The day I went to prison started like most other days–well, actually, maybe not.
Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility is a men’s prison east of San Diego, and the closeness creates a sharp contrast between the two. The inmate acting as master of ceremonies announced to the TEDx visitors, “You are all now official members of this lovely gated community.”
The inmates, many of whom had not spoken to anyone other than fellow inmates and guards since their incarceration, smiled warmly at the TEDx audience as the members entered the chow hall. The inmates, wearing their finest blues, were genuinely happy to see the incoming crowd.
A three-piece orchestra played for the audience before the speakers came out. One prisoner serving a life sentence had never heard live music before. “It sounds like birds and angels,” he said.
I sat in the audience nervously awaiting the TEDx in a row of seats other inmates. And as we spoke to each other, I was struck with the overwhelming feeling that despite our many differences, these men and I were very much the same.
Barry, who sat next to me, told me that all he wants to do when he gets out in four years is help people. He planned to sit on the side of the road and change flat tires for folks driving by. My other neighbor sitting to my left asked me, quite casually, if I was familiar with the works of Brene Brown and thanked me for swapping salad recipes and simply making him “feel human.”
Here are some of the lessons that their stories taught me. As a human. As a TEDx speaker coach. And as a firm believer in the power of human connection.
Connect With Your Audience
Raised on a farm, Lionell watched his father slaughter rabbits. His father would beat him with a bull whip when he “misbehaved,” and Lionell’s only comfort was the farm’s pony.
When Lionell watched his father kill rabbits, he felt joy that he felt something about the death of the rabbits–an intense sadness–like his father didn’t feel. One night, he found a wild rabbit that was sick and lethargic. The rabbit trusted him, but Lionell’s father made him keep it outside in a storm that night. The rabbit didn’t survive.
In prison, Lionell succumbed to Valley fever. For seven days, he had nurses checking on him every 15 minutes, it was the first time since his childhood animals that he felt love.
“It’s not the medicine but the love that healed me,” Lionell told us.
Lionell’s story tells us the importance of human connection, how much of a difference it makes. Connect with your audience. Share a personal experience–your audience will empathize and remember it and you.
Connect With Yourself
When Stephen stepped out on the makeshift stage, he confided in us: “A few moments before this, I wasn’t even sure if I could do it.”
Incarcerated without parole when he was only 19, Stephen soon felt listless and purposeless. He couldn’t contribute positively to society from inside. Or so he thought.
Stephen decided to make a plan. He wanted to go from an observer to a participant in his own life. All of his time went to reading and bettering himself. Today, he’s two classes away from his fourth AA degree and helps other inmates to reach their own educational goals.
What does Stephen’s story teach us? Be vulnerable yourself. Put yourself out there. Brene Brown’s TED Talk about the power of vulnerability discusses how shame underpins disconnection. “When asked about connection,” Brown says of her research subject interviews, “[people] told me about disconnection.”
Shame of vulnerability separates you from your audience and yourself. Accept vulnerability and use it to connect. Your audience will empathize.
Connect With Your Message
John knew exactly what he wanted to tell us: He had a German dad and a Mexican mother, and his dad hated his mom for being Mexican. Stereotypes and misconceptions from this simple fact caused his life to unravel.
John joined a gang to find a sense of self, of unity, that was missing from his upbringing. But it wasn’t until prison that he began to look underneath stereotypes for commonalities. For the first time, he could really see people.
“I’m nervous,” John began, “because I’ve never spoken to a group of positive people before. People in prison want others to hurt because they hurt.”
For John, his message transcended his nervousness. Like Monica Lewinsky’s strategy for overcoming her nerves during her TED Talk, John knew he had to say was more important than the fear he was feeling.
Once you connect with and believe in your own message, the resolve to spread that message will quell any nerves you have.