The next sentence comes with a warning – it’s going to be boring and slightly annoying. Here goes: I’m a dedicated yoga practitioner. On the weekend, I went to three classes – breathing, and stretching deeply, and calming my mind.

Did you want to stop reading after the first few words? Did you feel a little jacked off at the underlying smugness of my words. For the rest of you, the question that instantly popped in your mind is ‘So what?’

 Every reader has a finely tuned radar for pointless personal stories. Here’s another version of my personal story.
I write like I practice yoga. I practice yoga, mostly, when I am afraid of pain. Currently, I am in training for a seven-day yoga retreat at the end of the year, which I know will be painful unless I reboot my practice. I also write a blog every week to avoid pain. For example, not writing every week is embarrassing for a writer, especially one who advocates that her clients write consistently. If you want to write consistently, it’s worth finding your pain point. 
The difference? In the latter story, the story has a purpose — it’s to explain something about my theme — writing. It’s also real. Both are true, but in the latter I share some vulnerability about writing (and doing yoga).

The value of your personal stories

Your personal stories of vulnerability are what make audiences connect with you. But your success story is just a boring brag unless your readers learn about the nights you spent lying awake, the maxed out credit card, or the horrifying realisation of a hiring mistake that preceded your success. We all know that no-one succeeds without first failing – and if you do, we don’t want to know about it, anyway. It’s not just that we resent you for success that came without effort (although we do resent that). It is because there is nothing we can learn from your story.

When you write about your struggles, your success is implicit. Do you remember the novel, Angela’s Ashes, the memoir of Irish author Frank McCourt’s childhood? It would have been an unreadable account of heartbreak and hardship without the reassurance that the book itself provided – that McCourt survived and thrived to become a famous author. Your stories provide your readers with hope, inspiration, and practical strategies about how they can get what you have. They turn your book into a conversation, not a lecture. Furthermore, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to use your own stories. And you have an endless supply of them.

The cringe test

Do the stories you tell make you cringe with vulnerability? If not, they might be brags in disguise. They need to be about moments of real vulnerability. On the other hand, you don’t have to spill your guts. My inconsistent yoga practice and my embarrassment-driven blog are a bit personal. Of course, I’d prefer you to think that writing is unadulterated joy for me and that I do yoga every day. But what is the point of a story like that, even if it is true? So, the rule of thumb is to include personal stories, and lots of them, provided they have a strong purpose, in your book.

The story of your journey to thought leadership is a personal one, I bet. Most experts are driven by personal reasons to be experts. Experts in grief might have been through one or more terrible losses of their own; experts in vulnerability are perhaps susceptible to depression. My path into mentoring authors came after facing the fact that I did not have a future in journalism (at the pay level I wanted). I had to leave the profession I had loved so much after 16 years, and reinvent myself. In doing so, I have spent much of the past three years feeling doubt and uncertainty.

Make your personal story central to your book. But of course, with the caveats above – these stories need to be relevant to the topic, be more about your struggles and little (if any) about your triumphs – and one more: ask a trusted friend, partner or colleague to read them before you publish.

PS: Thanks (again) to Vicki, a participant at my event, How to Write an Awesome Book that Sells, for the question that sparked this blog.

PPS: Want more? You might like: Best wishes, from my email signature’ or ‘The secret to asking the right questions: Follow the story’.