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Write (and share) your comeback story

Why don’t more leaders use powerful stories to inspire their people, build engagement, shift mindsets (from fixed to growth) and strengthen resolve?

6 min read




One of the most powerful tools that a motivational speaker can have in his or her arsenal is a “setback to comeback” story. In essence, this is a story in which the individual experienced a powerful, potentially debilitating setback or set of circumstances and yet managed to turn that perceived deficit into the basis of their future success.

Whether it’s Jim Rohn speaking of life as a penniless husband and father who was inspired by a mentor to set goals and create a plan for success, Les Brown describing his adoption by a domestic servant and adolescent diagnosis as “educable mentally retarded” while still finding success in music, politics and inspirational speaking, or Tony Robbins recounting his rocky childhood without a father (who had walked out on the family) or enough food to eat and how that motivated him to want to help and feed others, audiences rally around and connect deeply with messages of individuals who overcame hardship and pain and used that to achieve great things.

The reason that such stories motivate us is plain. We all get bogged down in mediocrity (or worse) and often find it difficult to pick ourselves us and move forward with purpose and direction. These stories remind us that others have had it worse, often far worse than we. If they could find a way to turn things around and become wildly successful, then perhaps we can too.

If such storytelling is so powerful, then why don’t more people find ways to integrate it into their conversations? In particular, why don’t more leaders use this tool to inspire their people, build engagement, shift mindsets (from fixed to growth) and strengthen resolve?

Perhaps we feel that we simply don’t have such a powerful or noteworthy message to deliver. If we were raised in average to above average conditions, with a loving family, a decent income, a good education, a strong social network, etc. then what do we really have to offer that will excite and motivate others?

I believe that such thinking is limited. Everyone has some form of “setback to comeback” story. It may not involve adoption, familial strife, economic hardship or some combination thereof. Still, we all have had to overcome challenges to get to where we are today.

Maybe we struggled in school in some fashion and found a way to get by. Perhaps we were in a relationship that had all the indications of permanence only to have it fall apart suddenly. Perchance we found ourselves in the wrong crowd and or developed a dependency that limited us. Or possibly we had a harder than expected time landing our first job, keeping that job, or achieving the kinds of initial success that we envisioned. And even if none of these happened to us directly, we know of (or could easily find out about) others that have whose stories and lessons we could borrow and share.

Another obstacle to storytelling is that we think that it ought to be relegated to great story tellers, people with oversized personalities whose enthusiasm just overtakes the room and whose story of rags to riches rings a deep chord within us. Many of us, whether we’re introverted, shy, of average temperament and personality, etc. just don’t seem ourselves as being able to deliver that kind of passionate message.

This, too, is a narrow view. For starters, many of the best speakers are also naturally shy, introverted, and/or shun the limelight under normal circumstances. Many have had to overcome fears and their own inborn personality in order to get up in front of a crowd and deliver high-energy content. But let’s not confuse good, inspirational messaging with pumping up hundreds of people.

Some of the best messages have been delivered to small groups or even one-on-one to individuals. Often, they have been shared quietly and in the moment. The key thing is that they have been shared. And because they have, others (and the storyteller, too) have been inspired to rethink things and take purposeful action. 

So now that we have addressed some of the primary objections, we can begin to focus on how to develop and deliver an inspirational message of overcoming problems to achieve success. The following tips may help.

  1. Recall your setbacks. Obviously, no “setback to comeback” story can be written without the setback component. Sometimes, these occurred recently. In other cases, the greatest, most compelling setbacks took place years ago, if not decades. Review your life story for moments, whether at home, in school, at work or with family/friends, that presented challenges.
  2. Identify the keepers. Once you have a list of a few things, seek to whittle it down to the most compelling one or two setbacks. In many cases, these will be the ones that were hardest for you to overcome.
  3. Make the message universal. Great messages are the ones that can be used by others to think more and do more. Craft the message so that it has the most universal appeal and/or offers the most actionable blueprint for others.
  4. Fine-tune your message. Make sure that your message has a clear beginning, middle and end with a strong rising action, climax and falling action. Begin with the problem, how it developed, and what you or others did to turn things around. Emphasize the nadir of the challenge and how you felt at that moment. Then describe what it was like to rise above the challenge and achieve a breakthrough. Use colorful descriptors.
  5. Think about how to share it. There are many ways through which to share your message. It can certainly include getting up in front of a crowd. It may be that you choose to write it down, or record it on video privately. Regardless, find ways to get it out there.
  6. And who to share it with. Consider who most would benefit from hearing your story and see if you could target, through social networks, particular media, and the like, folks with whom your story would most resonate.

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) became an executive coach and organizational consultant following a career as an educator and school administrator. Read his blog at Download a free chapter of his upcoming leadership book, “Becoming the New Boss.”

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