What Storytelling Does to Your Brain

The word ‘storytelling’ automatically conjures childhood memories: listening intently as grown-ups read us stories and sharing tall tales and jokes with other kids on the playground. ‘Story’, however, doesn’t necessarily mean ‘fiction’; it means ‘narrative’: weaving connected events together in a way that makes an impact with the listener or reader.

Author Ann Handley describes it best in her book Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content: “it’s not so much ‘storytelling’ as it is ‘telling true stories well’”. Choosing your words wisely to tell a relatable, impactful story is undeniably an art, but is there science involved in storytelling as well?

When we sit through a boring slideshow presentation filled with data points, only certain parts of our brains are activated. But when we listen to a story full of descriptive language, powerful metaphors, and personal details, it actually activates our entire brain. Because our minds think in narratives and cause-and-effect relationships constantly, when we hear a story, we associate the information being delivered with our own experiences, thus making it more memorable—and easier to recall later.

The field of marketing should be taking notes on the science of storytelling. Austin-based media and technology guru Paul O’Brien recently shared his thoughts on the topic at a Marketing for Startups event in October, opining that “the ultimate goal of marketing is to make the sales department obsolete”. He pointed to the strength of brands like Apple and Yeti where customers are the brand, lining up for the release of new products and proudly emblazon their cars and clothing with their logos. Because the stories behind these two brands are so strong, the products sell themselves: marketing has replaced sales.

When we tell our own stories, whether it’s the story behind our company, our upbringing, or our everyday lives, it is imperative to remember that our story (and thus our truth) is wholly unique. Telling our story in an authentic way is what makes us memorable.

Remember: it’s your story and people need to hear it!

(And the story behind the photo on this post is simple but sweet: when we got married earlier this year, my husband and I took photos at my favorite place in Austin, Big Top Candy Shop. The colors of the candy, the placement of the bouquet… it tells the story of our wedding in one snapshot. Chelsea Francis took our photos, and I cannot recommend her enough!)

Where I Learned to Be a Public Speaker

We’ve all heard it said: humans’ top three biggest fears are death, loneliness, and public speaking.

Public speaking? On the same list as death?

The thing is, public speaking can be very scary. The prospect of standing on a stage for the world to see and hear us (and judge us) is unnerving at the very least. But as is the case with most everything, practice and repetition makes us better, and public speaking is certainly no exception.

I was never taught the basics of public speaking before I was thrown into the fire to just do it. I shed my fear of speaking in front of a crowd during my years of employee benefits consulting: before my tenure at AmeriBen/IEC Group, I didn’t have any exposure to public speaking aside from school projects. During my time there, I joined Toastmasters and had the opportunity to present at company all-hands meetings. Part of my job was to lead benefits open enrollment meetings for groups of employees from a wide range of industries. I was hired for my Spanish-speaking skills, and I would present in both English and in Spanish: after using all my available brain space to do a presentation in a non-native language, I remember being so relieved to present in English that the nerves were no longer there!

Since my days of leading benefits presentations, I’ve sought out opportunities for public speaking. My last corporate role with Oracle was giving software demos and presentations full-time. I’ve done improv and performed at storytelling venues in Austin. My friend Talan of PitchATX (who was a nationally-ranked college speech competitor!) and I co-led a workshop back in September on brand storytelling that was a ton of fun.

I learned public speaking through trial and error; through practice, and through creating opportunities to present to a group. Public speaking is a skill just like anything else, and knowing how to practice—along with a few key tricks for memorization and non-verbal communication tactics—is the secret to success.

Have a speech or presentation coming up that you need to nail? I can help with that! Reach out and let’s work together to craft a story that gives you the confidence to land the sale, get the promotion, and leave the audience wanting more.

When to Use Humor in Writing

This weekend, I was in Los Angeles for a live show of a podcast I listen to regularly. The podcast, ominously titled We’ll See You in Hell, is a joint project by television writer and showrunner Patrick Walsh and stand-up comedian and writer Joe DeRosa. The two have earned a cult following and have released over 100 episodes (and spawned a short-lived ‘inspired by’ project of my own). Humor is front and center in both of their careers, and it’s also a vehicle for discussion on not-so-funny topics on their show, including #metoo-era Hollywood and present-day politics.

When it comes to writing and communication, are there rules for getting laughs? In her book The Byline Bible, Susan Shapiro advocates for humor in all writing. She advises to bring levity to everything you write: “I attempt to work wit into everything, whether it’s wedding toasts, service pieces, seminar introductions, or book subtitles, like my memoir Lighting Up: How I Stopped Smoking, Drinking, and Everything Else I Loved in Life Except Sex.”

Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule. Cracking jokes at a state funeral would likely go over like a lead balloon, and your boss may not appreciate a perfectly timed “that’s what she said” in a business meeting. Personally, I like to employ humor in my writing at every opportunity. I’ve found that people quickly forget facts and figures you throw at them, but will often remember lurid details from a personal story.

This phenomenon is also backed up by science: at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Christine O’Connell studies how storytelling can make data more memorable. When communicating technical information with many data points and scientific concepts, how do you get people to care, much less remember what you present? Knowing one’s audience and goals (and harnessing the power of a great story) makes for effective communication—and compelling science.

When do you bring the funny in communication? Early and often. Using empathy and getting personal helps to form a bond between the speaker and the audience (or the author and the reader) and creates a sense of intimacy and personalization. As I’ve learned from years of podcast fandom, vulnerability and humor disarm your audience and endear you to your listeners or readers. Telling personal stories (and being willing to laugh at yourself) actually help to establish credibility—and get the audience on your side.

So tell the joke. Use the story. It may be the only thing that people remember, so make sure they remember you.

Why I'm a Writer

“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live.” -Anaïs Nin

I started a blog in 2009 because I had to. That was how it felt at the time, anyway: I’d just seen the movie Julie and Julia, in which the main character blogs her way through Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Though complex recipes didn’t interest me in the slightest, writing for pleasure was something I hadn’t done in years, and my blog was born.

The blog was an escape from my job, where I never felt like I could truly be myself. My buttoned-up professional life left me feeling like a fraud: although I had a career that was good on paper, it never felt like a good fit, nor did it ever feel like a good use of my talents. For years, I faithfully adhered to the futile notion that if I just kept pretending hard enough, satisfaction with work would eventually follow.

When I made the decision to leave the corporate world and strike out on my own, it was partially out of necessity. Years of working in human resources taught me about resume bots and recruiting practices: if I wanted to find a job elsewhere as a copywriter or content manager, it was going to prove nigh on impossible if I’d never held a position with that specific title. So I decided to strike out on my own: to write on my terms, and work for the people I want to work for. Purpose-driven work is eclipsing pay as the number-one factor that people look for in an employer, and the exploding gig economy is a reflection of this phenomenon.

The truth is, everybody is a writer. We all express ourselves through writing every day: through text messages, e-mails, and Instagram captions. Writing is a skill that each of us can get better at through practice and through reading lots of different kinds of writing. Reading, thinking, learning, and writing are all part of a continual process that we all participate in on some level, and it’s a skill that everyone can improve upon.

I’m a writer because it’s who I am. I write because I have to; not to fulfill any external expectation or because someone told me to. And that’s how I know I may have found my calling.

How to Write a Killer Bio

When I talk with people about ways they can strengthen their own writing, one of the things I’m asked the most is how to write a great bio. How do you write about yourself in a way that’s personal (but not TOO personal), sings your praises (but isn’t braggy or pretentious), and effectively sells your story and experience (without seeming sales-y)?

I shared my thoughts on bios with Amy V. Cooper, photographer and owner of Trove Agency, on her blog last month. Everyone who contributed agreed that the ideal bio is both personal and accessible: it tells a story and compels the reader to want to learn more or take further action. But how do we get there? How do we elicit just the right feelings in our reader, and what specific information do we include to achieve that objective in one paragraph of text?

This past weekend, I attended the Creatives Meet Business Experience, a three-day annual conference in Austin that connects creative entrepreneurs with the skills they need to thrive, both artistically and professionally. Ghostwriter Jess Hagemann of Cider Spoon Stories led a session on architecting the perfect bio, in which she created a 150-word narrative with three essential attributes, or her ‘three Es’: educational (we learn about the subject of the bio we’re reading), entertaining (not necessarily ‘laugh out loud’ funny, but compelling), and elicits a response (a call to action for the reader).

In her session, Hagemann explored the concept of personas (the ‘who/what/where/when/why’) and cornerstones (what drives you, or your larger “why”) using Eminem as her biographical subject. The rapper’s three distinct personas (Eminem, Slim Shady and Marshall Bruce Mathers III) allow him to explore a wide range of themes, tones, and subject matter in his lyrics, and he employs each of these personas in his work.

There is also the question of first-person versus third-person perspective for a bio: should the subject be ‘I’, or ‘s/he/they’? It all depends: the purpose of the bio, or the audience who will be reading it, should determine which point of view is employed. As an example, my own LinkedIn bio is written in first person because I want the reader to feel as though I’m speaking directly to them on my page to help establish a connection. When I submit a bio to publications or any outlet outside of my own domain, it’s written in third person.

My answer for how to write a truly memorable bio? It’s that maddening cliché again: it all depends. For any bio you write, consider these three key elements:

Your audience. Who will be reading it? Is it on your own website, your employer’s website, materials for a talk you’re giving, or a quick, punchy elevator pitch on what you do? If content is king, then context is everything.

Your story. Think of a bio as a narrative: you’re guiding the reader through a short story of your background, experiences, and beliefs to invite them to learn more about who you are and what you do. Set stakes: give people a compelling reason

Your end game. What would you like to see happen after someone reads your bio? Do you want a sale? Attendance for a talk you’re giving at a conference? A click on your website? Think of your bio as an opener; it should be the start of a conversation with your reader.

In his Creatives Meet Business session, Brian Massey of Conversion Sciences implored us to not write our own copy because we’re simply too close to our own story to be able to see it clearly. When we break this rule (as everyone inevitably does), we must think like editors and copywriters ourselves.

(And if you don’t feel like editing and copywriting yourself, let me know.)

image is Amanda Palmer’s bio in her memoir, The Art of Asking

What I Learned From Collaborating With an Artist

As a writer, words are my medium. I’m comfortable reaching into my arsenal of language tools and personal experiences to paint a picture of emotions for my reader. Art is something that has always confounded me, though: with abysmally poor depth perception and zero aptitude for illustration, I'll forever be in awe of anyone who can render an idea visually in any capacity, much less create a masterpiece.

So when I approached Austin-based illustrator Corey Carbo earlier this summer about a potential collaboration, I was honestly quite nervous about the reaction I’d get. Though I admired Corey’s work and she was my first choice to illustrate this idea I’d had rattling around in my head for awhile, I didn’t know the “right” way to present my proposal: is there a checklist or a specific protocol when asking to collaborate with another creative? I certainly didn’t have one.

The idea for a not-so-judgmental map of Barton Springs came to me on one of my many visits to the Austin recreational hotspot, where summertime seems to last all year long. I wanted to somehow capture the different groups of people one encounters at Barton Springs, calling out various archetypes and personas in a fun, playful way. Corey’s style and aesthetic was the perfect fit for what I’d envisioned, and, despite what my inner cynic kept telling me she would say, she was into the project, and we set out to make the idea a reality.

In working over the course of several weeks to bring this project to life, I learned a lot about collaboration and how to effectively combine talents to create something that all parties involved can feel good about. In retrospect, there were three core principles that guided our process and helped us manage expectations along the way:

Vulnerability. Coming at a project from an authentic, vulnerable place is essential to any creative venture, particularly when working together for the first time. Though Corey and I had met before, we’d never worked together, nor had we spent any amount of time just hanging out. Choosing a collaborative partner you trust and can be yourself around is crucial to creating an end product that you can believe in.

Accountability. Corey and I have different work styles and schedules, so keeping each other informed and updated every step along the way was crucial to seeing this project through to completion. We mapped out a schedule of activities and deadlines, kept each other updated on progress and ideas, and gave each other the necessary time and space we each needed to do our thing.

Compromise. A true collaboration should reflect the inputs of all parties involved. Corey and I are two creative individuals who joined up to make something, so it stands to reason that it should reflect both of our thoughts, ideas, and personalities. While she was responsible for illustration and I did the copy, we each shared ideas and gave feedback on both aspects of the project. As this was a passion project for both of us, the creative freedom (and lack of any external pressure) helped us compromise and marry our two separate visions to create the final version together.

I recently read something powerful that a friend and fellow writer posted on social media: the crux of the message was that if you like someone’s work, you should absolutely tell them, tell others, and never shut up about it. This is how great work gets out into the world, and it’s what fuels talented people to create meaningful work that resonates with people. I had been a fan of Corey’s work, and in telling her that, she shared that the feeling was mutual, and a collaboration was born.

The main thing I've learned from working with an artist is to tell others when you like their work. Great things happen when we're encouraged and empowered to become the best version of themselves, and telling someone you like their work can open doors to amazing collaborations and lasting friendships. You are never too experienced or too old to learn something new from someone you admire.

And you’re never too cool to be a fan of someone’s work.