How would you start your story? What are the words you would choose to capture who YOU are and the impact you have made on others?

It’s a little daunting to think about, right?  It’s like having to catalog everything we have ever done in our lives and come up with a snappy sentence that sums us all up.  It seems next to impossible. BUT – if we don’t know how to start our story, how are we going to tell our story?

Our stories are important. Our stories connect us. Studies show that storytelling makes us better humans.  So it’s a disservice to others if we don’t tell our stories!

One of the great lessons I learned from working at The Oprah Winfrey Show is “Everyone has a story.” Michelle Obama’s STADIUM book tour reminds us all that our stories matter.  On the back cover of her book Becoming she writes: “Your story is what you have, what you will always have. It is something to own.”

So I ask you – Are you telling your story?

And I don’t mean through Instagram Stories, Facebook Stories, Snapchat Stories, or Twitter! I’m talking about the sit down face to face kind of story that reminds us all we are more alike than we are unalike.

As a story teller and speaker, I would be lost without my story. I hold onto my story the way I used to hold onto my baby blanket, and I still would if it was socially acceptable.  My story is my comfort, my joy and my security. Even the ugly parts.

Here’s how I start my story –   Accept invitations from your Mother! That’s my snappy start in 10 words or less.  It best describes the moment when I look back on my life and say, “That’s when I found my purpose.”

When did you realize your story was starting?

I was 14-years-old. My mother invited me to the filming of The Mike Douglas Show.  It was one of the first talk shows on television and it happened to be produced in my hometown of Philadelphia.

As I sat in the studio audience, I spotted a girl on the set with a clipboard. I didn’t know what she did, but she was a woman, she was wearing a headset which made her instantly cool, she was carrying a clipboard which made her official, and she looked really busy. I had this overwhelming feeling that whatever it was she was doing, I would do it one day too.
I loved being in a TV studio. I loved the smell of the studio, hearing the clicking sounds of the lights, the feel of the camaraderie of the crew, seeing all the action and the taste of the excitement.  I quickly learned that when an environment sucks you in and pleases all 5 of your senses to make a career out of it.

My mom took me back to the show a few months later, only this time I asked HER to take me.  The cast of Welcome Back Kotter, a  hit show from the 70’s, was scheduled to be on the show and John Travolta, who played the sexy Vinnie Barbarino, was my pretend boyfriend. His poster hung in my  bedroom where I spent a lot of time listening to his songs on 45’s on repeat.

As I sat in the studio audience, yes I was watching for The Girl with the Clipboard, but I was pretty much distracted with the excitement of knowing I was about to see John Travolta in the flesh. That’s when a producer came out to speak to us and announced that sadly, John Travolta had to cancel at the last minute. An early lesson that TV can sometimes be heartbreaking.

 

But I held on to the image of The Girl with the Clipboard through the rest of my high school years and I even took her to college with me.

Determined to work in television – I spent a semester studying broadcast journalism at American University in WDC, which led to an internship at NBC.  The producer I worked for at NBC told me about a paid television production internship in Chicago at the PBS station, WTTW – and that’s when my mother’s invitation started to gain momentum.

When I returned to college from DC for my senior year, an arts center had been built at my college, Lafayette College. With zero training, I auditioned for the first musical to ever be produced on campus titled Chicago. At the same time, I applied for the TV internship in Chicago. And while I did not land the role of Velma, I did get the TV internship, and that’s when I knew Chicago was going to be a big part of my story one way or another, even though I had no idea where Chicago was – geography is not my strong suit.

The same year I moved to Chicago, Oprah Winfrey moved to Chicago to host AM Chicago.  And you know how the rest of THAT story goes!  Here I was, in the same city as the woman who would change my life and so many others. I just wanted to work in television – I had no idea my mother’s invitation to The Mike Douglas Show would lead me to play a role with an iconic brand that would change the world.  But that’s what happens when we accept invitations from our mothers and set our sights on a goal.  We go after it, we get it and then we make it bigger and better than we could have possibly imagined. Proving mothers really do know what’s best!
When Oprah hired me as her audience coordinator a year after her show went national, after interviewing for the job the year it launched, I was 25-years-old and was unexpectedly handed a microphone. I was told to warmup the studio audience.  I didn’t know what that meant, so I spoke from my heart and found that the audience responded.

I spoke WITH the audience, not TO the audience – they shared their stories. And those stories became the focus of the pre-show warm-up, just like the show. People left the studio with new friendships and connections. it was unexpected. I think they were expecting a standup comic, and while I do love a good joke and have secret dreams to be a standup comic, I am not exactly a comedian.

Having entertained over a half-of-a-million people from the Oprah stage and a front row seat to most of the 4561 shows we produced,  I know firsthand the power of our stories.

I often wonder if over the years of warming up the audiences for The Oprah Winfrey Show, if a girl sat in the audience with her mother and saw me and told her mom “I want to do that” and made me part of HER story.

I recently spoke at a Women in Trucking Conference – an industry dominated by men.  And at the end of my speech I said “Remember, girls are watching.” When I said those words I felt their power.

And guess what else I learned, boys are watching too! And fathers have invitations!  After my speech, a man in the audience (there were 2) told me he realized he was “A Dad with an Invitation.”  He said he had recently asked his 20 year old son, who has a passion for photography, to come along with him to a trucking event because they didn’t have a photographer.  His son said yes for one reason – he knew there would be free beer at the end of the day. It doesn’t matter WHY we say YES, it’s that we say YES!  His son did such a good job and enjoyed it so much, opportunities began flowing his way for more photography work.

Accept invitations from anyone who loves or likes you  – fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, bosses, friends. We are never too old to discover the one thing that drives us and defines our story.

It’s so easy for us to say NO! None of us want to say YES to things that take us out of our comfort zone, or pull us away from NETFLIX.  For the parents in the room, you know what I’m talking about. How many of you have heard NO from your kids when you’ve invited them somewhere? And how many of you have said NO to your parents when they’ve invited YOU somewhere – when you were a kid, or worse – recently?

But what if the invitation you say NO to is the one thing that would change the trajectory of your life?  The one thing that could lead you to finding your STORY.  Saying NO is like saying we don’t care about our story.

Author and researcher Brené Brown, my speaker hero, says we are hardwired to tell our stories! Which means we should be hardwired to say YES to an invitation from our mom or dad.

Research from The Harvard Business Review says:

 Stories create ‘sticky’ memories by attaching emotions to things that happen.

This is the part of my story that sticks with me. I hope it sticks with you.

It’s Oprah’s 50th Surprise Birthday show. My team and I are working late in my office, living our best lives! We are finishing up the final seating of Oprah’s guests  – her family, friends and colleagues, when Lisa, a producer and dear friend, calls me and tells me to get down to the studio right away. There were some changes.  So I grab my clipboard and go flying down to the studio.
I move fast and I am pretty clumsy and have fallen off or on every set I have ever worked on. When all of the sudden, I slam into a body. It’s me, my clipboard and a body.  And I look up and that body is JOHN TRAVOLTA!
There I was in the most celebrated television talk show studio of all time, with my clipboard and my pretend boyfriend who cancelled on my in 1976. And all I could think about was my MOM. And how grateful I was that she took the time to invite me to a television show that would change my life forever, and that I took the time to say YES.

Last November, I invited my mom to the Watching Oprah exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture and after she said NO to me many times, she said YES.

We stood in front of the wall that displayed my name and a quote I gave about how we booked the studio audience:

The trick was getting the right audience for a given topic. Back in the day we’d put voice-overs at the end of soap operas. ‘If you are cheating on your husband call this number.’ Then we’d spend all afternoon answering the phones ‘Oprah Show please hold, Oprah Show please hold, Oprah Show please hold.

OK, so it’s not exactly the quote I would have picked to best represent my contribution to The Oprah Winfrey Show –  but,  I’m in the freaking SMITHSONIAN so I’m not going to complain!

This quote gave me the great privilege of inviting my mom to stand beside me and say  “Look Mom, I’m in the Smithsonian because of you.”

I thanked my mom for saying YES to my invitation.  I also thanked her for not only giving me a start to my story, but also, a really nice end.

Look for the part of your story that sticks with you. Start there. And if you are having trouble finding a place to start, say yes to the next invitation that comes your way, from your mother or anyone who loves or likes you, and maybe you will find your story too.

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