OTASiouxFalls: The Story Continues

If there is a defining theme or way to organize my thoughts around all that was shared during OTA's recent conference in Sioux Falls it would be STORY. OTA, drawn from the similar ending of the tri-states beginning with Minne, North Dak and South Dak, suggests the commonalities we share among the region. It celebrates, connects and serves as a catalyst for anyone looking to find, explore or share their passion.

OTA celebrates through story. The conference, supported partly by The Bush Foundation, intersperses emotionally-charged videos crafted by Sioux Falls filmmakers, Passenger Productions, during speaker transitions. The August 28th OTA was my third OTA (see recaps from OTA April 2014 and OTA September 2014), so I've seen over a dozen of these films. Each one of them capture the essence of the human pursuit of finding one's passion. They share a story and provide inspiration.

Take Abby Bischoff's story about her life as a photographer (Abby is also an OTA organizer). In her quest to capture people's most celebrated moments from weddings to babies, her work continued to press a question upon her: where were her moments for her pursuits and passions? She began allowing time to veer off her wedding destination map and make intentional time to photograph abandoned farm houses along the way. See her work here and on Abandoned: South Dakota (her Facebook page with 31,000+ likes and engagement the impact and response to her work).

OTA Sioux Falls: A Day of Stories (@WeAreOTA)

The day's line-up included seven speakers, fitness instruction for conferences from CPMFitness, nourishment from Pomegranate Markets and entertainment by Rock Garden Tour. OTA excels in this national to local balance that draws inspiration from outside the region in its speaker selection (many who have never been to the region) and draws in partners and participants in a way that feels very homegrown. Hugh Weber, OTA's founder, commented on their intentions with OTA and current goal: to fulfill more of the catalyst for change role. He touched on the capping the conference around 225, noting that a previous Sioux Falls OTA with 500+ attendees was beyond the sweet spot for the ideal connectivity OTA envisions.

Meredith Walker

Meredith Walker, co-creator of Amy Poehler's Smart Girls and so much more, kicked off the day. Meredith met Amy while at Saturday Night Live and formed a friendship amidst the chaos happening all around them. She shared her story about not always fitting in -- specifically in the 7th and 8th grade years (the majority of her SNL co-workers emphatically agreed was possibly the worst stage of their lives). As Amy and Meredith probed more into this uncomfortable phase and searched for relatable language to empower girls to be themselves and shove aside the supposed to's, they landed on Get Your Hair Wet. The phrase is inspired by that moment at the beach or pool where you decide that it's too much work to get your hair wet. My 7th grade daughter just had this moment two weeks ago at the pool. Oh no, I thought. Really? Get in! ...A reminder that you should get into the water as often as possible (see starter activity here).

Lea Thau

Lea Thau, creator and host of Strangers and formerly of The Moth, a storytelling organization; shared a video of a Story Slam and walked us through the arc of a story and all of its elements. In her work with companies like Nike and Google, she shared a business example that touched on the first rule: know your audience and what keeps them up at night. Then make it clear that you're passionate about the same thing. Too often in business, it comes off like a sales pitch when the goal should be building buy-in along the way for the solution. Lea also shared this idea of showing, not telling, in an example that drove home her point. It's about the specifics so don't just tell people your grandmother was mean, tell them she was so mean that she saved all of the flower vases you broke in her shop when you were little, and wrapped them up as a Christmas present for you. Now that's mean!

At this point in the conference, we were given a story task from Lea. We were also asked to find the person that OTA paired us up with based on the book for exchange we indicated we'd bring to the conference. I found Marisa under our collective author card, Donna Tartt. We exchanged books so I had Letting Go of The Camera in my hands and Eat, Pray, Love was in hers. We discussed the Fish Out of Water story challenge Lea had laid out for us. Upon returning to the theater, Laurie, one brave soul, got up and told her story.

Wesley Verhoeve

Next up: Wesley Verhoeve, a Brooklyn-based photographer and multi-disciplinary creative. Wesley's questions about creative types caused him to seek out answers by talking with and photographing creatives across 12 American cities. He found out anecdotally and shared stories of creative types who moved out of cities like San Francisco and New York, for example, and are finding it more affordable, welcoming and supportive to do their thing in smaller cities. Like a rock band, he's on tour. But unlike touring of that sort he spends around two to four weeks in each city for his project, One of Many, in order to immerse himself into that culture and gain a sense of place. Next up for Wes? A detour to Rapid City (coincidently, where a future OTA will be held).

On the heels of Wesley's tour of American cities, Rock Garden Tour ushered us into the lunch hour with the folk icon duo of Flowerman and Oil Can and their band. Their radio show format focused on corn and barns with songs touting nearly every major South Dakota town. Most definitely #homegrown.

Russ Carpenter

After a healthy lunch and walk in #DTSF (downtown Sioux Falls), we heard from Russ Carpenter, a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of South Dakota (#homegrowntalent) who's now at Stanford. Russ recently launched STEM Speak and in general cares about communicating, specifically getting really intelligent people who know their stuff to communicate in a way that others understand to make for better collaborators. Russ touched on business presentations and cited the most common ways people typically prepare for presentations: they start too late and they start with pre-made PowerPoint slides from a previous presentation. Scrap that and follow: 1. Author 2. Audience 3. Purpose and 4. Message. Each presentation is an opportunity to be uniquely persuasive.

Alexa Miller

Following Russ, Alexa Miller, ArtsPractica, aligns medical training with visual art. She spoke of her personal story surrounding misdiagnosis and the thought habits that contribute to them. She led the audience in an exercise she guides her clients and students through using Picasso's Family of Saltimbanques from 1905. The audience comments flowed in and regardless of art savviness, the observations rooted in instinct and drawn from cues, provided a glimpse into the importance of the process and journey Alexa imparts for those in the medical field.

James Fowler

As if to continue on the health and observations path, we welcomed James Fowler to the stage. James' enthusiasm for exploration, discovery and correlations through data were contagious (in a good way). Dr. Fowler, featured in Time's Year in Medicine and in Harvard Business Review's Breakthrough Business Ideas, presented his original ah-ha moment when he wanted to prove that voting was more of a social experience than individual activity through studying influence and the power of connectedness. James' findings centered around three causes of similarity and clustering: 1. Influence 2. Homophily (love of the same) and 3. Context. And for a data geek, I appreciated that he threw in the word: karma.

David Oyelowo

For our final story of the day, Selma director Ava Duvernay, who regrettably had to back out of her OTA appearance, sent a noteworthy sub. Actor David Oyelowo, Selma, graced Sioux Falls with his stage presence and shared insights into who he is as a human being, outside of his role as an actor. Then we happily dove right into his acting roles. From serendipity that placed him next to Ava Duvernay's friend on a flight to direct messages from God and Oprah, I think the audience concurred that yes, David, was right where he was supposed to be. He was not an overnight success, but a work in practice throughout a career supported by a handful of people in his life who knowingly or not, just happened to give him the right nugget of feedback at the right time.

As with all of the presenters through the course of the day, we simply checked in with them at a point in time along their journey as they're creating their story. This reminded me that we're all a work in progress. We are not defined or over at any given point in time. We need to continue to get our hair wet, stumble, fail, succeed, do, create and become. End of story.