Telling Stories about Storytelling @ AAM 2014

One of the highlights of my AAM 2014 experience (and the source of the most dread), was the storytelling panel that Seattle-based exhibit planner Judy Rand and I organized. AAM included a “storytelling” format this year in the call for proposals, and we thought it’d be interesting to put together a session that wasn’t the usual “people sitting behind a table talking while the slides went by” kind of presentation. Judy suggested we explore the power of storytelling based on the model of The Moth Radio Hour. I suggested the theme of “The thing I wished they’d told me when I started in museums” and we were off!
A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating... and a rug and plant.
A big room can still feel like a stage with a little light control, oval seating… and a rug and plant.
Over the next few months, we expanded our roster of speakers to include Catherine Hughes, Director of Interpretation at the Connor Prairie Museum and Nina Simon, the Executive Director from the Museum of Art and Science in Santa Cruz. Catherine’s an actress, Nina’s a former slam poet, and we knew they’d rise to the challenge of telling compelling stories within pretty rigid time limits. Judy and I, both more writers than speakers, had more to worry about. Coming up with a way to tell a compelling story is very different than writing a compelling story. Writing for the ear is, for me, much harder than writing for the eye. I don’t think I ever spent as much time practicing a conference presentation, cutting and tightening, as I did for the eight minutes I was alone in front of a room full of my peers telling my story.
The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine
The Storytellers: Nina, Judy, Ed, and Catherine
In the end, depsite the angst it caused me, it was a great session. The stories we heard were amazing. Judy told us of her intense shyness in public and of the revelation of taking a personality test and finding out that it classified her a “people person.” Catherine described her love of museum work as an addiction and drew out a number of very funny, if slightly disturbing, analogies between her career path and an addict’s. Trust me, it was good. Nina told the story of her struggles as a new museum director and what it means to really be an activist instead of just talking about it.
Judy sharing her story with the audience.
Judy sharing her story with the audience.

When we asked the 200-odd people in the room to pair up and tell each other a 2-minute story, the noise level was deafening. Instead of having the usual question and answer session at the end, we invited audience members to come and share their stories with the audience. It was great.  Here are the handouts we made:

Our Storytelling Resources handout

Our 2-minute storytelling activity handout

I wrote about my own story over at PEM’s blog, and that prompted me to get this recollection down, and to include Judy’s and Catherine’s stories as well, in future posts.

Now back to editing CODE|WORDS essays and trying to write my own!


  1. Love this and was so sad to have missed it! Any chance there’s a recording (audio or visual) that you could make available? Sounds like something I’d love to listen to on my way into work.


      1. Transcripts will be great. Thanks! Since AAM records all the session, I wish they’d someday release the recordings as downloadable podcasts. Wouldn’t that be great?! Thanks, Ed!


  2. A “Moth”-style podcast would be perfect (hearing stories gives you a real feel for the way writing-for-the-ear differs from writing-for-the-eye). If you have $16, AAM does sell downloadable MP3 files through ProLibraries. Their website says they’re loading the MP3s now. Happy to post the link when they’re up.


  3. For folks who are interested in flexing their story telling skills and following the story framework, another option is to take an improvisation class.

    In improv, we call this the “Story Spine” and I think it was originally developed by playwright Kenn Adams:

    The format works great for improvised scenes and long-form performances. If you’re in the Bay Area, this format is taught in classes at Bay Area Theater Sports (BATS) and Berkeley Repertory Theater.

    Thanks for sharing this.I was really sorry to miss this session at AAM. I heard rave reviews about it!


  4. Hi, I attended this AAM session and thought it was terrific. It offered a fresh spin on a conference presentation, the stories were relatable and entertaining, and it was great to get tips to test out in my own work as an interpretive-media writer. Storytelling is truly an art, requiring great flexibility as well as imagination: stories have to be adaptable to fit a range of audiences and formats. In what I do—producing audio and video clips, mostly for use on the web—they are typically only 2 to 3 minutes long (5 tops), and a conversational approach is key. I come from a journalism rather than theater background, yet I can appreciate what an improv approach might offer. Conversations like this are gold. Hope this session sparks more like it in the future!


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