Including a personal experience in any kind of public engagement is a proven method of grabbing and keeping audience attention.
I recently directed a show called, “The Improvised Life of a Man Named Jack.” It was a kind of cross between “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Jack was the star, hero and narrator of his own life story.
With the exception of deciding in advance which actor was going to play Jack, all of the characters, dialogue and relationships were created in the moment to tell the evolving story of one man.
As with most improv shows, scenes were inspired by audience suggestions. The cast broke the fourth wall – the most dramatic of all walls! – and asked the audience things like “What’s her name?” or “How do they know each other?” But, we quickly discovered the most compelling scenes came from deeper, more personal questions.
The inspiration that came from the audience member's reply fueled a rich and dynamic scene that propelled the story forward in a way everyone could connect to. When you hear someone confide, “I left my family behind to come to America,” our emotions stir at a visceral level. Suggestions like "Her name is Rachel!” or “You met on the playground!” give information, but they don’t provide any emotional context.
Drawing on personal experience to brighten up otherwise mundane topics is common in all kinds of media. Planet Money, the NPR podcast which often explores curious money-based concepts regularly uses this approach. At the beginning of a recent episode discussing the national interest rate, two friends dug through a bin of bank receipts asking each other how they felt about the amount of money in other people’s accounts. What did it mean to them, and by extension, what does it mean to you?
Nondini Naqui, founder of Society of Grownups and a recipient of the “Ten Outstanding Young Leaders of Boston” award spoke to a crowd at the "Delight 2016" annual conference about financial literacy – a topic notoriously inaccessible. She could have simply listed facts and pointed at bar charts, but what kept the audience engaged was reference to her feelings, her family and her fears. (Got 19 minutes?)
Adding a personal experience to your presentation is the mark of a great speaker, and true of almost any TED Talk you can pull up.
So when you are writing notes to deliver your research, keynote speech or actuarial tables, ask yourself what is the emotional connection to your work? What does it mean to you? What can it mean to your audience?
In the words of John Stewart Mill, "There are many truths of which the full meaning cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home."