What Just Happened?


Guest Post:  Stefan Lanfer

After the networking, the mark of a good conference is its takeaways, right?

So, here’s a to-do list for your next speech:

  • Remove your fake teeth and smile wide
  • Make racial, religious, and political jokes
  • Describe your pre-teen son as an “arrogant a–hole”
  • Insult your audience and the timidity of its work
  • Admit you are just saying whatever comes to mind

Sound like a Green Day meltdown?

How about the opening plenary by Seattle author Sherman Alexie at the Communications Network 2012 conference?

Let me be clear, I really enjoyed Alexie’s speech. I laughed at his jokes. When it was over, I stood in one line to buy and then another line to have him sign a copy of his latest book. I tweeted away  as he spoke to catch some of the golden, if sometimes also perplexing nuggets, like:

  • if it’s fiction, it better be true”
  • how much damage is done by people thinking they belong to only one tribe
  • binge writing towards a deadline” (on his creative “process”)
  • the power of silence, vulnerability, humor, inappropriateness, and insults that challenge

Listening to Alexie, I admit feeling a little like I’ve felt watching episodes of Mad Men—utterly absorbed in rich storytelling, fascinating character, delightfully unexpected turns, and then at the end of it all wondering, “What just happened?”

Though, after Alexie’s talk was over, I also found myself returning to his remarks again and again.

So, later that night, I was glad to discover Scott Miller and Nora Ferrel’s reflections already here on this blog. I didn’t mind them beating me to the punch. I was glad for their help in sense-making. Talking to others during our remaining time together in Seattle, Sherman Alexie was my Rorschach test.

What did you see in the ink blot?

Some loved it. Some were unimpressed. Some weren’t sure what to make of it.

It certainly wasn’t formulaic. There was no, “Here’s what I’m going to tell you,” followed by, “Here is me telling you what I told you I’d tell you,” followed by, “Here’s what I just told you,” landing on a single, clear call to action.

But without question it was an EXPERIENCE we all shared.  It was communication in the sense of the word’s original meaning, “to share” or, “to make common.”

At one point in his meandering talk, Alexie joked that the scariest thing to hear on a reservation is the voice of an elder taking the microphone to say, “I have a few words.”

That’s true to be sure for the audience of any speaker whose words (God help us if they were penned by any of us!) instantly set minds wandering or hands reaching for smart phones or other literal or figurative emergency exits. In the business of doing good, there is copy aplenty that is mealy-mouthed, plain vanilla, jargon-drenched, and platitude-y. And who cares if there is a clear call to action at the end, if you lose them at, “Hello?”

Storytelling step one, said Alexie, is to be “immediately, totally, vulnerable.”

So, I’m not ashamed to say, I still don’t quite know what happened in Seattle.

But I know it was fantastic.

And somehow my work is going to be better as a result.

Stefan Lanfer is the knowledge officer at the Barr Foundation



  1. Minna JungMinna Jung10-19-2012

    I loved this post, Stefan. We intentionally plan the conference program to have some sessions and speakers be more abstract, thought-provoking, head-scratchers, and other sessions be crisp on take-aways and sharing practices. And every year, we get beaten up in the survey about it. And I don’t care that we can’t please everyone with every session–we’re not all the same person–but I do love to hear from the people who are willing to listen and engage without rushing to judgment or the take-aways. A bad speaker is a bad speaker, period, but I think that Sherman provoked a wide range of reactions from the audience, and that in my book makes him more successful than not.

    • Stefan LanferStefan Lanfer10-19-2012

      Thanks, Minna. Mission accomplished in my book. Keep it up!

  2. Jenn WhinnemJenn Whinnem10-19-2012

    Thank you for making me laugh all over again, Stefan. Alexie’s meta-speech was as entertaining as it was insightful.

    What I enjoyed about both last year’s and this year’s conference is that CN doesn’t just bring in media talking heads. They bring in edgy thought leaders. People who tweet stuff like (and aren’t comedians) are bold and brave in my book.

    • Stefan LanferStefan Lanfer10-19-2012

      Just doing what I can to keep the laugh track going. Thanks, Jenn.

  3. Andie LongAndie Long10-19-2012

    Great summary, Stefan. It was indeed an “experience.” Major kudos to the organizers for being bold enough to pick such edgy keynote speakers. Bravo.

  4. Doug HattawayDoug Hattaway10-26-2012

    Sherman Alexie’s advice did inspire a laugh line at a speech I gave to a foundation audience in New York, soon after the CommNet conference.

    I opened by saying that I’d recently heard a speaker say that to engage my listeners, I should insult them. After a pause, when the crowd actually tensed up a little, I said: “I’m not going to take that advice. You all look great, you do great work, and I’m proud to have this opportunity to speak to you.”

    Call me a wimp, but it worked as a laugh line….

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