It’s the result of the treatments he had years earlier. Turns out Andy had childhood cancer. He doesn’t offer too many details about that time of his life, but explains that while it may be an unnecessary crutch, he’s always taken copious notes to make sure he reviews and remembers what’s most important.
Oh. Wow. I hadn’t been telling myself that story.
I’m embarrassed, almost ashamed, by my short-sightedness and by how quick I was to judge Andy and to create my own story about him, without knowing any of the actual details.
Suddenly I see Andy in a whole new way. He’s not disorganized or forgetful. He’s a survivor, someone who is strong and resilient and knowledgable about how his experiences have shaped him and what he needs to be successful.
“Thank you for sharing that with me,” I tell him and we add to our conversation how I can best support him in his upcoming projects.
Andy shared something very personal and challenging with me and now I see his story in a whole new way.
So let’s compare Andy’s story to employee B, whom I’ll call Barry.
Barry arrives in my office to tell me he needs to take half of Thursday and all Friday off, for a personal appointment.
“It’s for a medical appointment,” Barry explains, even though I had already granted approval. “But it’s not a big deal, I’ll be back on Monday.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Take what time you need,” I let him know.
“I’m having a colonoscopy,” he continues.
Really, Barry could have stopped there. Or ten seconds earlier.
I really didn’t need or want to know WHY he needed the appointment, how it was routine for his age or the GI symptoms he had been experiencing. Nor did I need to know how he’d spend that half of Thursday to prep for the procedure on Friday.
I also didn’t need to know when he returned on Monday anything other than he was fine and back in the office. I certainly did not need to know the details of his exam.
Are you cringing as you’re reading this? Because I was as he was telling me his story.
What is the GOAL of the story? Why is it of value to this audience? How would you like for the audience to use this information or to feel, think, react and respond?
Be an Andy. Not a Barry.
Provide the necessary information to reach the goal, to give your story – and subsequently, your brand – the impact you want it to have.
Anything else is Too Much Information.
Valerie Gordon is a long-time storyteller, an award-winning producer and the founder of Commander-in-She, a career and communications strategy firm. She speaks at conferences and works with corporations to share story strategies for success and give audiences the tools necessary to ascend the leadership ladder and create meaningful careers.