Communication Breakdown in the Windy City

Image courtesy of  Story

Image courtesy of Story


Last week we got schooled.

We travelled down to Chicago for a few days to attend Story, a conference designed to fuel creatives by providing an environment where leaders from various creative industries can inspire them. The conference is built to give creatives and entrepreneurs an inspirational Molotov cocktail, blowing their minds repeatedly with presentations and performances that deliver a single overarching message - go and create something.

We had an absolute blast enjoying the music, movies, beatboxing (you read that right) and presentations by some of the most creative minds on the planet. We learned some great stuff from representatives of Nike, charity: water, Cirque du Soleil, and Google. But then, something unexpected happened.

There were some presentations that straight up sucked.

It was strange. I mean, you’re talking about world-class creatives from Pixar, Hollywood productions like Amber Alert, and serious retailers like Fruition and UNKNWN. They took to the stage and just, well, failed in an epic way. I don’t know how else to put it. They stunk. They delivered nothing of value. Nothing to ponder, no great insights, not even any good quotes. That’s not entirely true, there were a few ridiculous things. For example, one presenter declared that his goal was to “perform surgery on my mind state.” Another grumpily asked an audience member, “Why are you raising your hand?” Good stuff.

We left those sessions disappointed and, honestly, a bit upset. At first it seemed like we wasted an entire afternoon. Our inspiration gauge was getting pulled back towards empty. But by the time we got to dinner, we started to have a different take on those sessions. It was obvious as we did our own debrief that there was a pattern at work. The sessions that were successful had a narrative. The ones that sucked did not.

Could it really be that simple? We went back through our notes and replayed the sessions in our minds over some Giordano’s stuffed pizza, which helped take the edge off. As we talked, it became painfully clear that having a narrative, supplementing its main points with stories that brought the points to life, was THE difference between having an audience hanging on your every word, or having them hanging on every text message or Twitter update that came across their phones.

It galvanized our belief in what we’re doing for brands and organizations, helping them identify their authentic stories and articulate them in ways that connect emotionally with their own members or employees, and with their customers and communities. Storytelling matters. Narrative matters. They make it possible to grab someone’s attention long enough present some important dots, and then connect them. That’s what gets people thinking. That’s what gets them feeling. Moving from the head to the heart, that’s what sticks with people.

Lesson learned, bad presenters. Thank you for that.

So if you find yourself making a presentation, a pitch, a speech, having a conversation, basically any situation where you’re trying to communicate something that you want to stick with your audience, just remember a few key lessons taught through the successes and failures of some of our most creative people:

  • Tell stories, don’t just make statements. The stories back up your points and make them real for your audience.

  • Create an environment for your audience. Your narrative and stories create a mental place where your audience joins you, making it more likely that they’ll feel something about what you’re saying.

  • Use your stories to make your content emotionally relevant. Move your message from head to heart. Really engage your audience to make your content sticky.

  • Be aware of your environment and your audience. Don’t get so focused on your message that you stop paying attention to how your audience is reacting. Gauge whether they’re connecting with your message or not. Gauge your pace, and whether you should be giving more or less detail. And for goodness sake, if they’re all looking at their phones, consider wrapping it up.

  • Lastly, be prepared. Go overboard to make sure you’re presenting ideas in an organized, logical progression. Build your narrative in a way that walks your audience from start to epiphany without making them do the heavy lifting. That’s your job. Preparation will create confidence, which helps you sell your message.


In retrospect, it looks like those fantastically poor presentations taught us something after all. And if this post saves just one person from mind-state surgery, then I guess we’ve done some good. Happy storytelling everyone.