They stole my story… It’s not fair and other speaker moans

It’s a horrible moment in a speaker’s career. You build a speech around a story you found.  You use it for years.  It’s a great start to a session, you rely on it, it has warmth, depth, a point and it carries you on a wave of laughter into Act 1 of your story.  Then, at a big event, it doesn’t get the usual laugh.  In fact it falls a little flat, and you notice a little dip in the audience’s connection. You stumble, you don’t fall, but you’re surprised.  You carry on, and you get to the end, and you still get applauded and paid, but you walk away thinking that you could have done better.

Then, in an email exchange a week later, your client says- ‘We were a bit disappointed, that story you told, the one about XXXX.  The one you said you’d heard from a friend, well quite a few of my guests said they’d heard it on the XXX show on national radio a few weeks before…’

It happened to me a few weeks ago.  I was mortified.  Those ‘few guests’ thought I was, at best a bullshitter; at worst; a thief. My client was ‘disappointed’. I was embarrassed, angry, sorry and a whole lot of other things too. I started thinking about the person who had ‘stolen’ my story.  And after a day’s righteous, pointless anger I came to the following conclusions-

  1. It wasn’t my story anyway. I’d heard it from a friend, it was their experience, and it was true as far as I knew- but it wasn’t ‘mine’.
  2. So what if someone had taken the story? That’s why we tell stories isn’t it? Little parcels of meaning.  Concrete examples in a world of abstract guff. Gifts for our audience to take away and share. We can’t object when they do, can we?
  3. The very fact that the story was well-known enough to be shared on national radio, was the sign that I should have stopped telling it 6-12 months earlier than I did.  I was getting lazy, and I’d always hated those professional speakers who kept the same speech, unchanged for years.  So now I’d been caught out.  So what? Get some new material.

Then, as often happens when we start thinking about things that we haven’t thought about before, I Googled and I stumbled on a ‘LinkedIn’ group for speechwriters, and the topic of the day was ‘what can I do if someone steals my story?… God, it was awful.  So many people claiming credit for stories that (add big name speaker) had stolen and used as if it was their own, had made millions out of it etc, so much anger, so much hot air.

The lessons for professional speakers-

  1. If you don’t want people to take and use your stories, don’t put them in your speeches.
  2. Every story has a ‘natural life’. How about recognizing that all your stories need refreshing after 6 months?
  3. If you whinge about people stealing your stuff, you might consider how much of other people’s stuff you use without permission. Shakespeare? Warren Buffet? Bill Clinton? Images from the web? Funny lines?

There is a difference if someone steals your whole schtick from start to finish. I agree.  But surely the point of a great story is that it gets shared?


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