Story Chicago: What it is, why I went, and my takeaways.

Wrigley building

This is a recap. This is not an insightful analysis. You said on Facebook and in my inbox that you wanted to know why I went and what it was and what sessions I attended and what my takeaways were. You got ’em.

My college roommate Rebekah told me about Story Chicago years ago–before I started blogging–and we agreed we’d go together one day.

Then I started a blog and met all these cool people on the internet who talked a lot about some conference in Chicago.

Those two worlds collided last week when I attended Story Chicago, a conference for Christian creatives that founder Ben Arment describes as “fuel for the creative class.” It’s a place to connect and learn and be inspired. This year’s theme was “a sense of place.”

Rebekah and I got into Chicago Wednesday afternoon, which gave us enough time to get settled in our digs, meet up with another college friend, and have dinner with some awesome people of the internet before the conference began.

The sessions and my takeaways

Opening night took place in an old cathedral. They wowed us with a really cool visual display (imagine a thunderstorm on the cathedral ceiling) and then showed the Sundance award-winning documentary Blood Brother.

Thursday night’s ceilings

Nashville band Paper Route opened Thurday morning’s session at the House of Blues, then Ben Arment spoke on fear and failure and what it means to entrepreneurs and creative types. (Takeaway: you can never recover that which you never tried.)

After that, beatboxer Tom Thum took the stage and blew everybody away.

A short routine he did at Story Chicago begins at 8:45. (The trombone bit is my favorite.)

Thum said an average beatboxer imitates other beatboxers’ sounds, a good one will imitate and build upon others’ work, an amazing beatboxer creates his own noises. But the best of class do all three: they imitate, build upon, and create their own sounds. Takeaway: so many implications for creatives in every field.

Howard Lichter and Dennie Wendt of Nike spoke next on “what we talk about when we talk about Nike.” While I was a little ambivalent about some of their ads, they articulated some good stuff: You say obsessed like it’s a bad thing. Maturity is overrated. You are what you start. Yes.

Rebekah had a personal connection to the next speaker, Scott Harrison of Charity Water, and her enthusiasm was contagious. When Rebekah adopted her son Eli from Ethiopia, he had a belly full of parasites because of the pond water he drank there. When he was baptized in 2011, they collected donations for Charity Water in lieu of gifts.

Harrison spoke about Charity Water’s origins and its dual mission to solve the water crisis in his lifetime and to reinvent giving. Those goals are completely audacious, but actually doable.


I was floored by how they’re harnessing technology show people exactly what their donations are going for, and where. (Examples: you can see where your donation is being used via GPS. If your money goes towards purchasing a drilling rig you can follow the rig on twitter. Twitter!)

Harrison quoted Nick Kristoff, who said, “Toothpaste is peddled with far more sophistication that all the world’s life-saving causes,” but Charity Water’s campaigns are nothing if not emotionally intelligent.

Rebekah and I attended the photography and design break out session in the afternoon, held in the gorgeous Ivy Room.

the ivy room

I didn’t recognize Chuck Anderson’s name, but I recognized his work. (While he was showing us his portfolio, Rebekah leaned over and said, “We have those folders!”) He based his talk on a great Charlie Parker quote: “Master the instrument, master the music, then forget that s— and play.”

Anderson loved taking pictures as a kid, but he grew up in the Chicago suburbs, which he said made for really boring pictures. So he’d load them into photoshop and play with effects to make them interesting. He did this for years, learning the skills, honing his style.

He also tossed out a quip I loved: “Side projects are the new resumé.” Exactly.

brooke shaden

Brooke Shaden’s photography on the cover of the conference guide

Brooke Shaden spoke next about her work as a fine art photographer. She creates surreal photos that resemble paintings in a style she describes as “creepy.” (Yep. Some are cringe-worthy and some are gorgeous, but they’re all definitely creepy.)  She described her creative process (careful planning, plus a ton of photoshop) and how she got started (with self-portraits, a 10-second timer, and a $5/shoot budget).

While Brooke was showing us examples of her work, she offhandedly mentioned that she’d spent forty hours in Photoshop  to get the result she wanted. I was stunned. I know intellectually that her style of photography requires hard work, but I never would have dreamed a single photo would have taken her–an experienced artist–40 hours post-production. That one comment was so encouraging to me.

good people

at the House of Blues

Thursday night Kristin and Ed organized a dinner that gathered writers attending Story plus Chicago-area writers and it was easily one of the highlights of the week, and definitely my fastest two hours of the conference. I got to meet twitter friends and a few longtime readers.

Thursday night was a concert back at the cathedral and more crazy ceiling displays.

Drew and Ellie Holcomb opened Friday morning back at the House of Blues. I’ve been listening to their album Passenger Seat on morning runs so I was ready for them. They were good, y’all. (They have two free downloads on NoiseTrade right now–go get ’em.)

Gillian Farabee of Cirque du Soleil Media presented next, and I didn’t think I cared about her company but I was hooked from the second she described dance as nonverbal storytelling. She articulated things I’d never considered about the value of entertainment as an experience, and what is necessary in order to do it well. (Create believable magic. Layer the senses. And never forget the importance of absurdity.)

Screen Shot 2013-09-25 at 10.17.05 AM

Alexander Chen of Google Media labs spoke next about his work on transforming something inherently visual–like a doodle–into something musical. At (pictured above), he explores what an old NYC subway map “sounds” like as every departing train becomes a member of the orchestra. (It’s my kids’ new favorite website.)

Chen is a huge fan of testing new ideas by creating bare bones prototypes (sometimes called minimum viable products in startup land).

I won’t know for months what my enduring takeaways from the conference will be, but those are my first impressions from the event.

A few thoughts

I know I said this wasn’t a critique, so I’m going to keep this part brief. This year Story Chicago was structured very differently than it has been in years past. What I kept hearing was, “It was better last year.” I had a great experience and I’m definitely glad I went, but that was a little discouraging.

This year’s conference suffered seemed to suffer from a lack of framing. I think it’s important to put things in perspective, but it lacked the intros and outros that could have provided that. And I was surprised there wasn’t a wrap-up talk to close the weekend–not even a 5-minute one.

I was also very surprised at how few opportunities I had to interact with the people I didn’t set out to meet. There was no opportunity for that kind of serendipity, no common space to just bump into the other attendees. Which is a shame, because I would expect Story to gather an interesting crowd.

Finally, I wish the presenters had been more diverse. I believe that’s important, and was disappointed that only one woman presented on the main stage.

Those are my caveats, but I thought it was all in all a good event, and one I’d return to.

Have you ever been to an event like Story Chicago (or Story itself)? Would you ever consider going to something like this? 


Leave A Comment
  1. Tina B says:

    It sounds like a good conference even with your closing thoughts. The phrase that stopped me (and I had to write it down) was “side projects are the new resume.” I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it, but it resonated with me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. ed cyzewski says:

    Great recap Anne. Way better than my lazy Facebook summary. 🙂 I appreciate the Drew Holcumb link up at NoiseTrade.

    I’m so glad our little meet up was such a highlight. Kristin is an awesome host. She’s the one who started doing the meet ups and I just followed her lead.

    • Anne says:

      Yes, it would have been great to have you there! But you’re planning on going to FFW this year, right? I’m seriously thinking about it after everyone gushed about it in Chicago!

  3. Lesley says:

    Thanks for the summary, Anne. I read your post and then immediately Sarah Bessey’s post about conferences. She makes some really good points. I’ve only attended one conference: BlogHer SF in 2008. It was really fun and I learned a lot, but it felt exclusive. I haven’t been to a conference since. I signed up to attend Allume this year but backed out a few weeks ago. Now I’m thinking about the IF conference in February. Are you going?

    • Anne says:

      Wow, BlogHer, huh? I’ve never been to one, but from what I’ve heard that’s like jumping into the deep end. 🙂

      I’m not planning on IF right now, but it definitely sounds interesting.

  4. Anne says:

    Cool to hear about a conference that I’d never heard of. I love the idea of conferences…..building skills, getting inspiration, coming together with people of similar interests….I think the only one I’ve been to is Behold Conference though…(I think??) It will be neat to see how the conference affects you in the coming months!

  5. Lisa says:

    Hey Anne! This is a great recap. Thanks for sharing your experiences there, and thanks for emailing me the notes you sent! I’m sad that I didn’t get the chance to meet you (or many people, actually — I agree with your observation that it was hard to fit that in with the time and place constraints), and that I didn’t know about the dinner. That sounds like it was a great time! I ended up going to a bloggers meetup at that same time on Thursday with some other folks who were at the conference.

    Will you go next year? I’m definitely considering it. I also heard the “This isn’t the same as last year,” comments, and it made me curious to try it again.

    • Anne says:

      It was too bad our writers’ dinner was at the same time as the bloggers’ meetup, because I would have liked to have met both crowds! Sorry we didn’t get to meet but I’m glad we found each other on the twitters. I’m also glad to hear I wasn’t the only one who felt the constraints of place were … constraining.

      (I also love that you have your MBTI type in your blog profile! INFP here. 🙂 )

  6. Rachel says:

    Hi Anne! So glad I found your blog and Story summary. My hubby and some wonderful friends from out of town came up for Story and we all attended for the first time. We were clueless about what to expect and sadly, felt clueless the entire time! Your critique was spot on and it felt good to know we were not the only ones picking up on those small but important details. One thing I felt odd about was that it was not marketed or even mentioned as a Christian event (though we do happen to be Christ followers), we signed up not even knowing that detail! We felt the tension the entire time, especially with the speakers noting they were not even sure what they were speaking at. We have not decided if we will go again, but had a good time and left inspired. Wish I could have met people, anybody!, that was the main reason we signed up. Thanks for the post, and I look forward to reading your blog.

    • Anne says:

      It seemed like this year’s story would have been GREAT to attend with an existing team, like from a church or workplace. I hope you and your friends had a good time despite the logistics that weren’t exactly set up for mixing and mingling.

      And yes, another thing I kept hearing was that the faith element was MIA this year.

  7. Funny about the people saying last year was better. I think every conference is required to have people doing this. It’s part of the fun!

    I’m curious what your decision rubric is for which conferences to attend. I don’t attend many, and I probably should attend more, but I’m not always good at getting a lot out of them. And I know I should go with an objective (at least to get my money’s worth…)

    • My conference attendance total is at a big fat zero! Sometimes I think I should change that, but then again, not attending is kinda working out for me just fine, and it is a whole lot less expensive not to go…

    • Anne says:

      I attend conferences when I’m either hugely interested in the topic, or very excited about meeting the people. Communities tend to spring up around conferences, in my experience, and some communities are valuable to be a part of, for personal and professional reasons.

      A third major consideration is location. Most of the conferences I’ve attended have been within an easy drive, which makes them pretty reasonable to attend and requires a shorter absence from normal life. If $400 plane tickets and travel days were required, I’m not sure if I’d be attending any conferences!

  8. Ben Arment says:

    Hi Anne, thanks for the amazing post. It was great to have you at the event. I appreciate your feedback and would love to know more about how we could help attendees interact.

    This year’s event was a big leap of faith for our team. We didn’t know if the multi-venue approach would work… or if we were killing the event in one fell swoop. Turns out, it was a good thing, but now we know how to make it better for 2014 (ie: closer venues, fewer venues, a lighter schedule, more interactive festivals, etc). We were full of fear but decided to take the leap of faith because we’d rather die than be status quo… and what good would it do if we encouraged YOU to take risks but didn’t do it ourselves?

    Also, we strive for diversity each year. I know the fruit of it wasn’t evident this year, but I assure you we tried… hard. In fact, the reason I spoke in the opening session is because our opening keynote (an amazing african american performer) pulled out at the last minute.

    Believe it or not, we invited no fewer than 12 diverse presenters who declined to speak for one reason or another. People who aren’t conference organizers can’t seem to fathom this, but getting worthwhile presenters to say yes is no easy task… especially with our limited budget and our growing but still-developing clout. We can ask, but they have to say yes.

    The emcee on the second day, (an african american friend) was flown up to STORY because I attended his event in Virginia in July where I was the only Caucasian in attendance. We committed to helping each other diversify our events… because it’s hard. Both ways.

    A second african american emcee pulled out of the event the day prior due to a work emergency. We purchased two airline tickets for our final african american presenter to make sure he made it to the event, which we never do. (He made the second flight.) For some reason, he’s never mentioned in posts that discuss our lack of diversity.

    I was disappointed we didn’t have more women. Again, we asked. They declined. I was disappointed we didn’t have one single Hispanic presenter. We had an Aussie though!

    And I regret not making a closing presentation to wrap up the event. I’ve been beating myself up for it ever since September 20. It was my biggest mistake of the event. The House of Blues confused our exit time and was pushing us off-stage from behind-the-scenes. They’ve since apologized, but we didn’t end well, and I swear we won’t make that mistake again.

    I told our team that if we’re getting criticized, we’re doing something right because it means people think we’re not faking it (which we are), that they think we have our stuff together (which we don’t)… and that they think we’re a force to be reckoned with (which maybe we are). But this is my dream coming true so I’ll take the criticism, learn from it and get better.

    Thanks for listening.

    • Anne says:

      Ben, I just realized I never replied to this comment, even though I’ve thought about it a lot. Please forgive me for that. I appreciate the feedback and am formulating some follow-up thoughts for a separate blog post in response.

      And I’m thankful you’re invested enough in your event that you care enough to get in there and get hit. (Metaphorically speaking only, I hope!) Love what you said about taking risks and facing the fear.

      Here’s to next year!

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