155 MMM: 10 Important Speaking Lessons from STORY 2017


Last week I had the great privilege of being a part of STORY Gathering 2017 – a gathering of creatives from a wide breadth of industries, brought together by one thing: story.

I attended last year – and it was two days jam-packed with inspiration. Powerful speakers, moving music, thoughtful breakouts – and so. many. amazing. people. I was jazzed! From there, I got to interview a few of those amazing people on my show, including Brad MontagueJason Jaggard, and Harris III.

But this year they asked me to take part. So, off I went – to Nashville – and two full days of ideas, inspiration and connections. To make the most of this experience, I wanted to jot down the best of what I'm taking with me – and wanted to share with you, in case there holds some wisdom for you as well.

Top 10 Lessons From STORY

#1: Make it an experience for the senses.

From the look of the program book, to the circus performers, to the walk-through mall, to the event space and creative activities for the participants between sessions… this event took its title, “A Carnival of Curiosities” seriously! (How many events have a dancer with a snake on them in the lobby? whoa.)

#2: Make it Interactive.

I love that Harris III and the team at STORY don't treat this as a passive experience. Yes, many of the sessions happen from the main stage, and we sit in the audience and take it in. But many of the speakers took every opportunity to make it interactive.

Here's a snapshot I took, as instructed by the Humanitarian Photographer Esther Havens during her keynote, to demonstrate how our photos (and our stories) are better when we first connect with the people we're talking about. (Turns out, I was photographing the lovely Bethany Haley Williams from Exile International, who spoke later!)

There were performers in the audience, art therapy, donut decorating, and sing-alongs… They brought the experience TO us.


#3: Your keynote speakers don't need to be speakers.

One of the most beautiful parts of the event – a part that took my by surprise – was a talk by the incredibly talented Miss Aniela. Her photography is poetry and mystery and art, all baked into one – so it made sense to me that her talk was a timed piece of prose to scrolling, Ken Burns-like animation on her slides, highlighting her photography. It was poetry. She stood there, holding her notes, reading off her paper – and yet, it was riveting.

I like it when we break the mold, and surprise the audience. It was exactly right for Miss Aniela, which made it exactly right. I appreciate that the qualifications for getting on stage aren't that you're the best speaker ever… it's that you have something unique and powerful to say, and plan on saying it in a unique and powerful way.

#4: Brave is compelling.

Another favorite moment was when Mackenzie Huyhn from Pinterest got up to speak. She stood behind a podium and talked about her internal critic, “Amber.” She brought vulnerability AND power to her talk – even admitting at one point that this was her first public speech. We applauded – because it was SO GOOD ANYWAY.

Someone asked me in my workshop why that was ok – to admit that it's your first talk? Doesn't seem wise, they said. Well, it worked because she was holding her own. It surprised us. Not that you have to be killing it – but if it's not going well and you are explaining your awkwardness or mishaps on your nerves (“Sorry, I'm nervous…”) … well, then we just feel nervous for you. And then it gets awkward. But if you are being BRAVE – we can cheer you on.

Mackenzie was being brave, and we cheered.

#5: Music!

I love music! It was one of my favorite elements last year – which is funny, because I'm a speaking coach, not a musician. But maybe that's why. To be enveloped into a genre that you don't normally envelop yourself in was soothing, transformative, beautiful. And this year I felt the same thing:

Liz Vice! She is a powerhouse. I loved that she sang barefoot, cause that's how it felt: grounded. One of my favorite moments.

#6: Closing with the start.

I like book-ending things. It feels intentional, comforting, guided – and helps close the loop on the emotional ride that you take over two intense days. So I loved it that Harris brought Brad – who started the event – back on stage to end the experience. It left me feeling warm, and loved. Which is not a typical feeling at a conference, but that's why I love it so much.

#7: We are still thinking too small.

One of my favorite thinkers on the topic of creative leadership is Jason Jaggard. I've had him on the show, and if I could follow him around and just listen to him challenge and enlighten people, I would – cause he's reallllyyyy good at it. And this is why I come to this event: to be challenged to be better.

The gist of Jason's message is – again and again: we are capable of so much more than we think. 

“What would you do that makes failing worth it?”

“…Comfort is insidious. It is often a conflict of two legitimate values; so we need to value challenge more than comfort. ”

…If we want to be extraordinary… we have to grapple with the fact that we are deceiving ourselves.”

TRUTHS. Love it. We gotta think and do bigger.


#8: Create to keep your audience wondering...

One of the things I love about this event/conference/non-conference-conference is that it's artistically and beautifully produced. As a former actor (and that description might be stretching it), I so appreciate a thoughtful transition, the well-timed lights-up or down, the intentional flow from piece to piece. It's a show as much as anything else. It kept me excited to see what was next, because there was just enough unpredictable to keep me curious and excited… And I love that!

And Harris III, the creator of this event?  – He deserves HUGE kudos for continually pushing the creative boundaries, thoughtfully interviewing people, pulling together a diverse group of minds and hearts, and pouring so much of himself and his ideas into this event that runs so smoothly. Really amazing.

#9: Being a part of it is a privilege.

I was so jazzed to be a part of the experience this year. And truly, the role I played was a small one – a breakout session in the afternoon of day 2. And yet – I felt welcomed in by the STORY crew with open arms. I had a go-to awesome-sauce helper named Erin. And I got to sit down at a fancy dinner and talk with incredibly talented gurus and get inspired and laugh and eat amazing food. I got to bring home the coolest swag! (Salt & Pepper Chocolate? YUM.)

I was feeling nervous for my breakout session. So nervous that after getting there early and getting all set up, I forgot to plug in the stick for my remote. WHOOPS. It wasn't a perfect workshop – but I don't do perfect, and neither should anyone else. I go for connection, and I think and hope I created that in the room. A packed room! Which fueled me and challenged me, and I'm grateful.

That's really the point: that I felt challenged to step up. When you are surrounded by incredible talent – it challenges you in the best of ways.

#10: The people, their passions - and the wisdom I'm taking from them.

I met some amazing people at STORY – who each brought a different passion and idea and inspiration to this event.

From Brad Montague, creator of Kid President, who brought a song to life for a sweet old lady who's dream it was to sing at the Orchestra! She did it! Sing on, Little Birds!

From Matt Luhn, Story consultant and creator of many of Pixar's best stories, who reminded us that story's job is to “make people feel something.” And to “be wrong as fast as you can!” Couldn't agree more.

From John Bucher, writer and futurist, who laid out a bold vision for all storytellers to “wake up” and befriend the Monsters! (Later, John joined me for my workshop – and let me coach him, live. I love him forever now, cause that is COURAGE.)

And Amber Rae, author and coach, reminded us to choose Wonder over Worry – and Gillian Ferrabee of Cirque Du Soleil, whose comfort on stage brought this breath of fresh air. She was so unabashedly real. And then she went on to WOW US with her practical advice about how to conquer our fears.

We got to meet:

Branden Harvey, the creator of GoodNewsPaper (and host of the podcast Sounds Good)- in his quest to bring more good news and positivity to the world. He reminded us that if we can find time to celebrate for 10 seconds, it can change our outlook on the world. I love that!

I got to sit next to Amena Brown at dinner, after being blown away by her poetry and talk earlier in the day. POWER and elegance! All I wrote down in my notes was “wow.” <3

I was inspired by AJ Hassan, the woman behind the #LikeAGirl campaign (lovelovelove), and who knocked down the myth that if we want to sell things we can't also tell stories. She has done both, and well. She is soooo right!

We got to see poetry come alive by the talented Danielle Bennett, and have sit-down chat with Lori McCreary, one of the producers of my favorite show, Madam Secretary. (And she hangs out with THE Morgan Freeman…like you do.)

Louis Richardson, Chief Storyteller (that's a thing? awesome) from IBM, reminded us of the hairy furball of the corporate world, and how we as creatives – if we want to impact and accelerate our organizations – need to orbit around that mess, rather than get knee-deep into it. I really liked this talk – it was simple and clear and well-done.

Antoinette Carroll from Creative Reaction Lab – activist and storyteller – compelled us to use our voice, and asked each of us to define for ourselves our mission. And then Rich Correll – the creator and director of basically every awesome childhood family show – told stories for 20 minutes of growing up next door to the stars in Hollywood. Judy Garland sang to him over crackers one day while he was there for a play date. Wha? I know.

Steve Spiegel from Disney Imagineering reminded us all that “It's kind of fun to do the impossible” – and then sat in a impromptu writer's room on the stage with Jim Krueger from Marvel Entertainment, while they took ideas from the audience and created a story in the moment. So challenging – and so awesome.

There's more, but I think this captures enough of the magic – the Carnival of Curiosities!


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