For many of us, writing a witness talk can be a daunting task. We start to ask ourselves questions like:
- Where do I start?
- What do I say?
- What stories should I share?
- Are my stories good enough?
- Am I revealing too much about myself?
- What if I cry?
There are all sorts of questions we ask ourselves only delaying the inevitable: you have to write your witness talk!
The big question is, what do we share or not share in a witness talk?
Whether we are speaking at a retreat or speaking in front of our church or even leading a discussion in small group, it is important to tell the right stories. We have to tell stories that people can connect to their lives and relate to.
We also don’t want to make our witness talks our own public therapy session. We have to be vulnerable, we have to open our heart in order to change the hearts of others, but we can’t take advantage of the opportunity to make it about us rather than our audience.
Two Essential Guidelines for Giving a Personal Witness Talk
I had the pleasure of moderating a webinar with Sr. Terry Rickard, President and Executive Director of RENEW International and the author of a Lenten devotional The Living Gospel: Daily Devotions for Lent 2014, a Catholic ministry focused on evangelization in the Church. While this particular webinar was intended to be about sharing witness and story during Lent, Sr. Terry gave us a workshop on how to share our faith particularly in the way we give witness talks and tell stories.
About twenty-four minutes into the webinar she made two excellent points about sharing a personal witness story that she learned from her mentor, Fr. Jim Conlon. They are pieces of advice that everyone writing a witness talk should consider during their preparation time.
Here was her advice followed by my thoughts on why this essential advice to those looking to find out how to write a witness talk:
1. Never tell a story where you are the hero or the heroine.
“In other words, you are the sinner in the story. It is about how you came to see things in a new way.”
— Sr. Terry Rickard
The minute you seem like you are bragging during a witness talk is the moment you will lose almost all credibility. It’s strange how only showing the good things about yourself hurts your credibility with others.
Witness talks tell the stories about our conversion moments, about our transformations from one way of thinking, one way of acting, one way of being to a totally different perspective. In almost all cases this transformation is brought on by an encounter with Christ. It is through this encounter that you reveal a story arc from the old you to the new you.
Help people connect with you through your vulnerability and honesty about where you were and where you are now. That authenticity will speak straight to their hearts and not to their heads. It is a way for people to connect with you on a level that they can’t do with people who seem to perfect to be real.
2. Never share anything that you haven’t personally worked through.
“If you don’t, then we are feeling more sorry for you…instead of saying ‘how does that story connect with my own life?'”
— Sr. Terry Rickard
But how far is too far? When are we telling stories just to tell them and when are we telling them to give an effective witness?
Sr. Terry’s advice here is very sound. Only tell stories that have a resolution. They explain where you were and where you are now. They give your audience a path with which they can follow to find the fulfillment of their own personal desires and dreams.
Going back to point #1, we don’t want to be perceived as someone who’s got it all together (none of us do) yet we want to be sure that the stories we tell show we’ve made some progress and give hope to those who want to follow that same path.
Warming Hearts through Witness and Story
You can watch the full webinar recording on YouTube or the Ave Maria Press website:
Also, check out the great work St. Terry Rickard and her team is doing at RENEW. If you’ve been around the Church awhile you’ll recognize their name, but did you realize they are the same group that is behind the popular Why Catholic? and ARISE programs? They continue to do incredible work and they are a blessing to the Church.
If you want examples of great personal testimonies, check out the three-minute witness talks that RENEW has collected called My Turning Points.
Jonathan F. Sullivan
Great advice — thank you for sharing this, Jared!