In order to let the members of an audience locate their empathy with you, you have to locate your empathy with them.
This is one of my favourite things to do (or rather, one of my favourite things to do successfully). The storytelling impulse is what literature and theatre have in common. I’m interested in both these forms, so the quickest way back to the root (for both) is to find myself in front of an audience telling a story, especially when that story is spontaneous, or ‘extempore’—without preparation.
It’s becoming a popular medium here in Toronto, this extempore style performance, with Trampoline Hall (‘The Malleable Personality’ the title of mine) being the mighty vanguard still marching, and, more recently, ‘The Spoke’ at Videofag. For good reason. We reveal ourselves in unique ways when we’re just talking. We use rhythms that cannot be captured in the recitation of a written piece. The theatre of everyday life is inherent even when we fail.
Extempore isn’t quite as tricky as it sounds either. The trick—the only trick—is to choose your story well. If you find yourself having to think your way through elements of the story and start worrying it’ll fall flat if you leave this detail out or that detail out, in just the right place—i.e. if you find yourself writing things down, making notes—chances are you’re telling the wrong story. Because when you tell a story to your friends, you don’t feel the need to do any of that. If you forget something, you’ll shout, ‘Oh! I forgot something!’ and make a meal out of the mistake. This is the way it works in front of an audience as well. All you know is that you want them to feel what you felt and know what you know, and you want to feel that in them. Mutual empathy. That’s the key. There can’t be any bullshit.
One way to think about it is the story has to have enough meaning for you that it will generate friendship in your audience. When you feel that friendship starting to happen, the story you tell will become that kind of story.
I have two examples. The first, a video, is not too bad. The second, a podcast, is more successful.
When The Raconteurs (formerly called something else) celebrated their first anniversary in 2011, they invited me to come tell a favourite story of mine. There was a woman up just before me who was funny, charming and sexy. I started to worry that the audience liked her so much that this meant they would not like me, so when I arrived at the microphone, I began my story feeling trapped, worried about lack of empathy, feeling tired and sluggish and disconnected (and old).
You can see me halting and apologizing in the video. It’s not the greatest way to begin, but I got over it eventually.
Then, just the other day, I participated in a lovely pot-luck event curated by Erin Brubacher and hosted by Ame Henderson, called ‘our forgotten papers, or the one that got away.’ For this one I was nervous, hanging around beforehand, and I was going to be reading from pieces of high school poetry that struck me as self-serious and banal, so that was terrifying in advance.
But I also knew the story I was telling, I’d told it before, always to friends (albeit not with the poetry recitation aspect—terrifying).
So something of that kicked in. These twenty people in the audience became my friends.
NB there’s another one of these ‘forgotten papers’ events coming up on April 6th, for a potluck dinner. There’s an open group on Facebook. The next event is described as follows:
Next Gathering: Sunday April 6th, for dinner
We invite three people to share something they have written and left behind: Something poetic, something scholarly, something in the space between. Three papers, three times of life, three labors of love that got away. These forgotten papers are read in the company of 20 people made up of strangers and friends. Efforts and ideas are remembered. Perhaps only in that moment or perhaps in moments to come. It’s a potluck. So we eat. Red beverages will also be on offer.
Erin Brubacher and Ame Henderson