Hailed as a “storytelling guru” by the Wall Street Journal, Brooklyn-based Kate Tellers knows a thing or two about captivating an audience and relating to others. Finding her voice through the narrative podcast The Moth, she is now host and director of MothWorks, a program of workshops geared to harness the power of storytelling as a communication tool for business solutions. Her clients can range from stand up comedians to Fortune 500 CEOs, but they all have one thing in common: Once she’s done working with them, they understand the power of a strong narrative.
She sat down with VINAZINE to offer advice on role models, leadership, how to be a better communicator, as well as facing hard losses.
Q: Thanks for talking to VINAZINE! From your experience, what is the most important thing in creating genuine relationships with other people?
A: I think the answer is in the question: A genuine relationship is one that’s honest. Where each person accepts the other for who they truly are, and sometimes that person is messy, or can’t stop accidentally sharing spoilers for Big Little Lies, and that’s fine. That total acceptance lifts up the good stuff, too, because it just makes it easier to celebrate each others’ wins and leave competitiveness aside. That’s my friend, I know them inside and out and they damn well deserve that.
Q: For the novice, what is the key to being a good communicator and what steps can you take to become one?
A: So much about being a good communicator is about creating an authentic connection with an audience and making them care. The best thing you can do is consider what it is that you’re trying to communicate and why you, personally, care about it. If you care, then your audience has a reason to and the inspiration to lean forward and listen. We’re constantly being communicated at; The best communicators can get to the heart of the message, the big why underneath, and connect to that.
Q: What do you think is the most significant barrier to women leadership?
A: I think there is still inherent discomfort in the world with the experience of being a woman. We default to men in leadership because that’s what we know, because those are the stories that have always been told, and they’re familiar and predictable. So that has to change. We need to acknowledge our discomfort with what is different and less known, and truly commit to being aware of making choices that make things better, even if we’re moving into uncharted territory. Diversity, and this goes beyond gender, is essential. Challenging the norm doesn’t always feel easy or good, but new ideas and perspectives are the only way to progress.
Q: Your Moth story, “But Also Bring Cheese” touches on losing perhaps the most important relationship in a woman’s life—that with her mother. In times of loneliness, where have you found your support system, and what would you say to others that are dealing with similar feelings?
A: After my mother passed away, we, her family and close friends, sat in her living room and told stories about her. My aunt told me about watching my mother dive down to roll around on the floor with me and my sister when we were little kids, and how it was so obvious how much she loved us. That memory has always stuck with me, and now that I have children of my own, I’ll have moments when I’m on the floor with them and I’ll remember how much I was loved and how I can show my love to my children in a way that sticks around longer than I might.
A few months after she died, I went to a Moth event, and the act of listening to and telling stories has become fundamental to who I am. Telling a story about someone is the one real way that we have to bring them into the present, and it reminds us that the people and events that have come before us matter, and that part of them can live on forever.
So I’d say find a place where you can tell your stories. It could be on-stage with thousands of people, maybe it’s the regular practice of writing in a journal. Maybe you’ll find people who will listen and that will feel right; Maybe in thinking about your stories, a memory will pop up and feel like a visit. Perhaps you’ll notice similarities between the two of you that you never saw before, or maybe you’ll remind yourself of something she taught you, and that can be a way that she guides you into the future without her.
Also, every year on the day that she passed away, I do a toast. One year my husband, who never met her, learned how to make our family’s Lebanese spinach pies and we threw a party. Other years it’s just been us taking a moment to mark the passage of time without one spectacular woman. I find the act of remembering to be very healing.
Q: Give the younger you – the woman just barely beginning her career – the top three pieces of advice you’ve gained in retrospect.
A: One—Working with people means spending time with human beings. Take care of yourself so that you can be your best self with your colleagues, and treat them with genuine interest and respect. Two—More often than not, your managers and mentors care about your happiness. That doesn’t mean that it’s their job to give you only assignments that will spark full-blown joy, but they’re likely spending more time than you think considering how to make your work worthwhile, not only for your org. but for you, too. Three—Give your time to the things that make you happy, even if there isn’t an obvious direct route to a job. At the very least you’re setting yourself up should an opportunity arise, and you’re growing as a person who is more qualified to be in the spaces that move you.
Q: What is your definition of happiness?
A: I experience true happiness when I feel like everything that has happened in my life has led me to the moment I am living in right now.
Q: What woman inspires you and why?
A: Chicago’s first Commissioner of Cultural Affairs and subject of the wildly popular Malcolm Gladwell piece in the New Yorker, “Six Degrees of Lois Weisberg.” She was described in the New York Times as “a whirlwind of civic enthusiasm.” Lois had friends in social circles across Chicago and, as a “connector,” brought people together to better communities and bring art to new spaces. I admire that she maintained a diverse friend circle, and she was able to see the potential in those friends to come together and do great good.
Featured picture by Jason Falchook for The Moth.
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