003 – Nobody Has Their Ish Together with Marsha Shandur
In this episode, I chat with Marsha Shandur: sales coach, storyteller extraordinaire, and entrepreneur. We dig into the topics of empathy, shame, and storytelling, and explore how they’re connected.
[00:01:16] Mission and vision
[00:03:35] Stand up to injustice
[00:06:48] Increase empathy, decrease shame
[00:10:09] Rotting wound
[00:14:35] Authenticity, vulnerability, and boundaries
[00:19:03] Practice, repeat
[00:21:30] Friends buy from friends
[00:23:07] What holds people back
Note: Some of the resources above may be affiliate links, meaning I’d get a commission if you use that link to make a purchase (at no cost to you).
In this episode, I chat with Marsha Shandur, an entrepreneur, sales coach, and master storyteller. We dive into the topics of shame and empathy and how they relate to storytelling. My biggest takeaway was actually a shift in how I view storytelling. In the last couple of years, it seemed to me that storytelling became this big buzzword and was merely used as a marketing tactic and felt, to me, to be a bit too one-sided and self-serving. I learned, by the end of this conversation, that good storytelling – real storytelling – connects us and it increases empathy where none may have previously existed. Let’s get to it!
Sharlene: I like to start it off with a big question.
Marsha: Love a big question.
Sharlene: Just, like, jump in. What is your mission and what is your vision? So, in other words, what is the impact you want to make in the world with your work?
Marsha: Okay. That is a great question. There’s an overt one and a secret one.
Sharlene: Whatever you want to share.
Marsha: Yeah. I say overt and secret, but I wonder if it’s just that there is one but the other one seems more worthy. So, I want to pretend that that’s my real vision because I want to seem cooler than I am. But, ultimately, I want everybody to understand that it’s okay, nobody else has their ish together either because most of us walk around thinking that everybody else does and we’re the only failures. And I want people to understand that because when we think that everybody else has it together and that Facebook is the truth and not just a series of highlight reels, then we feel shame, and in shame two bad things happen. One is that we don’t – it’s really hard for us to do good in shame because, who am I to help these people and I’m such a loser. That’s what we think. And the other thing is that in shame, people behave very, very badly and we see that. We see that with what’s happening in my home country and we see that with what’s happening – I live in Ontario, in my province right now. We see that with what’s happening with our cousins in the States. I feel like shame drives people to get rewards from punishing other groups. And shame – shame also empathy, it’s very hard for those two things to co-exist and lack of empathy is the root of all evil. So, I want people to understand that nobody else has it together either. They’re doing just fine. To reduce that same, and I also want to grow empathy because the secret mission is activism. It’s like, that’s the kind of big grand overture and then the underture is like, I want people to be telling stories and I want to sneak activism to people who don’t necessarily think of themselves as activists, and show them that they can just sign up to avaaz.org and sign some petitions. They can just vote differently and use their dollars differently. They don’t have to put on the balaclava and smash a cop car window. But they do have to do something.
Sharlene: So, activism to you is doing something about something they feel passionately about?
Marsha: Activism to me is standing up to the injustice in our systems. Yeah, because you can do something about – if you’re super racist, you can do something about that if you feel passionately about it. But I don’t think so with activism. I mean it’s a kind of activism, but yeah, I feel like I kind of have this… I started my business when I was kind of in this world of one foot in this kind of super hardcore activist world, with all these people who have been activists since they were teenagers. Everyone had been arrested and maced at some point. And then the other foot in this world of yogis and life coaches. I think up until 2016, I felt very frustrated because I felt like a lot of them were like, ‘Well, self-care is the number one most important thing’. And I’m like, yes and we have to reach a hand back and help people. And then Brexit happened and Trump happened, and suddenly everyone was like, ‘Maybe there’s something else that we need to be doing in recognizing our privilege’. Me too, ten years ago I didn’t. I read celebrity magazines and thought generally good things happen to good people. And so, I felt like for a long time, I was like, I want these people to wake up. And now I think everybody is waking up but some people still are shying away from it and I think it’s showing people that you can engage with this stuff and it doesn’t have to, you don’t have to be out on a march every single day. And you don’t have to be throwing eggs at Doug Ford’s house – although if you want to do that…
Sharlene: You didn’t hear it here.
Marsha: Yeah, you didn’t hear it here. Oh my god, if that actually happens then delete – I mean, whatever – I don’t think he’d come after me.
Sharlene: No, we’re not ashamed.
Marsha: Yeah, I’m not ashamed. I hate Doug Ford. Yeah. So, I think that stuff’s important and I want people to tell stories. I run a storytelling show in Toronto and just after – I can’t remember, I think it was early 2017 and it was just after Trump had been inaugurated and we were still having the Brexit fallout and I felt so deeply and I think I’d been to two Muslim band marches in a week and was feeling like my choices were either engage with it and fall down a hole of despair or turn away from it. And that to me, felt morally corrupt. And then we had the storytelling show and at this moment I was thinking, there’s this third thing we can do which is just profoundly connect with each other and remember the human goodness in people and remember our…like that Mary Oliver poem, where she says “Just let the soft animal of your body want what it wants”, and remember we’re just soft animals and we can love each other’s soft animalness. And so, I think that’s another important part of storytelling is sometimes it’s about spreading the word of activism; sometimes it’s about increasing empathy and reducing shame. And sometimes it’s just about having some goodness in the world that is outside of that world of politics or not politics.
Sharlene: Do you have any tips on how to increase empathy and decrease shame?
Marsha: This is like no other interview I’ve ever done. This is so fun. I think tips on increasing empathy is just engaging with people outside of your realm of experience. I don’t know. I mean – that’s a really hard question. That’s a really good question. Increasing empathy – I think honestly, one thing that I find really helps me is reading stories. Like Humans of New York, I think does such an amazing service because it tells all of these stories of these very, very different people. And now, of course he travels around the world so you get to hear these stories from completely different cultures and you get to read about someone’s experience during the Rwandan Genocide. I probably would never meet anybody who I would get that story one-on-one from, but it gives me this understanding. And I think when a story is told well and he elicits very well-told stories from his interviewees, you can find an emotional connection to it. So, no, I have never with such privilege and luck, have never been in a genocide but I know how it feels to be scared. So, when they talk about being scared, I can relate to that. I know how it feels to miss someone, so when they talk about missing someone, I can relate to that. And so, I really think that stories are the key to growing empathy, or using emotion in your stories or reading stories that have emotion in them are kind of the key to growing empathy. And I think the more you can experience that sort of thing, then the more likely you’ll be able to do that. And then decreasing shame, I mean I started a whole Facebook group to exactly do this, which is called “I don’t have my ish together either”, where we all post things that we’re genuinely a bit ashamed of that make us feel like we don’t have our ish together. And I think that’s a big thing with decreasing shame. It’s just talking to people and finding out the… it’s like, no one’s going to admit to you that they don’t have it together if you’re not admitting that you don’t. If you’re just always talking about how perfect your life is, people are going to be too afraid to say, well my life isn’t perfect because then I think you’re going to judge them. So, I think find spaces – and sometimes, it’s not safe to say, I don’t have this together, I don’t have that together because people will judge you or be harsh which usually says a lot more about them than you. So, find safe spaces to be able to talk about what isn’t together for you and then hopefully, other people will be able to talk about that. I’m pitching a book on “I don’t have my ish together either” or whatever. It’s about a movement that’s a bit grandiose, but on the concept, and one of the chapters is going to be how people can create the scenario in their lives but I haven’t written that chapter yet. So, in the meantime, if you’re on Facebook, joining the group is one way to do it. You could start your own thread. You can just come into the group and literally copy-paste what I write every week and just put that on your own Facebook group, Facebook page, just with your friends; which is basically saying once a week let’s talk about one thing that makes us feel like we don’t have our ish together. That’s what I would suggest. And also, really understand that nobody else is perfect, really trying to understand that it’s hard.
Sharlene: Very true. So, we’ve been talking about shame for a bit. Do you have a definition of shame?
Marsha: This is so good. I’m really enjoying this. You’re already pushing me. I love doing podcast interviews, but I’m often saying the same things in all of them. So, it’s really fun to talk about something so different and so challenging. Definition of shame, I think shame is – here’s a very specific one. I think shame for me is when I feel like I’m rotten, like I feel like a rotting wound or something, that people would look at you and be like ‘Ewww’. They would kind of flinch; if they really knew what was going on, they would flinch if they looked at you. And I think that’s what shame is, it’s the feeling that that’s true of yourself and there’s something inherently broken or rotten about you. And you have to cover it up by taking 50 selfies to just put the one perfect one on Instagram. And I’m not saying I don’t do this. I’m saying I do, do this because I’m so comfortable with this definition. But yeah, I think that’s what it is. I think it’s worrying that there’s something inherently worrying or rotten about you. It’s unfixable and people will flinch away from.
Sharlene: But we all feel it, so it’s all good.
Marsha: Yeah, but it’s hard right? I teach this stuff because I need to hear it. I still fall prey to this. I still go on social media and assume – I remember this friend of mine, a few years ago, was in a relationship. And they would post all these pictures on Instagram and it didn’t hurt that they both were like eye bleedingly good-looking. And at the time I was having a really hard time in that relationship that I was in. And I would look at them and I would be like, I swear, I’d be like ‘You f-ers’. I love you and I want you to be happy only but I also kind of was like, ‘Damn’. And I saw the friend and I was like, oh blah blah. And he was like, ‘Oh, we broke up’. I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ And then of course we talked, and it turned out there was all this stuff going on behind the scenes and I didn’t know because they don’t post that on the selfies. And I still, years into – I’ve been doing ‘I don’t have my ish together’ for three years I think and I still do it every week because I need it so badly. And so, it’s really – we can say, Facebook is just a highlights reel, but it doesn’t make us not get sucked into it. And I think it’s like, you know we are influenced by the media in the ways that we’re all systematically racist and homophobic and misogynists. And the media doesn’t help that because the media is full of white, straight mostly men. So, it’s feeding our brains to be like, this is normal. Kids’ books, apparently kids from the age of I think 5 already start thinking that boys are smarter than girls. I met a lady who told me all these facts. And children’s books, I think this is in the U.S., 97% of children’s books have a male protagonist. And I didn’t believe that until I had a baby and I started realizing that it was true. The little caterpillar is a man. The little gorilla is a boy – not a man, a boy, whatever. But you know what I mean, he’s male. The little gorilla is ‘he’. And I said, what should we do about it? She said, when you read to kids, switch the genders. So, that’s what I do. And also, as a lesbian parent, I’m like, little gorilla – her mother loved her, her other mother loved her, her aunts and uncles and enbies loved her. But that kind of thing gently, gently feeds in so of course, little kids think that boys are smarter than girls because boys get to do all of the things. And so, in the same way, if we can say to ourselves our Facebook is just someone’s highlight reel, but then if we looked through Facebook and it’s all perfect, of course on a subconscious level, we’re going to be like everybody else. Life is perfect because that’s what I’m seeing. And so, it’s really hard to avoid this stuff. I feel like we actively have to work at it in the ways that I’m trying to do that in terms of racism and ableism by following lots of people on Instagram who are people of color and people with disabilities, and people who are different from me, to just get them into my eyeballs to be like, this is the world, not the media- presented world.
Sharlene: You mentioned safety earlier. How can you create safety to tell your story in a stressful environment? And secondly, how can we maintain a balance between authenticity and vulnerability, and boundaries?
Marsha: Okay, so the first thing I would say is when you’re telling any story publicly, whether it’s standing up in front of a room of ten people or on your blog or whatever, then you have to have emotional distance from it because your audience has to feel safe. It’s one thing telling your story to your best friend, of course you can fall apart on him or her, or a family member or whatever. But if it’s any kind of audience, your audience has to feel safe so you have to have emotional distance. You can be emotionally affected by it, but we need to know that you’re not going to have a breakdown. Otherwise, we’re not going to be safe. And so, first of all, that safety is your concern. It’s something you need to take care of. It’s not about other people taking care of it. Equally, you can tell a room full of strangers if it’s a 12-step – I mean, a story that’s affecting you and you’re not emotionally distanced from it if you’re in a 12-step meeting. That might be a place because you know the confines of that where it is okay and that the audience isn’t going to feel unsafe because it’s this very organized, safe container. But generally, if you’re telling it for any kind of entertainment, you must have emotional distance from it. And in terms of telling a story in a stressful environment or feeling safe, so that thing, number one is to make sure that you’re okay with it. And secondly, read the room. I do a lot of corporate workshops teaching storytelling and there are stories I don’t tell in those corporate workshops because I know that they would find them too personal and they wouldn’t feel safe. But then I’ll do a workshop at World Domination Summit and I’ll tell that story because I know that those people are like a bunch of mostly personal development people who can hold space for me as we say in the self-development world. And so, I can be more vulnerable then. At my storytelling show, people get super vulnerable because they know it’s a safe environment, because they make this really big deal at the beginning about making sure that nobody talks and encouraging them to shush each other. I’ve never had to throw anyone out, but I would. I almost did once because the people told me to throw him out because that would make the person on stage not feel safe. And so, read the environment and then alter your story accordingly.
Sharlene: But what if you read the environment wrong? How would you adjust?
Marsha: People will always follow your physical cues and that’s what they’ll believe. So, act as if you’re totally comfortable and confident. I once did a workshop for a corporate group and this was very early on and I told a story that I didn’t think was too personal, but they were like, ‘Woah’. So, I just acted like I totally meant it and I was totally comfortable with it. And then they kind of get confident off your confidence. They’re like, oh I guess she meant to do that, even though inside I was like, “Oh god what have I done”. And in terms of your second question around authenticity and vulnerability, generally, I feel like there’s an extent to which you’re being vulnerable, if you’re being authentic, you’re being vulnerable. Don’t be like, ‘Oh, and then this terrible thing happened to me’ if it didn’t happen to you. But there’s another kind of aspect of safety where sometimes there are other people involved in the story and you don’t necessarily want to throw them under the bus. You might want to tell a story about a hard time that you had in a marriage, but you still have to co-parent with that person. So, you’re not going to tell it publicly. And so, in that case, I think it’s okay to bend the truth in some ways as long as you keep the emotional truth the same. So, maybe you’ll say you were going through a stressful time at work and when it was actually in your marriage. Maybe you say you’re going through a stressful time with a friend of yours, with a best friend or something. But the emotional truth is the same, the way that you emotionally responded is the same. That’s where the authenticity happens. You change some of the identifying details, that’s okay, again in a story because the story is a performance whether it’s written or spoken.
Sharlene: So, you mentioned it’s a performance. How important is practice to storytelling?
Marsha: I would say it’s very important. Some people can just go off the cuff and every single time it lands. I think fewer people can do that than think they could do that. And again, it depends on the environment. If you’re standing it up, if it’s a fairly informal meeting or something, you can riff a little bit. But if you’re standing up on stage in front of 1200 people, you practice. I remember when I went to – Michael Port has this amazing conference called Heroic Public Speaking Live and when I was there – Amy Port, oh it’s Michael and Amy Port, who do it together, sorry – and Amy Port did a session on rehearsal. So, it’s a big room, there are a few hundred people that are there. My guess is that most of you, sometimes you nail it and sometimes you don’t nail it. And when you’re on stage, you have a bunch of natural talent. Sometimes you’re totally brilliant, sometimes you’re not. I was like, yeah. And she went, the difference between those two is practice and rehearsal; and it was like, goddamn. She’s hardcore. She’s like, you need to do a table read where you sit and go through and underline things in the way that you’re saying them. And then you need to do it in front of three friends, and then you need to do it in front of 20 people. And then you need to do it in front of 50 people, and then you need to do a dress rehearsal. And then, maybe then, you’re ready. But definitely don’t be afraid to practice – and practicing doesn’t have to mean in front of people. Practicing can mean alone in your bedroom. You just need to make sure if you were saying the story out loud, that you practice that out loud because it’s very different to reading it in your head.
Sharlene: Good point. So now, you’ve worked with hundreds – is that correct – hundreds of clients on how to become better story tellers?
Marsha: Wait, can I say one more thing about practicing? I’m sorry.
Sharlene: Of course. Go ahead.
Marsha: One thing about practicing is like, there’s a big myth that people who are really good storytellers, it always just falls out of their mouth. But most of us, and if I may include myself in that thing, most of us figure out at a pretty young age that when we tell a story and everybody listens, then that makes us feel like we’re inherently lovable or worthy or something. And so, we practice as we’re walking around. I think in stories you and I have this, and I’ll walk off and I’ll think about how I would tell someone about this interview. And so, don’t think that we’re not practicing. We might not always be conscious of it, but as we’re walking around, we’re constantly refining and refining. Anyway, sorry, what were you just saying?
Sharlene: That’s interesting. So, it’s like become a habit to you?
Marsha: Yeah, totally.
Sharlene: So, I was going to ask how has improving their storytelling skills, honing it, help their businesses if they own businesses?
Marsha: It’s huge because – Kendrick Shope, who’s my sales coach, who taught me, who took me from having no idea how to sell to now being someone who teaches sales – one of the things she always says – excuse my impression of a deep Southern accent – she says, “All things being equal, friends buy from friends. All things being unequal, friends buy from friends.” But when you’re selling to someone, generally they’re not a friend necessarily, especially if you are doing it online. You’re having to speak to hundreds or hundreds of thousands, or sometimes millions of people. And you’re having to try and make a personal connection with each one. An easy-peasy way to do that is to tell a story. When we tell stories, that’s generally how we bond with people; when we meet them, we swap stories. When you tell a story well, which is to say you have tension in it, which is to say you have emotion in it, then people’s brains release dopamine (reward) and also oxytocin (bonding and trust), so they trust you more. Again, you need trust in order to be able to sell and I feel like especially for – I work with a lot of speakers and I work with, in terms of the individuals, I work with people who often have personality-based businesses. So, they’re doing some kind of service or they’re selling courses, but you’re kind of buying into the person, brand Marsha, as much as you’re buying into whatever it is you’re buying. Then, it’s important that people feel like they’re friends and feel comfortable with them and storytelling does that.
Sharlene: So, what holds people back from sharing their stories?
Marsha: I think people think that they don’t have any good stories. I think people think that their stories have to be really exciting in terms of narrative. They don’t. Really good storytelling is all about small little moments. And actually, the more relatable your story is, the more – they did a study recently where they asked people, they basically rated where the people enjoyed hearing new information or hearing about something they already knew, that they were already familiar with. And people prefer the thing that they’re familiar with. You would assume that people prefer hearing novel information, but actually people prefer the thing that they’re familiar with. So, you can tell a cool story about when you jumped over a bear pit and ran away from the FBI or you can tell a story about some small experience you had where I’m like, “Oh my god, I had the same experience”, and it feels really good to me and you tell me that I’m not alone if it’s anything where I might feel shame, for example. And so, first of all, I think they don’t have enough good stories. Secondly, I think people often get bogged down in the details and they don’t know how to edit down their stories. The way to do that is to think, what am I trying to get across and then do I need – look at every piece of this story and think, do I need that to be in there? And sometimes cutting out things that happen – I think often people think storytelling is like telling entire true facts. We edit every story because otherwise, even just the story of the last ten minutes would be, if we didn’t edit it, I’d be like, “I was sitting there. She had a screen. She had a microphone. She had glasses. She had headphones and there was a red strap behind her and there was a blue wall.” That would be a banana story and it would last forever. And so, we’re already editing our stories. So, it’s okay to cut out big chunks. Maybe halfway through the story, someone skateboarded through the middle of the ice cream shop. If you don’t need that to get across what you’re trying to get across, lose the skateboard. In literature, they call it murdering your darlings because sometimes you’re like, ‘The skateboard bit is really good’, but you just have to get rid of it if you want to get across what you want to get across. So, I think it’s also editing and I then think sometimes people tell stories without any emotion, and they don’t connect. So, they’re like, I’m a bad storyteller or this isn’t going to work for me. But I think also people think that you have to be a good storyteller or you’re just a born one, and you’re not. And that’s a myth. It is a learned skill that anybody can learn. There is a set of rules. And that’s why we all have that one person who can tell any story and it’s fascinating, and we’ve all been stuck next to that person in a party who we know did something interesting, but dear god when will it end? And it’s because the first person is following the rules and the second person is not.
Sharlene: Okay, so what are these rules in ten seconds?
Marsha: Action scenes, not voiceover. Describe small moments and answer these two questions over and over again: what did it look like and how did you feel? And then you can’t go wrong.
Sharlene: What did it look and how did it feel? So, basically emotion.
Marsha: Emotion and also physical, the five senses – I mean not all five because you won’t always be like, ‘And I walked in and I had a taste in my mouth and I could smell this’. But just generally describe the room and then tell me how you felt. Describe what happened. And then what happened? And then what happened? And how did you feel? And then what happened? And then what happened? And how did you feel?
Marsha: Yeah. And stay away from commentary. Don’t tell me your philosophical opinion on what happened. Don’t tell me how this relates to all humans or relates to your life in general. Save that for the lecture.
Sharlene: A lot of people do that, though.
Marsha: Yeah. That’s a lecture. It’s not a story.
Sharlene: That’s true. Cool. I think I want to end it there, end it strong. So, yeah, just want to thank you again. Do you want to share any projects that you’re working on? And you mentioned the Facebook group, maybe you can just remind us of that and where else people can find you.
Marsha: Yes. So, I’m going to make a secret webpage that is yesyesmarsha.com/rudderplanner and on there, I will put – and you can link to that – the ‘I don’t have my ish together either’ Facebook group. I’ll put my show True Stories Toronto – I’m really bad at saying the name of my show when I talk about it. I have a monthly Q&A called Yes Yes Questions, which is just like an hour where you can jump on with me and ask me about literally anything like storytelling, networking, business, love life, family stuff, whatever you want. And I do that about once a month which I’ll link to that as well. And I’ll also put a link to – I have a series, like a little blog series, which is five blog posts on how to tell stories. They’re five really short blog posts. You read through them and you’ll have the building blocks to tell compelling stories. This has been fun and so interesting, and so not what I expected this interview to be. I love it.
Sharlene: Oh, good. I’m so glad you had so much fun. I had fun too. Thanks so much, Marsha.
Marsha: Thanks Sharlene.
Thank you for sharing your time with me and listening to LIFT. If this episode resonated with you, I’d appreciate it if you would take a moment to leave a review. That way, more people can discover this resource, and together, we can accelerate good change in the world. Thanks so much. Until next time.