There’s a filmmaker I had the pleasure of working with early on in my career, Annie Escobar from Awake Storytelling. And Annie’s philosophy was this – dominant narratives are the armor of the status quo. Which is to say, if we are to make any change at all, we need to challenge and write new stories for how our society COULD be. Rather than criticizing the way it is to death, offer an alterative. The personal story, then, becomes the vehicle for our little dinosaur brains to understand a world in which the alternative is better. This philosophy stayed with me and I even wrote it on a sticky note that stayed on my computer monitor for years. Ultimately, it became the backbone of my approach. I believe that if young people, marginalized communities, and the underserved are the voices we lift up, we put a decent crack in the armor of the status quo.
And because I chose this direction for my business, I’m often in a position to ghostwrite for organizations, coach speakers, or create talking points and key messages to guide a coherent story. It’s a privilege that I take seriously because getting up in front of others to tell your story means getting vulnerable and stepping into your power. And it further complicates things when that story contains trauma, and even more so when there’s some agenda for the story, such as persuading a group of people to give money, get involved, or think differently about an issue.
The responsibility to make sure that I’m not playing into the dominant narrative weighs heavy on me. Before we begin, I’ll ask the speaker to give me something they’ve written before so that we maintain their voice in the piece. When a first draft is written, I always do a readaloud with the speaker and ask, “This part tripped you up – how would you say it?” When we practice, I ask, “Is this getting to the point you want to make? Have we missed anything?” or, “What do you want to leave people knowing about you and your experience?” Authenticity delivered within the outer limits of comfort.
But for all of this, I’m often left skeptical afterwards. It’s a victory if the speaker feels good about the delivery and empowered by the experience, but too often the success of the speech is judged on whether sharing the story a) moved people to tears, b) was memorized and hit the key messages, or c) brought in an influencer to the work. If I’ve built trust effectively with the speaker, I get to learn what worked and what didn’t and I can improve my process because it can often take a left turn.
I once worked with a speaker who had been the poster child for an organization and now, as an adult, they wanted to lean all the way in to a message about systemic oppression in front of a crowd of people who, for better or for worse, were in positions of power because the status quo had placed them there. Guidance from leadership and board members was to be cautious about choosing this person to speak because they were “militant” about their message. As the event approached, the question came up about pulling the speaker from the program, which to me would have meant silencing the very voices they claim to serve.
The tension I felt between what was expected of this speaker and the organization was intense. Ultimately, I convinced leadership that the speech would be appropriate for the event and aligned with the goals of the organization. I wouldn’t censor the speech (for the reasons I mentioned above), but I would give some hard feedback about what the event was about (a gala fundraiser to celebrate impact) and work with them in rehearsal to find a middle ground. So we went ahead with it, worked on another version through rehearsal late into the night, kicked off the speaking program the next day…and the speaker delivered exactly what they wanted to say originally…on stage…right into the front row, where the founder and their closest friends were seated.
After I retrieved my fingernails from my colleague’s shoulder and unclenched my jaw from my hippocampus, I heard the applause. The room was ready to hear the realness. And because it wasn’t tightly controlled and scripted to the hilt, they cheered. Not only that, I got feedback the next day that the founder LOVED it and was so pleased with the entire event.
Sometimes the job is about being a servant to the craft. Because sometimes your role is to use your privilege to advocate for your speaker and then get the hell out of the way.