What’s Your Story

Storyteller Deanna Moffitt on Engaging the Brain

Deanna Moffitt has known what she wanted to do with her life since she was 15.

Photo by Jacob Slaton

It came to her after hearing David Roever, a motivational speaker who was horribly burned while serving in Vietnam, address her high-school class. Moffitt also wanted to inspire audiences, but wasn’t sure how she could when her own life experiences were mundane by comparison. What she’s come to learn is that everyone has their own story, that we all respond to stories, and, most of all, that she loves being on stage telling them.

Today, she is the host of “Story Sessions,” a monthly show based in Chicago, featuring six different storytellers — professional actors, playwrights, comedians, writers — who share a 10-minute story tied into that evening’s theme. Moffitt is also the founder of Luminant Leadership, which teaches leaders how to use their own personal narrative storytelling to connect with and motivate their staff.

Moffitt took the stage at PCMA’s Convening Leaders annual meeting in Boston this past January. Rather than serving as a traditional emcee who makes introductions and keeps presentations moving, Moffitt helped the audience see connections between various pieces of the meeting and different speakers. Recently she shared with Convene the story of how that’s done.

What I’ve found is that people who are able to articulate in a story form are able to allow the audience to get into their skin. I think that’s the kind of a difference between a storyteller and an emcee. While emcees probably give you some information and… can be very entertaining, what a storyteller does actually engages the brain in a slightly different way, so that the audience becomes apart of it. I think that’s kind of the most powerful thing behind a storyteller.

I think the goal when I was first brought in [to this role for Convening Leaders] — the idea behind it — was to be able to connect the dots between what they were learning in those general sessions and how they could specifically apply that to themselves, and also what were they going to be learning throughout the rest of the day, each day.

One of the things I would be really excited about, to be able to do this again, is to be even more involved throughout the day — to talk to actual participants and get their stories and be able to translate that back to an audience. To hear the first-person story through someone else, do the briefest of interviews, find out how not only this event but maybe the organization itself has helped them throughout their careers and throughout their worklife, and being able to come back and tell that story to audience.

I teach improv in the corporate world as well, so I have lots of different ways to really observe and listen to people, and I think I don’t bring any preconceived notions into that organization. I think having an outside perspective is what I can really bring, and the art of listening — because those people who are on the stage have a hundred-thousand things that they have to do, and just one of them is speaking in that moment. They don’t have the free time or the luxury to really listen to folks to hear what their perspective is on the event or the organization in that moment. I think what I’m able to do is to get into the organization very quickly and just listen, to find out — what are the inspiring stories that we can share back to other people? Maybe they haven’t had a voice and yet had this wonderful experience that you can share very quickly to the audience that becomes immediately relatable, because they’re like them.

I think what a storyteller can do is go in and be involved and be a part of that moment, just to be the eyes and even the mouthpiece for those people in the audience. I think those stories can be really powerful — about what this organization or this event has meant to someone, and that becomes the inspiration and motivation for other people. You know, you can’t bring 30 people onto the stage, and yet I feel like someone in my position can go hunt those stories out.

One of things that we do in the “Story Sessions” show that I host is, for every show there’s a theme. For instance, the last show’s theme was “Love Is.” So we asked our audience to give us a love note to someone in the audience or someone you care about or tell us what you think love is, and we handed out pieces of paper to everyone in the audience. Then, throughout the show, I read them. I can’t tell you what that does to the audience to hear their words up on the stage. It gives them the release — they don’t have to say it themselves, but we can say their love notes and we can tell their stories in 20 to 30 seconds off a piece of paper. It really unites the audience.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.