One of the most important elements of speaking is making that connection with the audience. When audience members like you, feel as if you are “one of them”, and agree with what you are saying, they are more likely to apply it to their lives.
That does not mean, however, that you need to have gone through exactly the same things in this life that they have. None of us has lived an identical life to anyone else! We don’t have to relate on circumstances per se; what we do have to relate to is on feelings.
Now, one caveat: often at the beginning of a talk is good to find things in the audience that you can laugh about together, that all women do. Such things aren’t necessarily circumstances as much as they are habits or cultural attitudes. Women are worried about our weight. We try to do too much. We’re insecure.
Here’s an excellent example, by Anita Refroe, a Christian mom comedian, of relating to her audience at the beginning of her talk by putting all the things a mom would say in a 24-hour period into a 3 minute song:
What if you’re not a mom? What if you can’t sing? It’s okay! You can still make fun of us women in other ways. You’re not doing it to put women down; you’re just doing it so that we can laugh together, and shared experiences always make people laugh. We’re nervous that we have runs in our stockings. We’re nervous about parallel parking. We can’t go anywhere without talking to the clerk and the people in line. We’re always trying to make closer relationships. You know what you’re like, and chances are others can relate to you! Maybe it’s the differences in living in a city or the country. Again, people often laugh at these sorts of things.
But when you get into the meat of your story, that’s where you’re driving home the main lesson that you want people to take home. What if your experiences don’t mirror those of your audience?
It’s okay. Few of us share circumstances; almost all of us share feelings. For example, I speak about my son dying, but I don’t relate to the women on the basis that I have lost a son; few women have (though there are always some in the audience). After I tell the story, I then say something like this:
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t get out of bed in the morning? Have you ever cried rivers of tears that never seemed to dry, and tormented yourself asking God “why”?
Most of us have. It probably hasn’t all been for the same reason, but it’s that feeling that we share that is going to move us closer to God and closer to the message that we’ve got for people.
Don’t worry, then, if your circumstances don’t line up exactly with those in the audience. Share your circumstances, but share them as examples of feelings: feelings of loss, of fear, of anger, of bitterness, of hurt. Don’t dwell as much on the circumstances as on how you felt and how you felt towards God.
The good thing is that this frees up those speakers who haven’t experienced great tragedies to still be strong speakers. My daughter, for instance, would like to be a speaker, but nothing really, really bad has ever happened to her (yet). But she can still relate to the feelings that all of us have: not fitting in; doubt about faith; anger; shame. She may not have a dramatic story, but she can still talk about what feelings and circumstances brought her into a deeper level of commitment and trust to God. What pushed her away, and what brought her back? Chances are those in the audience will be able to relate to these things.
When you’re sharing your story, then, whether it’s one of divorce, or abuse, or grief, or shame, or bitterness, certainly share what happened, but don’t glorify it. Remember that you are not relating based on these details. You are relating based on the feelings. Talk about your reaction to the circumstances far more than the circumstances themselves. This has the added benefit in that you don’t glorify ugliness, especially if you are talking about a life of abuse, but it also puts the focus on how you dealt with things, and how you responded to God (and how He responded to you). That’s the part of your message that’s going to make the biggest impact, anyway.
So don’t worry if you can’t relate to all the circumstances in the audience. It’s the feelings that bring us together. When you read the Psalms, do you find them often echoing your heart’s cry? Likely you do. And yet you have never been an ancient king of Israel, fleeing your homicidal predecessor. Nevertheless, you still can relate to David. Likewise, people will be able to relate to you if you do what David did: be honest about your heart’s cries, but then put the focus back on the promises of God and how He rescued you. That’s the human condition that we all have, and that’s how you will help touch people’s hearts and point them to God!