How to become a stronger storyteller, speaker, and a better source of empathy to those listening

I thank 2018 a lot for new chances to launch storytelling projects so far (some in-person audience ones and some audio recordings). They are teaching me a lot, even to the degree of being a little more open and present-minded with people (which can feel pretty vulnerable sometimes!).

These recent efforts have also triggered memories for how to build confidence and skill as a speaker (…from way back yonder when I was a coach to storytellers).

Ideas that may help others that are now coming fully to mind…:

A favorite 20 minute exercise goes like this.

  1. Set a timer for 20 minutes.
  2. Then answer this question:  What five beliefs do you hold true about your business and your industry?

Reflect upon core assertions that drive you professionally. Permit the flow of ideas without judgment. Then write, write, write. Write the phrase “I believe” in front of your assertions if that helps to stimulate thought. As a raw example on my end: “I believe public speaking is a self-assertion game and a clarity game; it takes time to achieve at both.”

This exercise is a no-criticism zone.

Just write for as long as your timer ticks for at least 20 minutes. The time-constraint factor consciously or not puts the brain in production mode. The main purpose is to get out of your head, and recognize more clearly your points of view as a voice.

Also to ensure you are leading the audience to your most relevant, useful ideas when preparing content, consider this hypothetical question when organizing thoughts:

If your stage time was limited unexpectedly to 90 seconds, what would you say?

More on strengthening point of view and confidence:

Women (and certainly men too) but often women in particular lack confidence in themselves to speak in public. From my experience as a former storyteller/speaker coach — if you are unsure which stories could help explain a core idea, or if you want to emerge more trust in yourself as a public voice, these tactics could help.

There are tons of ways to test one’s voice and stories, including these favorites:

  1. joining a Toastmasters club, or
  2. starting a vlog.
  3. My really favorite option is to shape your own platform (and community) as a speaker and storyteller.

Create your own stage and assert it like there’s no tomorrow. As example, gain experience and storytelling confidence through hosting your own meet-ups.

With this meet-up idea, you can build your speaking strength from your own trusted network. Consider inviting a small trusted group at first, 15 people to a coffee shop or your office. Then lead a conversation central to your professional beliefs.

Test your point of view in a brief lightning talk, like a 10 minute presentation. Solicit feedback to improve. Learn what resonates. And even get testimonials from positive commenters (and publish them online!). Try this every four to six weeks if your schedule allows. Then evaluate your stories and ideas: what worked most?

How to befriend (and channel) the tummy butterflies before giving a talk:

Be alone and quiet. Breathe deeply a few times. Then stand in your most confident, shoulders-back stance and punch the air, like a boxer. Breathe, box, breathe, box. And finally, close your eyes; envision standing on stage and saying your first lines to the audience. In that mental moment, look ‘em in the eyes. Give and receive this attention in your mind.

Above all extend a sense of authentic good will with those in your audience; savor the moment of sharing time with those kind listeners (time being a true gift from them to you).

Photo attribution The Flame by Clix Renfew licensed under Creative Commons

Ways to organize a storytelling salon at home

One of my “…just do it” goals for this New Year is to enjoy friends more often through casual storytelling and conversation. That goal began brainstorms for a storytelling salon event series at my home. The first storytelling salon for the year happens (gulp!) tomorrow. Adrenaline accelerates with every minute over here with last minute planning!

What the heck is a storytelling salon?

It is a personal, subjective experience to define for sure. But I work with this approach: each story salon occurs on the weekend at my home/apartment building, and includes hospitality for the first hour; then oral storytelling of archived stories that I’ve wanted to share with community for many moons; and casual theme-based group discussion afterward. The overarching interest is good ole community with friends in the context of storytelling and learning each other’s life experience more.

Three thoughts surface now as final details resolve before the big day tomorrow:

1. Deciding the core focus has been useful i.e. to cultivate an intimate story experience & environs for sharing personal perspective.

Once this focus for the salon crystalized more, other party-related or social options faded to irrelevance. The intent is creating a type of ambience where friends would ideally feel comfortable spending time (and opening up more too to the story-sharing aspect). Physical space – how it can affect the flow and disposition of people – has been an interesting consideration. The party room on the third floor of my home’s condo building turned out to be a better space conducive to intimacy (vs our specific home unit). There’s a slightly higher ceiling that some say can cause people to associate ideas more freely (…getting a kick out of that tidbit). Restrooms and a roof deck are feet away when folks need alone time.

The main element with this salon idea is to create an agile, non-demanding dynamic for friends that sometimes complex hospitality environs can distract from. A non-existent white glove treatment is the point. Think lots of cushy sofas and puffy-fluffy chairs organized in circle-seating; soft natural window light; a few candles; low overhead lighting; and the U2 playlist playing at a lower hum.

2. Choosing a potluck-brunch approach to hospitality has helped achieve simplicity and pre-salon collaboration. 

At first when planning loosely began last December, I leaned toward a full menu to provide buddies. But then I frankly felt the stressful stomach knots form. So a friend suggested a potluck option which has been fun and a creative collaboration for the group.

When sending the save-the-date notice out a while ago, I tossed out a link to potential brunch food ideas (cinnamon rolls or bagels or french toast for starters or other options). The group approach has helped keep the planning spirit light, and attention more on the storytelling piece.

3. Setting a story theme and an unconditional tenor toward participation has added needed, unobtrusive structure. 

The story theme is:  Home – running away and reunions.

In the spirit of facilitating greater focus and ease for guests — I suggested a theme for them to (casually) reflect upon before salon day.

The theme’s purpose is to provide perimeters regarding topic. Often in a public dynamic like this, a non-topic driven gathering can overwhelm concentration or prevent precise memory recall from kicking in.

In hopes of generating more ease and willing participation, the salon will start with a story from me about home in Oklahoma growing up…roughly a 7 minute story. Then afterward, I’ll welcome other people’s perception of their home experience with an opening question.

Guests can share their reflections as they’re open to it. If everyone is shy and isn’t down for sharing, no sweat! We’ll simply continue to snarf down cinnamon rolls and kibitz.

It continues to be a blast to plan and anticipate.

Looking forward to learning about friends more tomorrow, their stories from home, and tons of photos to relive the joy.

Photo attribution “Storytelling” by Renu Parkhi licensed under Creative Commons

Courage, self-control, and the most demanding hospitality experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything

The Code of the Samurai aka the Bushido Code keeps running through my mind as an ancient-gone-modern reference guide for delivering (consistently) awesome hospitality.

A thrilling experience comes to the forefront that puts this into better focus. A few years ago my church (Foundry UMC) was gearing up to celebrate its Bicentennial anniversary. It was exhilarating. Many folks from the local Dupont Circle community in DC; national Methodist connection; past pastors of the church; and city and even national leaders planned to attend this gigantic celebration.

I was on church staff at the time, organizing hospitality and related support. There were many times when our hospitality standards would enter conversation and team training. Our suite of hospitality mantras became: “Everyone is welcome; everyone joining us that day is apart of this historical day and our special guest; each person who walks in these church doors is to receive a radically clear welcome just for them…”

Our mindset was to be all the more radically sincere, consistent, agile, and fully filled with welcoming attention. Foundry’s Pastor Ginger often inspired the church members, legions of volunteers, and staff with reminders that we were deepening and enriching the church’s very own standard of ‘radical hospitality.’ The passionate, well-rounded dedication (and tactical support) to achieve this level of hospitality was a dream come true. I was proud to work with this congregation in this moment.

Then it all got really, really real.

After over a year of planning – the sun finally rose on the big day and nudged all preparation into high-octane immediacy.

Beloved neighbors, friends, & family lined up long before our church doors opened hoping to get a good seat; DC mayor’s office called every few minutes with her advance team’s revised arrival time; Secretary Clinton, President Clinton, and daughter Chelsea would arrive once their secret service team finished their rounds. An alternate community like no other was taking shape to celebrate our first 200 years in Christian faith.

Volunteers attended their stations — in the balcony; in multiple aisles in the sanctuary; greeters in front hospitality; welcoming, directional folks near the restrooms; the fellowship hall; on the outdoor grounds; the Green Room. It was an awesome, in-sync, and bubbly solar system of hospitality teams. The awareness was at a fever-pitch to acknowledge guests, guide traffic, convey resourcefulness, and love-thy-neighborness at every turn.

Then as I was almost in adrenaline, star-struck overload, echos of Pastor Ginger’s wise coaching ricocheted in all corners of my head space:

“…Every person, every child, every elderly soul, every guest, every familiar face or stranger…all are welcome. Welcome personally everyone as much as you can, as sincerely open as you can, and as often as you can.” 

It became clear in that moment to me that Pastor Ginger’s words outlined hospitality as an extension of hospitality justice — a beckoning to everyone no matter their reality in modern society. We were a historical congregation honoring our 200th year of devotion to loving God and neighbor, and all the vulnerable rigor living in community can require.

That’s when an unexpected reservoir of courage and self-control surfaced. These specific code of the samurai virtues immediately became relevant and necessary. Because this was a chance for us to reflect God’s emancipating love in our little corner of the world. Holy. Wow.

Courage and self-control to inform the secret service agent that my time was not 100% dedicated to him – and to refer him to another hospitality resource (…a little nerve-racking as he was equipped with a vivid fire arm). Courage and self-control to not let getting star struck distract focus from the sweet elderly woman having trouble with her shawl. The Bushido Code states: “Courage is worthy of being counted among virtues only if it’s exercised in the cause of Righteousness…”

Every impromptu question created an arena for the liberating, loving, fret-defying love of God to lead, like: “So the coat racks are full…now what?” to a choir member gasping in angst: “Who has a cough drop?!”

Radical hospitality meant our team stepping into a radical availability to not just welcome but to engage countless levels of collaborative readiness.

As in, it is not enough to simply recognize that ‘all guests whether they are state leaders or not deserve splendid attention and resourcefulness.’ It takes conscious assertion of courage in the present time (which I find can be challenging or even intimidating…per secret service scenario!). This whole hospitality experience and the environment Foundry UMC created that day provided unparalleled education. The event offered irreplaceable forums to better control adrenaline and anxiety, and to direct both as courageously as possible to delivering hospitality with equity to every soul in the place.

Photo attribution “Take Courage” by kipadella licensed under Creative Commons

What a lost kitten taught about reunions and risk

imageIt was a quiet early fall night in DC.

The outdoors were starting to turn toward cooler breezy temps. Husband Sean and I were relaxing together in full-on chill time reading and nuzzling with Squinky-Susan (sister kitty) and also Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons (littler bro kitty).

Our lights-out time arrived; Sean had opened a window by a few inches to let cooling breezes swirl inside. Off to bed we went, in our 550 square foot home that sat four stories up from a busy neighborhood street.

The next conscious cue came from morning light that touched our eyelids awake. Sean got up first to enjoy some early a.m. silence.

After a while he nudged me to full-alert.

“Um Walter is gone,” he said. “I don’t understand….it’s a small apartment.”

I the momma scurry to the living room. No Walter.

…scurry to all the secret under-sofa-and-chair crevices. No Walter-kitten…..just his sister Squinky looking strangely calm.

…what about the old-timey pedestal bathtub. There’s a ton of secret hiding spots for kittens!

But no fuzzy Walter Wilbur-Force appeared.

I look at Sean with my eyes rounding through the tear drops.

He says again in a listless monotone: “But it’s such a small apartment…where could he have gone? It’s so small.”

His fixation on the size of the apartment made my heart ache more. He is such a fantastically logical person; his logic powerhouse of a brain was desperately equating smallness of our home to the impossibility that his cherished soulmate of a (always indoor) kitten could ever get lost, let alone disappear.

His eyes then wander over to the cracked window left open from last night: “OMG HE RAN AWAY FROM FOUR STORIES UP.”

What a heart sinker.

Walter’s escape out the teeny tiny window space was the only logical conclusion.

We ran downstairs; scoured alleyways; searched around big dumpster areas, calling calling calling Walter’s name.

No fuzzy gray paws or purrring was to be found.

Sean left for work lugging a gallon of gonna-keep-my-chin-up sadness with one last absent remark from his logical brain still trying to reconcile his disbelief: “….but our apartment is so small.”

More emotional context:  This occurred a few days after Prince died. So the climate of separation anxiety was already heavy!

Then after posting one more color poster outside of “Help us find our precious Walter Kitten Face!!!” I glanced back randomly toward the front glass door into the four story walk up (we lived on the fourth floor with a few other neighbors residing on the other levels).

There adhered to the glass was a crooked yellow sticky note!

My heart and brain leapt instantly over the 5 meters to the door to read that sticky:

“Are you missing a cat?! Please call this number.”


Within seconds after calling, Walter Wilbur-Force The Kitten was back home to momma’s caress (and to his papa’s infinite joy).

The mystery in Walter’s disappearance revealed in purrrfect clarity thanks to two mindful and very tender-hearted neighbors that lived in a building adjacent us. It’s an awesome urban cat-n-mouse story minus the mouse. It’s a wonderful (and one of my favorite) family tales.

The whole experience refreshed perception about reunions and risk on a few levels:

  • What an unforeseen loss of love teaches:Losing unexpected access to the one you love feels like a bucket of pine needles assaulting every avenue of your heart. I revered two things a whole lot more when reuniting with Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons:  simple presence of your loved one is the height of abundance; and returning from the hugely vulnerable world unscathed (as Walter did) is ar blessing and rarity.
  • Thoughts about risk and gambling with a stranger:What had happened — Our little precious fuzz-bucket kitten had in Olympic feline fashion self-collapsed his adult frame and slid out into the world (via that four inch window opening…naive move on our end to underestimate the indoor critter). Once out on the window ledge of our building, Walter walked on the ledge; got confused; then couldn’t walk backwards to our specific window. So he walked on the rain gutter to the attached/adjacent building and sat in front of a window.
    • Late, late at night he stared inside this well-lit home through that home’s window and meowed his face off. He sat. He stayed sitting. He myeowed.
    • The couple living in that home noticed him but were wisely  leery of his nature! Was this a stray cat? Where did it come from? Isn’t this technically creepy?!
    • It would’ve been in the realm of reasonable decisions for them to have ignored Walter. The couple though pondered; revisited their first impressions; pondered some more.

They began to re-perceive this stranger chanting myeows outside their window. They started to view Walter as less of a threat, and more of a misplaced stranger in a vulnerable way. Sean and I are grateful for their courage.

  • Closing thought on alleviating potential tensions in risky decisions:Upon letting Walter enter their window, the couple started to think short-term and long-term. If Walter’s family was discovered in the next day, hooray! But if  a reunion did not take place, they were making a hospitality list for their new tenant i.e. litter box, food, and 600 little jingly toys. Their agility is a model for hospitality and for helping the stranger. They went from a risky initial decision all the way to sharing space with a stranger to planning for the stranger’s well-being. My goodness how I love this story and them.

Photo:  Walter Wilbur-Force Buttons when a baby, pictured with his Dad.

How emotional intelligence shaped (3) hospitality moments, and Happy New Year!

Engaging front-of-house hospitality for community fascinates me. Hospitality is an unparalleled opportunity where customer service, sense of welcome, unconditional attention, and even spiritual uplift can all be experienced by a guest.

How can guests perceive resourcefulness?

perceive responsiveness? or perceive acts of (intended) good will?

Guests from different hospitality scenarios in my professional life have taught vibrant lessons toward these questions. And often recognizing the merit of emotional intelligence proved a key part of learnings.

Emotional intelligence (EI) affects delivery of hospitality in countless ways. It’s potent and often beautiful how keen emotional discernment can encourage (or if a lack thereof – can repel) any particular community or guest. I should swallow a dose of humility now too because at least for me, emotionally intelligent actions can be easy to overlook or harder at times to appreciate.

A friend Sarah shared last week some hospitality moments from her workplace. We then more consciously chewed on what she realized about delivering hospitality in-the-moment from those exchanges (and what stood out from an emotional intelligence perspective).

It was an engrossing conversation where (3) hospitality insights jumped out:

1.  Cultivating emotional validation 

My friend works in a community center and engages a wide range of the public with varied ages, races, and economic realities.

  • The scene — A young mom arrived and shared concerns her pre-teen child was starting to smoke cigarettes. The parent began to stutter pretty heavily, and avoided eye contact with my friend Sarah (who recognized signs of the parent’s discomfort in admitting the whole scenario).
  • EI moment — The goal for my friend became to remove any potential barriers to trust that the mom’s discomfort could possibly develop. So she (the friend) said to the parent she was so grateful she arrived at the community center, and had shared her personal concern for her child. My buddy in that instance affirmed the woman’s presence; the concern for her child’s health; and that the mother’s emotional courage was evident and admirable. The young mom ended up staying for 25 more minutes to discuss potential next steps and resources.
  • Word of caution — Sincere affirmation was the ultimate goal for this dynamic. Validating the mother’s caring nature and her action as a family leader were paramount. Conscious conversational space was made to include and legitimize her discomfort. As the community center’s representative, it would have been negligent let alone failed hospitality for my friend to have responded with an emotionally flippant or indifferent reply like “well that’s just sad to hear…”

2.  Creating an uninterrupted listening environment (if indeed time permits!)

  • The scene — Going deeper into the above exchange, my friend Sarah at the community center also asked the visiting mom questions on a few different levels: permission for time and permission to further inquire about her concerns.
  • EI moment — She (my buddy) used authentic lines of questioning to further demonstrate respect for the nervous, worried parent. First Sarah asked the mother overtly if she had “20 or 25 minutes” to further discuss her child’s smoking habit and the center’s resources to help. Next, Sarah inwardly committed to establishing a listening environment for this guest: to fully listen to the mother’s responses without interruption (as much as possible in light of potential time constraints). These intentional decisions helped to relax the dynamic; the mother started stuttering less and opening up about ways the center could be of benefit.
  • Word of caution — Checking in with this guest on whether or not she had more time to discuss matters goes beyond basic politeness in its value. It is a core hospitality-delivery tool. If the guest did not have further time to invest in that moment, then that would have cued my friend to request permission to email her further information and questions. Therefore, no matter how the mom responds to the question of time – her schedule is honored, and the dynamic to effectively provide resourceful-rich hospitality is still forged.

3. Utilizing self-restraint 

  • The scene — My friend remembered that toward the end of their discussion, the parent asked a question about potential treatment. Sarah felt some compulsion to respond immediately in that moment. But she refrained. Why? Because she also saw sensitive options (that could help the mother’s child) that would do well with written, deeper context.
  • EI moment — So to ensure benefits and risks would be expressed more clearly, and do the mother’s concerns better justice, Sarah underscored the value of the parent’s question and offered to reply more thoroughly over email. She also invited the mother to set future appointments anytime for more personalize conversation.
  • Word of caution — Delaying a reply in this way is not intended as procrastination, or as a means to avoid sensitive, difficult discussions. The core intent was to acknowledge that a compulsive albeit reasonably informative reply was likely going to come across as scattered and unclear. Sarah’s emotional discernment was to avoid that potential guest perception as much as able. So she instead, mindfully affirmed the mother’s question and ensured an emailed clarification would be forthcoming.

Photo attribution  Peace on Earth, good will towards men by Amy V. Miller licensed under Creative Commons

How a coffee place soothes the rough edge of a storytelling dream

Creamy caffeine magic joins the day’s new sunshine and me most mornings. It’s a liquorless frothy coffee drink that smoothly glides in a glass as if it was beer on tap; but it’s simply swirled coffee, espresso, and milk combined: the Black & Tan drink.

I used to think coffee was coffee was coffee whether it came from Bucks n Stars or grounds or whole bean or Grandma’s cupboard of microwave instant. But a place near home in DC’s Chinatown has inspired a ton of gratefulness for a particular coffee experience, hospitality, & education.

Tackling bucket lists & craving comfort 

So here sits early days of November, and National Novel Writing Month is in full throttle. You may know of NaNoWriMo already, as an inspiring nonprofit that years ago designated this month to everyone and anyone across the world who sought to write a novel — at least 50,000 words — in the month of November.  The group offers an online community, write-ins, and tons of resources to enable any eager-writing brain to commit to and write a novel in 30 days.

It’s been a holy-cow-love-that-concept entry on my bucket list for years.

It’s happening now.

Got 4,400 words on paper with about 46k to go ahhhhhhhhhhhh.

It’s good & intimidating & thrilling.

….and grueling in the self-discipline, try-not-to-suffocate-this-creative-opportunity type of way.

In light of this goal, my inner self craves comfort these days. Writing that out loud sounds a little indulgent. When creative risk though intersects with a deadline and sense of vulnerability – a fragile (fun too!) inner collision can unfold right? …is anyone  else thinking “right…?!”

Somehow this neighborhood coffee place, La Colombe, eases the push to Get. It. All. On. Paper. by 11:59pm 11/30th. It does this with that delicious Black & Tan and other creative caffeine things. It does this by offering friendly, confident hospitality, education.

The crossroads of these factors create an inviting sense of welcome for those seeking good coffee or some mental reprieve & a little architectural beauty too (with that alluring internal red brick they have).

Each factor engages with the others to shape a reliable experience of caffeinated comfort that this brain is grateful for (…while seizing  arty hopes and word counts this month!).

Ongoing gratefulness to this place and team for being such a neighborly, spiritually rejuvenating (& so tasty) destination.

Austin – an entrepreneur, podcaster, and possessor of great energy. He was the first associate to offer welcome when my husband and I moved to the area this summer.  I’m grateful.

Patrick – opened this particular coffee store & taught me unique elements and tastes within coffee crops.

Hope – Sharp wit, great hair, hearts the cats

Troy – kind introvert with gifted humor

….observed Troy once dancing with coffee in one hand and pondering aloud how good it would be if Siri could engage spiritual questions like: “What would Jesus do?”

Kelsey – Wonderful hospitality & headed to Peace Corps next year.

Chelsea – Extends reliable kindness no matter how crazy busy the shop is.

…Here’s to inspired caffeine and manifested dreams on (and off) the page for all of us!

P.S. Do you have a favorite place that inspires your creative wanderings, and helps you surmount your version of storytelling angst?

What happens in between the presidential votes we cast?

imageA friend asserted today that “Adulthood means to vote.”

Other people in the conversation said political candidates were a turn-off and “…why can’t they get better people to run for office?”

Needless to say, our discussion pivoted around this year’s campaign season. The whole combative carnival that is this presidential race does not make for an obvious segue to greater spiritual understanding.  But the above passionate assertions brought to mind a thought that’s not quite finessed in my brain, yet it’s led to some unanticipated views to spiritual commitment and community.

Starting with this:

The average citizen, myself included, passes the buck on achieving answers & real change in our country.

Maybe I’ve been online too much lately grappling with political and racial turmoil; but this election more so than others has triggered my theory that average voters don’t want to be inconvenienced in regularly exercising their voice and regularly working to improve the ills of community or the nation as a whole.

So when the presidential elections come around — all that dormant, unused activism explodes into a frustrated, screaming citizenry who wants immediate action, for things to change “ASAP” and for the “revolution” to get “someone out there to listen.”

Who do we really really want to own the poop storm we are in right now as a democracy? Who is the proverbial they (referenced in above exchange) that should drum up presumably better candidates on which voters should pass judgment?

….a galant knight?

….or progressive-conservative-libertarian-poor-but-self-sufficient-multi-racial candidate miracle worker?

It’s not the (always fictional) knight’s responsibility.

It’s not the (always fictional) perfect candidate’s responsibility, no matter who we elect.

Absolutely I have political preference on how this election pans out, and believe in the value of our vote. But that act of empowered adulthood in no way replaces the daily empowerment of investing ourselves, even to the point of it being inconvenient, to improve this nation one community at a time.

I believe each voter’s sense of ownership (me too)  needs to step into the proverbial arena of commitment like these candidates have. Trump’s ethos scares the hooey out of me but dang he got into one of the most inconvenient marathons in the world i.e. putting his hat in the presidential ring. I admire that courage – in Clinton even more so – even if they are immersed in imperfection themselves.

What’s the spiritual relevance of community and political contenders? There’s a ton of nuance but right now, Jesus comes to mind. He fully committed to his community and his city as his life. As Henry Drummond wrote:  “He (Jesus) looked at the city. Then He wept over it. Then He died for it.”

Jesus asserted the inconvenient habit of commitment. It seems a timely decision to reflect upon when investing efforts in between the presidential votes we cast.

Resource on Christ and community:

The City Without a Church by Henry Drummond   (as referenced on Facebook by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli of Foundry UMC in July, 2016).