I was invited to tell a story at a house party by a dear friend of many years. He was the host and the event was part of he We Still Like You house storytelling events started in Chicago and are now all over the country. The one here in Austin was called: “We Still Like You: Austin.” Surprise!
The format was that the storytellers would tell embarrassing, true stories. I thought of my most embarrassing story, a painfully sad story about raising my first daughter. I practiced it for over a week and honed it down to five minutes.
I ran the story by my wife and friends. It was solid. I was not crying when I told it, so everything was golden. I felt ready when the date of the telling arrived in late February. But the golden rule of presentation is always know your audience.
As I approached the house 15 minutes early, it was a cool 40 degrees outside. When I entered the house, it was warm. Not just the temperature, but the people there as well. My friend found me, his face lit up and he gave me a big hug. He told me a bit about the event and reminded me I had seven to ten minutes for my story. So given I had planned for five, I relaxed a bit.
When I noticed the sign for donations to cover beer and other charms, he mirrored my concern. You see, I have never had anything to drink stronger than coffee. And “We Still Like You” is a real drinking event. My friend assured me there was no pressure and we would work around the drinking parts of the format. I was only worried for a second as my friend, the host made me feel comfortable. Not just comfortable, he made me feel safe. I was out of my element which was obvious with every 20-something that walked in. But he had my back, so all was well.
The house filled with people and I recognized a few of the faces, but before I could say, “Hi.” to any of them, the house and backyard where completely packed. Packed like a high school homecoming game in any town Texas on a Friday night. Wall to wall people all smiling and talking and many of them working on some level of inebriation.
I was in the kitchen hallway looking in past some 40 people to see the first teller. It was SRO. There was a great surge as his first joke landed. The flow of funny filled the high flying flock of friends. Humor was the goal and it succeeded.
At the end of his story, as the teller made a move to leave the stage, my friend grabbed his arm and reminded him of the next steps. Off to the side was an artist with a large white poster pad. The kind you use with big markers then you hang the posters on the wall during meetings to remind everyone what was said. This skinny, handsomely young man had been sketching elements from the teller’s tale. He was good and as my friend held up the poster I recognized some of the items as the audience started to applaud.
As the din quieted, my friend introduced the poster interpreter. She was a waif of a woman wearing bright but strong hues. She moved us back through the story via the elements in the poster. It was amazing to see and hear what these fine artists recreated from the story we had just heard. Everyone was smiling and laughing all over again. When the interpreter completed her take on the art, my friend poured the teller a drink and we all said, in near unison, “We still like you!” As the poster was handed to the teller my turn came.
I knew my heavy story was a poor fit at that moment and I was easily 30 years older than 75 percent of the audience. So without fail, I changed tack. I opened with a few quick stories that where funny, needing little context and helped to setup the bigger story. I dropped a few f-bombs in the first few minutes to show I was old, but ya know . . . cool. Then I started the story I came to tell.
To summarize my story, our first daughter was adopted through Child Protective Services. She came with special needs and when she first came to us, her personality was greatly masked by the medications she was on. My wife and I made the decision to take her off them. A couple of years later, after many requests from my wife and her teachers, I finally agreed to take her to the doctor, but I complained about it the whole time. As the story ends, my daughter has taken her first dose of the medication and is markedly better. My wife comforts me as I weep with the shame that I had held my daughter back for all those years out of ignorance.
The audience had come with me every step of the way. Some of them wiped their eyes as I finished. The storyteller empathy feedback loop was in full effect so I wiped my eyes too. In spite of my diligent practice, I wept in front of a house of young people there to drink and laugh. Like the first teller, I tried to leave the stage, but I was pulled back by the host.
The poster was shown to the audience and they responded with joy. As if the moments of sadness before where erased by the markings on the large white page. The interpreter walked us back through the story as seen through the page as the audience smiled, oohed and awed. They all cheered, “We Still Like You” then everyone but me took a drink.
I was in a daze and wandered back to the kitchen for impromptu notes from the listeners. One was don’t say the F-word. Another was “I saw what you did with the F-word to draw us all in. Nice job.” And many other positive and supportive notes filled with love and questions about my daughter’s fate. I remained dazed for a few more minutes until I realized our little discussion group was hindering others from hearing the next teller.
I really enjoyed my time at “We Still Like You: Austin.” And I really love having the poster in my house. Usually when a story is told, there is no artifact of the event. With “We Still Like You: Austin,” I have this wonderful reminder of my story from that cool night in February.
I leave you with a picture taken with my phone of the poster that hangs in my house. A physical reminder of a moment I told about another moment in my life.