The One Where I Accidentally Presented At a Conference

By Zoë Kaler

Last September, I attended my first work conference: Agile Midwest 2019. Day one was called “Women in Agile.”  

The keynote speaker was an upbeat, knowledge-filled woman named Jenny Tarwater. Her interactive keynote included a worksheet to help us create an action plan for “Amplifying Our Voices.” There was a section on the worksheet called “I Will…” where we listed the things we, as women in agile, will do to amplify our voices. The first thing I wrote was “embrace the uncomfortable.” Little did I know how soon I would practice this pledge. 

Day two of Agile Midwest 2019 was called “Open Space.” Again, first work conference, so I had NO idea what that meant; I came to find out it essentially means crowdsourcing the day’s topics. All 350ish of us sat facing the middle of the room where the microphone and “stickies” were. If you had a topic you’d like discussed, you came to the middle, wrote it on a sticky and announced it to the room. Then you put the stickie on panels called the “Marketplace,” which indicated the time and room number for that topic. 

In the morning session, I sat back and watched. I didn’t think I had anything to contribute to this group of seasoned conference-goes. However, when we reconvened for the afternoon, I knew I wanted to contribute. I saw a gap in the morning sessions. There was so much talk about how to do Agile, how to implement Agile, problems with Agile, but no talk about what happens after the product development parts of Agile. What do you do after you created this awesome product? How are you telling your users and stakeholders what you’ve accomplished? Are you even doing this at all?

I’ve found stories to be an effective way to talk about these product outcomes, so I added, “Storytelling in Agile” to the Marketplace. I chose the first time slot for the afternoon session, so after the Marketplace was full, the conference-goers disassembled to their selected topics and I headed to mine.   

1pm arrived. It was time to get started. Trying to start a conversation, I asked the room if they wanted to share how they practice storytelling in Agile. No one raised their hands. Someone piped up and said, “Aren’t YOU going to tell US??” My throat lumped up and I realized that these people were not here to have an open conversation. They were here to learn about something they knew nothing about, and they expect ME to teach THEM!  

I brought this topic to the Marketplace because it’s something I believe in. I studied storytelling in undergrad as a journalism major and in grad school as an information science student. I’ve gone on to practice it in my career. I know a thing or two about it, but, needless to say, I was not prepared to teach these people anything. I began to recall all I could from the IS 590: Storytelling course I took in the Fall 2018 semester. So, there I was, rambling about the story structure of “The Three Little Pigs”. I asked questions and got no hands, asked more questions and got blank stares. I felt the lump in my throat grow, my neck and face get hot, and my chest tighten. What the heck was I doing?!

Luckily, I had just been to a session called, “Everything Icebreakers,” so I decided to break the ice with a game called “Link Up.” The object of the game is to learn something about everyone in the room while forming a human “link.” The first person yells out something unique about them, such as “I have a cat!” and if you have a cat, you yell, “link up” and run up the that person and link arms. This goes on until everyone is “linked.” I saw this as an opportunity to not just breaking ice, but for me to prepare for the next 50 minutes. 

With the broken ice and then next 50 minutes roughly planned, I dove in, embracing the uncomfortable…

I told a story about the jacket I was wearing, how I’m trying to pay off my student loans at an accelerated pace, and how the trip to Ann Taylor LOFT to pick up said jacket set me back a little more than intended. That got a few laughs and boosted my confidence. I told them about the three main elements of a story: tale, teller, and audience. I asked them to tell their neighbor a story; then we talked about how they felt telling and listening. We talked about empathy and how we’re humans who remember narratives better than facts. Then we talked about “Three Little Pigs” (again) and “Little Red Riding Hood” and how those story structures can apply to the corporate world.  

This 60 minutes in conference room 103 at Agile Midwest Open Space was the scariest thing; standing up there, responsible for filling the heads of theses 20 or so individuals with knowledge. But it ended up being a huge growth opportunity. 

As I was looking over my notes from Agile Midwest 2019, that note I wrote under the “I Will…” section caught my eye. In fact, a ton on the notes I took at “Women in Agile” caught my eye. I’ve even signed up for their “Launching New Voices” program to improve my public speaking skills.  

I could’ve left the room, I could’ve ignored my urge to add to the Marketplace in the first place, but I felt a little fire that day that told me to keep going and stand in that uncomfortable place.