TEDxSanFrancisco Lessons on Storytelling


Last week, a group from our San Francisco office had the opportunity to attend TEDxSanFrancisco’s “Dare to Know” conference through WE’s Continuing Education program. Listening to a myriad group of researchers, doctors, designers, artists, linguists, entrepreneurs and more was both energizing and informing. We were inundated with insights surrounding themes of precision, currencies, empathy and intelligence. Although we enjoyed learning about these topics, as storytellers, we were most fascinated by the speakers delivering them. Though each speaker was a thought leader in his or her respective field, it was apparent some were better able to engage the audience than others. Below are some of our observations as to why.


They Did Not Assume We Spoke Their Language

Since the event was held in the heart of Silicon Valley, some speakers assumed the audience was already familiar with all their technical references. Though we consider ourselves fairly tech savvy, when one speaker said “CRISPR,” our minds went to refrigeration, not a biological tech procedure, and we weren’t provided with an explanation of what CRISPR actually is. Similarly, a few speakers assumed that we were automatically on board with their ideas.

We felt the most engaging storytellers gave us context and used analogies to make their ideas click. Some of the best speakers, like Dr. Joon Yun, made their smarts accessible. Dr. Yun related concepts like homeostatic imbalance and dynamic range to everyday actions, such as exercising and eating chips, to explain the ways we can maintain more active, engaged lives.


They Told Us Why We Should Care

One speaker claimed a certain digital currency was the most revolutionary invention of the 21st century. However, throughout his talk, he did not clarify why and did not clearly reference his statistics to support his bold claim. If we do not know what to do with the facts, or at the very least why we should care about them, what’s the point?

Following the event, we debriefed that the most powerful speakers had a clear call to action. Catherine Hoke, CEO of the nonprofit Defy Ventures, did a great job. Her talk had humor, pathos, humility and inspiring participant stories. She did not just use her charisma and zeal to get us amped up about her mission. Instead, she asked attendees to pull out their phones, capture her email address and let her know if they would donate and/or volunteer with Defy. This was a much more effective tact for generating support.


They Made Us Feel Something

Stories are for humans. It seems so obvious, but when relaying studies it can be hard to remember that we are telling a story and need to hold people’s interest. Topics that seemed dry became rich as speakers made us laugh, think and reflect. For example, Elaine Fong, the art director of Blue Bottle Coffee, discussed the concept of design through the story of her mother’s terminal illness and choice to use Washington’s Death with Dignity law. Elaine’s story was well articulated, thoughtful and crafted to appeal to the shared human experience.

It is important for us to remember as storytellers that others may not immediately see things the same way we do, but they can if we appeal to their understanding, implicitly relay the importance of our discussion and connect with them along the shared human experience.


This blog was written by members of the San Francisco office from WE: 

Brooke Randell

Holly Lancaster

Christa Vu

Ari Panicker

Niyati Desai