On today’s episode of Steal the Show, we’re talking about how to share emotional topics on stage so that you and the audience both feel safe.

Nora McInerny is the best-selling author of the memoirs, It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) and No Happy Endings, as well as The Hot Young Widows Club. She hosts the award-winning podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and presented on the TED mainstage. The founder of the non-profit Still Kickin, Nora contributes to publications such as Time, Slate, and Vox. Nora is a master storyteller known for her dedication to bringing heart and levity to the difficult and uncomfortable conversations most of us try to avoid.

How You Can Steal the Show

  • Discover the value (and potential traps) of sharing on stage deep personal experiences while you’re still processing them.
  • Determine if an audience is “worthy” of your vulnerability.
  • Identify the signs that you may not be ready to share your emotionally difficult story in a keynote speech.
  • Uncover how to single out the parts of the story you can tell without emotionally “bleeding all over the stage.”
  • Tell a story by accessing emotional truth so you perform with honesty and authenticity.
  • Learn the truth behind post-traumatic growth and why it’s essential to your speech.
  • Process emotions so you don’t rush into the “Phoenix Phase” of your story too soon.
  • Uncover the difference between writing about difficult topics for the page vs. the stage.
  • Discover Nora’s secrets for content development, customization, and rehearsal.
  • Recognize how challenging it is for people to be adjacent to hardship and learn what to do if they say things that hurt you, even if they think they’re helping.
  • Learn how Nora covers tough topics in an entertaining way on her podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking.

Nora McInerny (00:03):
I personally cannot stand to see a speaker get up there and, and, and allegedly tell a very vulnerable story as if they’re, you know, reciting their grocery list. There are aspects to my story that I absolutely can, if you ask me for a summary of what happened to me in 2014 I can tell you on stage or in person, I can look you in the eye, Michael, and I can tell you that my husband died, my dad died. I lost her pregnancy. And I can say that is, if I am telling you that I live in Minneapolis, I’m six feet tall and, and I, I drove a minivan until it became impractical for the snow. And, and that is such a terrible way to tell my story. And I want a year a story from somebody who can’t bring, can’t access a little bit of emotional truth.

Michael Port (00:59):
Welcome to steal the show with Michael port. This is Michael and today’s guest is Nora McInerney. She’s the bestselling author of the memoirs. It’s okay to laugh. Crying is cool too. And no happy endings as well as the hot young widow’s club. She hosts the award winning podcast. Terrible thanks for asking. Spoke on Ted’s main stage and founded the nonprofit still kicking. She has contributed to publications like times, slate and Vox where she’s often tapped for her essays, highlighting the emotional landscape and humor in complex topics like the financial impacts of healthcare and grief in a digital age. Nora is a master storyteller known for her dedication to bringing heart and levity to the difficult and uncomfortable conversations most of us try to [inaudible].

Nora McInerny (01:53):
And also for being very tall.

Michael Port (01:56):
She was voted most humorous by the annunciation Catholic school class of 1997.

Nora McInerny (02:02):
So without further ado, here’s Nora. Hi Nora. Hi. Hello.

Michael Port (02:12):
Thank you so much for joining us. Listen, I want to start with a question that hopefully will help. Our students who, when they’re trying to give speeches that address difficult topics will will help. So like you, many of our students at HPS talk about deeply personal and difficult topics and we we suggest to them that in order to do it effectively, they need to be through it, not over it, of course, but to share these stories on stage. They often need to be through that experience so that the audience doesn’t feel like they have to take care of the speaker, that we don’t want the audience to be worried about the person who is sharing their experiences. So of course you share your story of losing your husband Aaron to brain cancer, your father to lymphoma. And then of course you had a miscarriage all in just six weeks. And and people can actually hear your story in your Ted talk, which is titled, we don’t move on from grief, we move forward with it. So can you share some advice for our students and our listeners on how they can share very personal and deep deeply meaningful stories that are of course, emotionally present for them without having the listener or the audience worry about them in the process?

Nora McInerny (03:46):
Right. I, so I’m going to go ahead and, and right from the jump disagree with you because one thing that I have found is that being in something is a perspective too. And as a listener, as an audience member, I would sometimes have a hard time connecting with somebody because they’re, they’re discussing something from a really safe and comfortable distance and the distance is usually time. So it’s, it’s very easy to find that inspiring, uplifting angle when something happened five years ago or 10 years ago or 15 years ago. But I think a lot of audiences and a lot of people want to know what to do when you’re in it and when it’s still real. And, and that is not to say that, you know, the, the moment something awful happens to you, you should be like, God, how can I get on stage and share this?

Nora McInerny (04:48):
How can I turn this into content that’s, that’s obviously not not what I’m suggesting. But I do think that there is value in, in being in the experience and sharing that perspective. If you are aware that you’re still in it. And I can’t say that I was always aware that I was still in it. So the first time that I spoke on stage in any sort of professional capacity was terrible. It was awful. It was very, very soon after I lost my husband, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a you know, a well known fundraiser here in town. And I got there and I realized this audience is here to party and drink and I don’t think that my is going to be safe here and I didn’t have like the sort of self respect and self love to say, I don’t think this is right.

Nora McInerny (05:52):
And so I got up and I and I, I shared something that was very personal with people who did not deserve it and were not worth that. That costs to me. So I think even more than than thinking about where you are in the story, whether you’re through something, whether you’re in it, is truly taking into account whether the audience deserves it. And I mean that in, in, in a way that protects you as the speaker and the audience because not everybody is, not everybody is up for the real hard stuff. And if it pains you to try to find a silver lining or a bright side, do not try to wrestle meaning out of something that right now is just pain.

Michael Port (06:49):
I really resonate with both with the two primary ideas that you just shared. One that it is still worth considering sharing what you’re going through as you’re going through it. And then to that make sure that the audience is in fact worthy of what you’re sharing. Because otherwise it may be a really difficult experience. You know, like you had that first time you did it. One of the things that comes up for people and the reason that, you know, we sort of addressed this concept of of being of, of not being in it in such a way that you can’t manage your emotions. Cause that’s something that they worry about. You know, if I tell this story, if I share this, I’m afraid I won’t be able to manage my emotions. And and certainly that’s something that, you know, one may get more comfortable with over time. It being able to manage their emotions in front of audiences, but if they’re newer to it, what suggestions would you have? Because I think people do have this fear that they’re going to lose it. So quote unquote onstage and they won’t be able to recover.

Nora McInerny (08:00):
I think that if you’re still in a place where bringing it up in, in front of other people can cause you to lose it, that, that you’re probably not ready or you haven’t found the part of the story that you should be telling. So I think that we think about our life stories as almost everything that has happened to us. But I have realized that there are, there are things that I can talk about, about losing my husband, about losing my dad, about losing a pregnancy that don’t require me to, you know, to, to bleed all over the stage emotionally. And that there are aspects to that story that don’t, don’t necessitate all of the details. And so in my first book, I, I think I called it like there are, there are moments that shine with meaning, like little lights and the darkness and they shine with meaning and you have to find the ones that shine with meaning for more than just you.

Nora McInerny (09:10):
And so the things that make you absolutely lose it and cry are, are beautiful and they might not be for everyone. The second thing is I like a little emotion. I personally cannot stand to see a speaker get up there and, and, and allegedly tell a very vulnerable story as if they’re, you know, reciting their grocery list. There are aspects to my story that I absolutely can, if you ask me for a summary of what happened to me in 2014 I can tell you on stage or in person, I can look you in the eye, Michael. And I can tell you that my husband died, my dad died, I lost a pregnancy. And I can say that is, if I am telling you that I live in Minneapolis, I’m six feet tall and, and I, I drove a minivan until it became impractical for the snow. And, and that is such a terrible way to tell my story. I want to hear a story from somebody who can’t bring, you can’t access a little bit of emotional truth.

Michael Port (10:15):
Yeah. Of course. And what we, you know, we’ve in, in what audiences respond to from performers is not a false sense of authenticity, but a true sense of honesty. And they love to see a performer or speaker working through the emotion, fighting to recover. It’s, it’s, it’s something that they respond beautifully to and that, you know, takes a lot of courage to do that. You know, before the interview I was talking with Jennifer McMillan who is our lead performance coach. And she happens to also have a masters in educational psychology. And the, and we, and the concept of post-traumatic growth came up and and often people when they’ve had some sort of traumatic experiences, people suggest to them that, you know, they need to somehow overcome it to get back to who they were, which which seems to me to be regressive. But the idea of post-traumatic growth gives you the opportunity to grow as a result of the trauma that you’ve experienced. So is that a, is that a a concept that you relate to and and if so, what advice can you give folks who are going through some sort of difficult situation to look at? You know, how they can grow out of it now rather than trying to get back to something that they think they once were.

Nora McInerny (11:49):
Yeah. I think one is to acknowledge that things take time and growth takes time and growth hurts. It’s very, very uncomfortable. I, I don’t know about you, but I had terrible growing pains as a child. Like would lay in bed screaming that I thought my legs were breaking and my parents would, you know, come in in the night. Maybe they’d put a little Bengay on my shins and they’d get up. My dad would eventually leave and he’d say, Nora, it just, it hurts to grow. That’s it. It just hurts. It hurts. And so I do think that PR post-traumatic growth is obviously a thing. There’s also I think a new book called you know, the sixth stage of grievance basically help finding meaning in something is a really important step. But that can’t be rushed. It can’t be rushed. You cannot rush to the meaning phase.

Nora McInerny (12:45):
You cannot rush to, you know, the Phoenix phase of, of your sorrow, of your suffering. And I think that the way that we sort of commodify a personal narrative forces that issue and forces like a bright citing two things. When it will, it will take time to get there. And, and I, and I do have, I do have some regrets. I can say that 2015 and, and, and maybe even 2016, I was, I, I was still so hurt and trying to present in after that was not there. And, and I, I don’t know that any audience would have known that. But looking back, I can see that that was more about me trying to help myself and, and to convince myself that I was okay because I really thought that the best thing that I could be for the world was okay. And, and you might not be, not, not for a long, long time.

Michael Port (13:57):
Yeah. So you’re an extraordinary writer and of course, writing for the page and writing for the stage can be a little bit different. So how do you approach a writing about difficult topics versus speaking about difficult topics? And, and does the approach differ?

Nora McInerny (14:20):
It does differ. I have a lot, you’ve got a lot more room on a page than you do on a stage. I think I’ve, I’ve learned a lot by sitting in a lot of audiences and noticing where people’s, you know, eyes start to wander where they start to take out their phones and and as a speaker, I don’t think that’s I mean that’s pretty much the worst that it can get, right? Is to lose your audience. And I’ve, I’ve lost an audience or two and I have definitely learned the power of brevity in speaking and the power of repetition, especially if there is aligned that you really want to make impactful and that you want to sink in with people. I mean, the best, the best crash course that you can get on speaking is, is to go through the Ted process I was at, I did a Ted talk.

Nora McInerny (15:25):
I have a Ted X, but a Ted is different and the amount of effort and you know and input that you get from their team is really, really helpful. And you only have about 12 minutes to make your point. So putting myself in that situation was very, very uncomfortable for me. I’m used to like maybe a 40, 45 minute keynote with, you know, an I write my own talks. So I just, I know what I want to say and I get to see it my way. And having a lot of people help me shape an idea was very, very helpful. I think that I’m, I’m a person who has to write things down first as if I am writing for the page and I, I’m going to just talk about my process now, so I hope that’s okay. Please. That’d be great.

Nora McInerny (16:20):
So I do, I write it all long form. I write it as if it is an essay and then I look at it and I add spaces and I think, okay, how will I punctuate this with a slide? Because that’s honestly a very physical something that helps, helps me physically remember things is knowing like when will you hit the slide change and and what are points that I want to sit with for a while. And what are parts where I can bring, I, I’m, I’m a natural, I’m an, I’m a person who naturally brings humor to situations. I’m sure this has been a real laugh riot of a podcast.

Nora McInerny (17:01):
So it’s not like I think like, God, you know, how, how can I make this talk? Well, my husband just, you know, funny. But I do, I just, I can naturally feel where a talk will need that or where it will just come up. And I’m not afraid of that. But I’m also, I don’t set out to try to make something heavy into something light. And I think that people can tell the difference between that. And then I do go over my stuff. Like I say it out loud because it’s, it feels different coming out. So I’m, I’m a big believer in, in reading it out loud to myself in standing in front of my mirror. And, and doing my talk before I even go on. And it doesn’t matter that I’ve, I’ve done this for now, you know, a four whole years. Wow, go me.

Nora McInerny (17:55):
But it doesn’t matter. I really want everybody who comes to see me speak whether they’ve bought a ticket or their company has brought me there. I want them to know that I put attention into this specific talk that it is not something that I just get off of a plane and say the same thing in Houston as I do in Memphis as I do in New York city. That I’ve thought about what their day is like and what they are bringing to this room and that I’ve, I’ve, I’ve worked on my message so that it is applicable to them.

Michael Port (18:32):
That’s really meaningful. I imagine that even though your customizing the speech so that it’s very relevant and and applicable to them I imagine the core of the speech stays pretty consistent. Yes.

Nora McInerny (18:50):
Yeah. Yeah. It does. It does. It does. And yet I will say it differently every time. I know that, I know that professional speakers out there like what? No, you got to have like five talks and yes, everybody has a menu of talks, but I am personally not a speaker who can give the same talk over and over.

Michael Port (19:13):
Yeah. And in fact, most of the professionals in the higher end of the circuit don’t have lots of different talks they do because they know that, well, you know, it’s like the same reason that the lead actor in Hamilton is only in Hamilton. You know, he’s not doing six shows at the same time. Forget about the scheduling problems that you’d run into. But you know, if you want to do something really, really well focusing on that thing, that one thing and doing it, you know, at a best in class level is, you know, is obviously gonna make a significant difference to, you know, to your audience rather than trying to be all things to you know, to all different audiences. So I have a question. And I’ve been thinking about this question just as you were talking for the last minute or two.

Michael Port (19:59):
And it’s funny cause I almost hesitated asking the question because I sort of felt like, well, okay, it’s going to, I’m sure she, I’m sure she gets this question a lot. Maybe it’s, you know, kind of just a sophomore question. And then I realized, well I have to ask the question because that’s actually the problem that I want to address in the question. So one of the things that often happens for folks when they, when they meet somebody or, or, or they know somebody who’s going through something that’s really quite a difficult is they often don’t know what to say or they say what they feel like are stupid things or may actually be stupid things. And and I just thought how ironic it was that I was actually having that same feeling around the question itself, but then said, I have to ask it because I really do think it matters to people who who are going through difficult times.

Michael Port (20:54):
You know one of our writers had cancer and she is she wrote a speech about all the things people would say to her that made her nuts, you know during that time. So I would actually like to address that because I think it’s helpful just for us as human beings just to learn a little bit more about how to be a little bit more empathetic and and compassionate and supportive of others. But also because as a speaker or writer or somebody that is in a teaching mode, you know, you’re going to, you’re going to be presented with these kinds of situations from time to time and often surprised by them when you least expect it. And so what’s your suggestion for how people should respond when they hear, you know somebody, you know, someone’s going through something quite traumatic or, or just went through something quite difficult?

Nora McInerny (21:52):
Hmm. Here’s the thing. I have a whole list of things people said to me that were the wrong things to say. And I think the hardest thing to hear was nothing was to have people who cared about me, who care about me. I know just not acknowledge what was going on or, or, or, or to pretend that they didn’t know things that they, but of course they knew. And I, at the same time, I didn’t want to just be a sad story. I didn’t want Aaron to just be a sad story. And so I want to acknowledge how hard it is to be adjacent to hardship because you, if you have good intentions, and I think that most people do, you want people to feel cared for. You want them to know that you’re thinking about them. And you also don’t want to be the person who only talks to them about this hard thing or this, this, this tragic thing.

Nora McInerny (23:06):
And they think it’s okay to approach all of these situations with humility. Whether this is a colleague who you’ve only really had a couple interactions with, or this is a person that you, you, you really, truly care about to have a really close relationship with to say, I don’t know what to say and I just want you to know that I really care about you. And if you want to talk about the thing, I’m, I’m here for that. And if you don’t, that’s all. That’s also okay. And giving the story holder, the person who’s at the center of this some agency because that’s really what everybody wants. And in some ways it is. It is impossible. It’s impossible to say the right thing if what you think is that your words are going to fix something because they’re not. And so really like your words just need to be an acknowledgement and an acknowledgement of the fact that we are all completely inept at this.

Nora McInerny (24:12):
All of us, all of us. There are no magic words you can say. And I, I do now look back on even the situations where people said things to me that really made me want to just throw a chair through a window and think, okay, that was a person who was trying, that was a person who showed up and did their best and their best wasn’t great, but you know what? Neither was mine because the secret that we don’t know until we are through something is that even the griever or even the sick person, even the person who is at the center, the eye of this storm, they don’t know either. They don’t know what they need. They don’t know what would comfort them. So it’s, it’s a bunch of people trying to do their best and you might say the wrong thing, you might do the wrong thing and you just try again. That’s it.

Michael Port (25:05):
Yeah. Yeah. Always better to, you know, try and say the wrong thing then not to try I suppose.

Nora McInerny (25:10):
I think so. I think so. And, and really to remember that if your true empathy is not trying to fix something, it’s, it’s just to sit with somebody else’s discomfort.

Michael Port (25:24):
Hmm. I want to lean in a little bit more, dig in rather a little bit more to to the, to the entertaining way that you cover such, you know, hard things. I mean, you, you know, you really broaden your focus over time to talking about the hard things. So your podcast, terrible. Thanks for asking. It’s a great name by the way. It’s really about, you know, how people truly feel about difficult parts of life. I think it’s been called darkly honest, oddly comforting. And you’ve covered childhood trauma, national tragedies, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, and more. And you managed to cover such tough topics in really such an entertaining way. And I know you gave sort of a little lip service to your sort of natural ability to find the humor. You kind of feel it, you know, you get it and you’re willing to play with it.

Michael Port (26:17):
And one of the things you did beautifully in your Ted talk was play with a moment where you stumbled over a word. We spent some time dissecting the talk. You did a wonderful job. And actually what I saw you do was working to find the button to actually end that little moment of improvisation. And you like took a couple little zigzags before you got there and then you’re like, Oh, I found it and you nailed it. And then you moved on to the next actual scripted part of the speech. But, but how do you manage to cover such tough topics in an entertaining way? In addition to just having a natural ability to find the humor in a situation?

Nora McInerny (27:01):
I mean, truly, I think it is just who I am, I think. I think if you can’t do it, you can’t do it. And it’s, it’s just a part of my personality. And for a long time, I mean, I had a boss who wants right before a presentation told me not to be myself and Oh God. And I was like, Oh great. That’s good advice. No self that she was talking about was the person who, who tripped over herself on the Ted stage and then just get a, took it to kind of a strange place. They cut out some of my zigzag, but that’s okay because that’s naturally who I am. And if that hadn’t happened it would have been, you know, and there were other lines that I, that I improvised and threw in there. But that took me a long time to just to lean into being who I am and not trying to be somebody else.

Nora McInerny (27:55):
I, I remember going into that meeting and I worked in public relations at the time when we were presenting a strategy to a client. And I had written the deck myself and was talking to a group of people that I knew and her telling me not to be myself completely cut me off at the knees. I was standing in front of a group of people and I had no idea even what was written on the slides that I was reading. I, I did not quit because she wanted me to be a, a deeply rehearsed professional PR person. And I’m, I’m not. And so the podcast, I think the podcast works because I’m not trying to make something sad into something funny, but I give the, the interviewee the time and space to tell their story in a way that they might not have had time to tell before.

Nora McInerny (28:51):
And those natural moments of levity come up because anybody who’s been through something horrible can also tell you a kind of funny story about that terrible time in their lives. And if, if I was just trying to sit here and think of, you know, funny jokes for somebody, stillbirth, it would be a terrible show and I would hate myself. But if I let that woman tell me the story of going to the hospital and I let her find that moment where her husband is tripping over there, they’re, you know, they’re go, go to the hospital bag and he, he can’t find the keys and it’s just a classic sort of Laurel and Hardy moment, then she can find those moments for us. So if you’re, if you’re trying to, you know, make your suffering more palatable to other people because you think that your story is, it’s just too much, it’s just too dark. It’s going to come off as false. But if you can find the way that you would tell it to a friend, then I think you’re going to have a better outcome.

Michael Port (30:09):
Yeah. One of our clients is a fellow named Ron Tite, great friend also, and just a tremendous human being. And I think one of the best speakers out there, and at the end of his speech he says, listen, I’m going to tell you a story that first you’re not going to believe is true. Let me tell you, every single, every single thing I tell you is true. Second, you’re, you’re not going to think you can laugh at this because it’s just, it’s just too much. There’s no way. This is funny. Let me tell you this is fucking funny. And he does a little bit around it and then goes into it and he gives everybody this permission to laugh at, you know, the things in the story that really are really humorous because they’re so absurd. Then often, you know, humor comes from contrast from the absurdity of life and the extreme aspect of life.

Michael Port (30:59):
And he does a wonderful job at that, of giving people permission. And I think you do the same in your own way. Giving people permission to, you know, to, to laugh at things that, you know, might might be pretty difficult. You know, it’s, it’s funny, I actually, I think I’m funniest in hospitals. Like I just find hospitals funny. Everything about them is funny and really, really sad at the same time. So I know what you mean about seeing the humor in the darkness. And I find it helpful. It seems like it’s one of the things that draws people to you. You know, you have your hot young widows club, which I understand is mostly women but has some men, also men. Yup. Yup. And and I imagine is that, do you think that’s one of the things that really draws people together? Is that ability to say, okay, let’s just, let’s bring some more, some lightness to this. So together we can be uplifted.

Nora McInerny (32:04):
I think everybody just wants to know that they are not alone and that the thing that happened to them is not too dark and scary for absolutely everybody. And knowing somebody else who has gone through something similar or even just seeing that story reflected back to you makes you feel better in some way. I am a person who loves hospitals. I absolutely love hospitals. I love going to hospitals. Some of my best memories happen in hospitals. I asked Erin to marry me in a hospital. And so I like the, that’s where the hardest and the best moments of our life unfolded. And I think that there is something about people who have been through something difficult, even if it is not the exact same thing. So even if you have not lost your, your, you know, romantic partner that you can kind of sense that in somebody. And if you’ve been through something really dark, you do have an appreciation for the light.

Michael Port (33:04):
Hmm. Beautiful. So your podcast, as I said earlier, is called terrible. Thanks for asking. So I encourage people to go listen to it. You are involved in an organization, I think you may have actually founded a called still kicking, which raises money for people who are in need.

Nora McInerny (33:20):

Michael Port (33:21):
And and then of course as I mentioned in the introduction, you’ve written a number of books. It’s okay to laugh. Crying is cool too. No happy endings as well as the hot young widow’s club. So where should people start? Which book would you recommend they start with?

Nora McInerny (33:38):
I would start with it’s okay to laugh. Crying is cool too because that’s the first one. And is, is about early, early widowhood and no happy endings is about moving forward with this identity and blending a family with my current husband and the hot young widow’s club is the most practical book that I’ve ever written. It’s very short. I wrote it for people who are experiencing grief and people who are grief adjacent and it is. That is like the, the practical guide to being a better person through grief.

Michael Port (34:17):
Thank you so much for being on steal the show today. I really appreciate you for being here and of course for the work that you do.

Nora McInerny (34:23):
Thank you. Same and thank you for for your patience while I attempted a digital phone call. I mean it’s, you’re really pushing me. You stole the show. I bet you say that to, I bet you say that to everyone.

Michael Port (34:39):
Again, thanks so much. And if there’s anything I can ever do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask. Alright, bye everyone. Thanks for listening to steal the show. I’m your host Michael port. We record our episodes at heroic public speaking HQ. Thanks for listening and learning how to be a performer in your spotlight moments. Make sure to reach out to us on Instagram and Facebook at heroic public speaking and leave us a review on iTunes if you like the show. Until next time. Keep thinking big about who you are and how you see the world. Bye for now.