by Slash Coleman

It used to be that we defined ourselves exclusively by our past. Our past personal identity story identified the things we’d achieved to make us who we are. Meet someone at a diner party or create an artist statement and you’d most likely rattle off your resume – where you went to school, where you worked, a list of galleries that represented your work, etc. – unaware that the person you were talking to or the person reading it wouldn’t remember a thing about you ten minutes later. Many of us, out of habit, still trap ourselves with this template when we communicate with others. We feel our credentials are the sole definition of who we are and by sharing this information we’ll feel more connected to who we’re talking to. Often times it has the opposite effect.The truth is, who we are is more accurately defined by our potential. The use of a future personal identity story in which you include yourself as a struggling heroin your own story has the power to change who you are by changing what is possible.  Why? Because by sharing this type of story you’re allowing yourself to be vulnerable and as a result your listener will typically respond in kind, helping you and your story be remembered long after you part. I’ve compiled this powerful Top 10 list to inspire you to create and share our own personal identity story:


Advertisers have been using stories to manipulate us emotionally for years: to get us to smoke cigarettes, eat ourselves obese with junk food, buy mountains of stuff we don’t need, quit littering, and stay up at night worrying whether we have ring around the collar. It’s basic Business 101 – buy the story connected to the product and you buy the product. Psychologists and neuroscientists explain this teller/listener relationship using simple biology – great stories trigger large doses of our bodies pleasure chemicals – oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, the same chemicals released during a massage or falling in love. I liken the experience to the Na’vi tail from the movie “Avatar.”  By literally plugging their tails (an overelaborate hair braid containing a highly evolved nervous system) into another creatures’ nervous system, the Na’vi share an inexplicable bond in the same way the teller and the listener share a bond.  When we become immersed in a story, our brains essentially can’t tell the difference between the line where the story begins and our real-world experience ends. Very few things in life create such a similar bond.


Whether it happens seated in a bar at an open mic storytelling show, in the car while listening to Ira Glass on NPR’s This American Life, from the sofa while watching the latest drama on ESPN unfold, or around your family dinner table, every great story pulls us into another world. Magic happens when we feel immersed in this place. We feel immersed when time escapes us. Stories ultimately replace the critical or evaluative adult mode that most of us spend the majority of our time in and replaces it with a receptive childlike curiosity where we’re less likely to reject new ideas.


When you upload pictures and videos of friends, share links, tag friends in posts and tweets, you become invested in your personal identity story on a much deeper level. Not only does social media utilize your writing skills, but it also calls on your imagination, auditory skills, visual skills and your intra-personal and inter-personal intelligence. As you now play the main character in many of your own stories (with your friends and family representing your supporting cast), your investment in your personal identity story is much greater. In a perfect world, your social media story and your personal identity story are perfect reflections of one another. For example, check out my Facebook page for my upcoming book “The Bohemian Love Diaries.” As you’ll see, I’m not just asking people to buy my book. In fact I never do that. I’m simply engaging my Facebook community in a conversation in an attempt to feel closer and more connected to those in my creative community. Notice I do this by using author quotes, photos of me with engaging captions, and articles that I feel inspired by.


Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be like Bill Cosby or hold a degree in English to make a story memorable. These days, content is king. In fact, the more of you there is in your story the better. You may be known for your awkward pauses, your odd assortment of idiosyncratic social skills and your lack of public speaking acumen, but the truth is, if everyone waited until they felt confident and secure before speaking, no stories would ever be told.  The simple secret to turning a mediocre story into a great story is telling it over and over and over again.  Share a story in an informal setting (around the table, at the local bar, with the postman or at the water cooler) at least 30 times and you’ll find your personal message becomes a clear, systematic exposition of you. As the video of my TED talk demonstrates, telling a story frequently really does make a difference. I originally wrote the beach ball story in 2005, it eventually was one of the stories included in my PBS Special and was performed over 1,400 times.


Before there were viral videos, there were viruses. Before there were viruses there was fire. Before there was fire there were stories about fire, viruses and viral videos. I’m not really sure if this is chronologically correct, but I am certain of one thing – a good story has the ability to replicate and spread without any additional effort from the storyteller and is much better than 10,000 business cards (though the verdict is still out as to whether it’s better than chocolate).


Say what you want to about reality television, but one thing is certain, we are culturally obsessed with these “unscripted” worlds. In terms of entertainment, reality television reveals a drastic shift from entertainment as fiction and escape to entertainment based on true, personal stories. It brings us face-to-face with our own lives and our relationship with intimacy and vulnerability and is a huge smack in the face. The story about you, created by you is about as real as it gets. When we understand the power that our personal identity story has to not only influence how others perceive us but also how we perceive our own lives, our connections to others grow stronger, our personal community grows larger and the sphere of influence we have with our creative voice grows larger.  In effect, the possibility to change the world exists with every single story about you that you choose to share.


Imagine yourself in a job interview. Your potential boss asks you if you’re an honest guy. You nod and say “Yes.” He looks at you for a long time. Does he believe you? Maybe he’ll call some of your references and they’ll give them examples of times you were honest. As artists if we want to demonstrate a quality like honesty, we typically show it through our artwork. We dance it, paint it, sing it, write it, or play it. Showing the qualities you want to convey about yourself through a personal identity story works the same way. If you want someone to know that you’re an honest person, tell a true, personal story in which you’re the hero demonstrating that quality. Notice how in the following story, I launch into a story about the ring that I’m wearing. Although I have over 10 hours worth of personal, true stories, I chose one that was related to something visible- my ring. What do you think this story reveals about me?


Ask my Dad, a sculptor, how a creative, passionate good ol’ boy like himself, who was raised on a hill in a chicken shack in West Virginia became a passionate artist and you’ll likely hear an anecdote rather than a story. As an extrovert who loves to talk, his anecdotes can ramble on for hours. The thing is, most people share anecdotes, thinking that they’re telling stories. An anecdote is something that happens. A story is structured with a clear beginning, middle, and end. which makes it the perfect companion for an artist.


Have you ever heard a story on the news, retold it and had your listener say “Wait, did that really happen to you?” And you say, “No, it was a story I heard on the news.” This unique phenomena which typically happens with stories is common because it activates a part of the brain which automatically turns stories we hear into our own experience.  Play your cards right with your own personal identity story and you could end up looking like Einstein.


Tell it often.

Slash Coleman is a professional writer, performer and storyteller based in New York City. Slash facilitated Storyselling: How to Tell Your Story and Communicate Better as part of QCA’s Build Your Own Business Workshop Series in May 2012.