Connect with your audience through storytelling - an interview with Samantha Starmer of REI

August 7, 2012

With so much information bombarding conference attendees during an event, it's easy to overwhelm and saturate an audience with facts, figures and data. A skilled storyteller can form a deeper connection with each audience member by sharing knowledge in story form.

Samantha Starmer leads cross-channel experience, design, and information architecture teams at REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.). An active public speaker, Samantha has evolved her presentation style to that of storytelling. Audience members quickly forget that they're in a conference room or auditorium, and are immediately drawn in as Samantha's story unfolds.

We caught up with Samantha just after her return from O'Reilly OSCON where she presented the workshop How to Design for the Future - Cross Channel Experience Design.

Samantha, thanks for grabbing some time to talk with us. What led you to adopt storytelling as your style of public speaking?

Samantha StarmerHappy to! Two things: having attended a lot of conferences, both user experience (UX) and retail-specific conferences, I kept finding myself wanting to get up and leave. Even when there was value in what the presenter was saying.

The second thing that happened was I hired Jonathon Colman to do SEO. He gave a presentation to our team about what SEO is, and he did it by telling a story. I saw how well it resonated. This got me to reexamine how presentations can connect with the audience.

How did your thought process evolve as you changed your approach to creating presentations?
I gave a presentation for the Intelligent Content conference a few years ago on UX. It was the first time I had talked on that topic. I was busy and hadn’t put the structure into the presentation yet. I had the points in mind but then I noticed something about the hotel in Palm Springs: it had a policy of no signs. This impacted my feelings about the hotel and whether I would come back. I spent the day exploring and taking photos of the area surrounding the hotel. I put the photos together and the story came together. It was particularly relevant as I was currently having the experience!

Have you noticed any differences in the way people react to storytelling style vs. traditional bullet point style of presenting?
Right off the bat I saw people nodding and laughing, frowning – emotionally reacting in a different way. Now I kick off with that story because it creates a different kind of relationship with the audience. It connects people right away.

What challenges or stumbling blocks do you experience when crafting a presentation in story form?

Samantha Starmer with cameraI’m consciously looking for the story now (the Palm Springs just kind of happened upon me). At the OSCON conference I took a bunch of pictures in Portland and will save them for the next presentation. I’m constantly pulling out my iphone and taking photos, not really knowing what they will turn into. I let it percolate a bit.

Stumbling blocks? It’s easy to get so wrapped up in the story that it’s not relevant to the point you’re trying to make in the presentation. I always have to remember what the point of the presentation is about, it’s easy to go too far with the story or get into details that don’t have anything to do with the point. You have to keep it honed back in to the presentation. I’m always looking for story opportunities, but I’m always conscious of the point of the story.

What's your approach to assembling slides?
I start with the outline of the point I’m trying to make. Sometimes just a couple of blank slides with words. Then I layer the pictures on top of that, and often end up with way more than I need to use. Then I need to edit back to make sure it’s the right size, and then practice it. During practice I winnow back.

My quality of presentation got exponentially better when I started to practice. I have a background in improvisational acting, but my presentation is always better when I practice. It’s the arc of the story but most importantly the transitions. I hate to practice, but I force myself to because then I stay true to the point.

How do you introduce context differently when presenting in a storytelling style?
You’re not necessarily talking about the context – not context face on, it’s meta-context. You’re trying to draw a parallel to what you’re talking about. A story adds, especially for a conference situation, it puts people in the context . They can more quickly understand the rest of what you’re trying to say because they personally identify with the context you’ve set in the story. (If you’ve done it successfully.)

Which visual designers inspire you?
I’m not someone who follows particular people or artists. I tend to be collector – my learning style has always been to look at everything. Then pick out bits and pieces. That’s my lifestyle as well. Even back in high school, I would wind up with way too much material.

What tips can you share with presenters who want to move away from bullet points and toward storytelling?
Be always ready and open to absorb a story and portions of a story. I’m always attuned now to situations that might help me tell a story. Or images or comments. Have your high-level theme in your mind first, then make sure that it ties to the story you’re trying to tell. The pictures that I take are less around the photos themselves and more around telling a story. All the time keeping in mind the point you’re trying to make. I personally wouldn’t go out seeking a story. It just never works – it needs to happen to me instead. It’s a part of my consciousness all the time.

For me, I haven’t studied about what a good story is, but ever since I was young I was a voracious reader. I mostly read narrative – fiction and memories. I think that helps me internalize what a story is.

After more than 10 years of customer focused work at companies like and Microsoft, Samantha Starmer now leads cross-channel experience, design, and information architecture teams at REI (Recreational Equipment Inc.). Samantha regularly teaches at the University of Washington, and enjoys speaking about experience design and how to gain support for increasing its organizational value and visibility. You can find Samantha on SlideShare, LinkedIn, and on Twitter at @samanthastarmer.