It’s not unusual to be offered opportunities that stretch us professionally – often these are gigs that come to us through our network, and people praising our skills. Workshops, meetings, keynote addresses, small projects. But saying yes to these gigs provides a feeling of success mixed with fear. A feeling that anyone who’s embraced these opportunities can understand.

The last opportunity I said yes to was a stretch show. I said yes because my friend recommended me, and she knew the organizer. It feels significantly more safe to agree to a gig when you have a personal connection.

But the same thing that makes it feel safe makes it even higher stakes. It’s not just my work and reputation, but my friend’s too. I felt good about saying yes to it because the workshop was on stories, I have been helping people find and share their stories for over 20 years, I felt I could talk to anyone about them.

The event

The event was for a woman’s retreat. The retreat was the first they had planned for over 20 years and was intended as an event where these busy women could relax and bond with each other in a safe place. They rented a beautiful water-side top floor space with a gorgeous view. The room was large and featured a large stone fireplace. I was the 2nd person to present.


The Audience

The women in this group were of the highest caliber of women leaders I have seen in one room. They ranged from high-level government officials, business owners, and corporate company presidents. These women had:

  • Buildings named after them
  • Made decisions that impacted policy and how the world runs
  • Dined with the royal family
  • Careers and titles that could imitate even the most successful of people

I was told in advance that many of these incredible people were A-type personality, that was cool, I like A types.

The Plan

The fact that this was a retreat, I had the idea of doing a workshop on breathing life into your old stories to help position themselves for their next step.

My first activity I planned was:

  • Draw a history map of the area you want to make a change in your life
  • Through a series of led questions, they would see a story they haven’t told in a while
  • Share that story with someone at their table

Then we were going to examine what made a good story, what elements helped, and share examples of how some of them were already doing this (there is no way they have gotten to where they are without knowing how to share ideas) but there is room to add new dimensions to our stories.

Then I was going to lead them to where they wanted to make a meaningful change and determine why they were the person to make the change. Then they would re-tell their story using some new story elements.

The last part was mapping a strategy on how to communicate it past the retreat. Was it going to be in a company newsletter? A blog? A meeting?

The Fail

My workshop started and I handed out pieces of paper and nice markers and described the first step.  Some started drawing and others just stared.

And stared.

And then asked about the point of the exercise, and others asked me to repeat the instructions, and someone asked me to re-introduce myself. One woman started to share about the importance of telling stories, that they had learned from an emerging neuro-scientist!

It felt awful.

I reintroduced myself and my work and it felt so small. It felt so insignificant in comparison with the women I was there to support. And it felt like I was a nobody. And it felt awful.

It felt awful but it wasn’t about me. It was their retreat day. They had committed a weekend to themselves and the other women in the room. I lost control of the room and there were multiple conversations, some people were doing the maps, some got up for more coffee, and some had side conversations. Gulp.

They were giving me signals that I was missing the mark with them. They were helping me to see how what I was doing wasn’t going to cut it.

And then I said…. “when I planned this workshop, I thought the drawing would work, but it isn’t. I have value to share about stories, so let’s dig into that. But before I share what I know, do you have any questions about using stories in your life?”

A woman asked a question.

And then a beautiful moment happened…

Someone told a story.

The Save

The story was good, and she had all the right elements in it:

  • Tension
  • Exchange of power
  • Action
  • High Stakes
  • Detailed descriptions
  • Vulnerability

And as a storyteller, she used fantastic timing and cadence that resonated in the room. That beautiful story allowed for a great discussion about the situation and then I was able to ask… “what just got us back on track? It was a story.”

And then I dug into how and why that worked and what she did in her storytelling that changed everything for the room. The conversation and entire dynamic switched and some women asked how to do that with their own stories. I gave a roadmap and shared all the work I wanted to share in the first place.


The Learning

This workshop session is one of my favorite workshops of all time. It came to me at a time when I feeling on top of my game and it humbly showed me I needed to learn more.

After the session, I had several women come up to me to say the mapping exercise had worked for them. Some said they had a break-through and another woman something she was trying to figure out got worked out. As a follow-up, I emailed the written instructions in case they want to play with it.

Another woman said, “today is a story worth telling. You lost the room and then got the room back. I’m going to talk about how you did that.”

I like that.

I learned how wonderful it is to fail in front of leaders who are great at being assertive. And were as willing as I was to turn it around. That’s class.

And since I’m into reflecting on how to prevent this from happening again, it also got me back to remembering that:

  • I am not for everyone.
  • How very important it is to know your audience.
  • Growth doesn’t come without risk and rejection.
  • And… one simple story can change everything.