Why you need to open your heart, embrace vulnerability, and get real when you tell the story of your business

Here’s the short version of the origin story I’ve been using lately:

When I was in high school, I ran for a student council position with the campaign slogan: "Hell Yes! Vote for Norm!" I gave a speech that brought the house down and won the election. I had found my Hell Yes, my passion –speaking and storytelling—and ended up having a Hell Yes senior year.

​25 years later, those two words were still ringing in my ears, and I decided to launch the Hell Yes Entrepreneur podcast. Since then, I’ve interviewed dozens of amazing and inspiring entrepreneurs and the podcast has been downloaded thousands of times by listeners in 70+ countries.

Now, I've returned to two of my original Hell Yeses – storytelling and public speaking—to help purpose-driven entrepreneurs and leaders like you share your story, nail your message, serve as many people as possible, and change the world. That’s a mission that makes me want to say: "HELL YES!!!"

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People seem to like this story because it’s fun and it creates a thread between an early part of my life with the present.

But this version of the story leaves something significant out:

The truth is, after high school, I lost my Hell Yes.

I went to the University of Washington and lost my way. I tried fraternities. That was a misbegotten adventure. I tried the dorms. That didn’t work either. By my senior year, I was experiencing clinical depression.

And then, the fall after I graduated, on October 22, 1993, I find myself in the woods, with a bottle of Jack Daniels, and a bottle of sleeping pills. I took a handful of the pills and washed it down with a swig of Jack Daniels…And then I coughed it up. I realized that I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to feel alive again.

I went home that day, and eventually I got better. But I continued to struggle with depression throughout my 20’s. Until one day, while I was living in Barcelona, Spain, and experiencing yet another bout of depression, I decided to do something different.

I started meditating. I stopped drinking. I came back home to Seattle, and started attending support group meetings. I went to therapy. I started working with a coach. And things changed.

Now, I’m happy to say that I have been depression-free for over 16 years.

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That is perhaps the most part of my story. And yet, I’ve been leaving it out. Why?

Because I’m afraid of what you’ll think of me. I feel vulnerable. Exposed.

And yet, I believe that, as powerful storytelling leaders, one of the most important things we can do is to get real. 

Getting real equals getting vulnerable and sharing the stories you’re afraid to share. These are the stories of your struggles, your challenges, your failures, the times you got knocked down and you weren’t sure if you were going to be able to get back up.

These are the stories that, as business leaders and entrepreneurs, we’re inclined to hide and bury. We tend to talk about our successes and our wins but leave out the struggles we went through to get there.

Here’s what vulnerability expert Brene Brown says:

“The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness—even our wholeheartedness – actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls."

The good news is, we don’t have to feel like getting real and vulnerable in public is uncharted territory.

In fact, prominent business leaders and entrepreneurs get real and vulnerable on a regular basis, both online and on some of the biggest stages in the world. Here are just a few examples:

Scott Harrison, founder of the nonprofit, charity: water, shares his origin story, which includes a family tragedy and his struggles with drugs and alcohol as a nightclub promoter.

Sheryl Sandberg, COO at Facebook, shares about her struggles and lessons learned after the sudden death of her husband in her commencement speech at UC Berkeley.

Tim Ferriss talks openly about his struggles with bipolar disorder and suicidal ideation in this popular TED Talk about defining your fears.

Amy Cuddy shares an emotional story about her struggles with impostor syndrome in her TED Talk, which is the second most popular TED Talk of all time.

Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, talks openly about the challenges he’s faced and lessons he’s learned since his son was born with cerebral palsy.

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The funny thing is, when we share the stories that we’re most afraid to share, many people are drawn to you like a magnet. Why? Because every one of the people in your audience has struggled. And when you share your struggles, you give them permission to share their struggles too.

So when you’re ready to start working on the story you want to communicate to the world about your business, your mission and your life, don’t skip over your challenges. Instead, take a risk. 

Open your heart.

Get vulnerable.

Get real.

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If you’re a leader, entrepreneur, or speaker and you’re ready to get real and vulnerable and share your story, visit normanjbell.com and sign up for the free email mini-course, “3 Steps to Becoming a Storytelling Entrepreneur”. You’ll get tips on how to uncover and develop the core stories you need to tell to connect on an emotional level with your audiences and potential clients.

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