Conduits Of Connection: Tracey Miller Segarra On The Heart Of Story

Telling personal stories onstage has emerged as not only one of the most rapidly-growing forms of entertainment, but as a vital skill for having impact in today’s world of constant, competing demands for attention. Tracey Miller Segarra views story as the bridge between human hearts as well as reliable and powerful way for clients to forge a connection with prospects and their network. As an award-winning Moth Grand Slam champion, featured performer, speaker, coach and corporate trainer she demonstrates this belief in her life and work. “I’ve always believed the maxim that people like doing business with people they like,” she wrote, in an email interview for this article. “In order to be liked, you have to make an emotional connection with people. Stories are the conduit to that connection.”

If stories are conduits, emotion is the energy flowing through them. Writing in “The Four Truths Of The Storyteller” in Harvard Business Review filmmaker Peter Guber affirms that any storyteller, from global executive to individual artist “must enter the hearts of his listeners, where their emotions live, even as the information he seeks to convey rents space in their brains. Our minds are relatively open, but we guard our hearts with zeal, knowing their power to move us. So although the mind may be part of your target, the heart is the bull’s-eye. To reach it, the visionary manager crafting his story must first display his own open heart.”

Compelling emotional connection in a story moves, entertains and inspires listeners. Finding the emotional truths that lie beneath the surface of life experiences is at the heart of the creative process involved with this unique art form. “I take the Moth’s advice to heart,” states Segarra, a 3-time Moth story slam winner, Moth Grand Slam champion and host of her own bi-monthly storytelling show Now You’re Talking. “If I’m not quite over the experience, or I’m not sure how it changed or affected me, I’m not ready to tell the story — or it’s not a story worth telling. Which is why most of the stories I tell happened many years ago. I’ve had time to integrate their meaning and message into my life, so that makes it easier to craft it into a story.” Here is Tracey Miller Segarra’s story “Game On” onstage at The Moth:

“This story is a good example of showing vulnerability and confusion and ultimately, the realization that what I was looking so hard for was there the whole time. I was just so mired in the past that I couldn’t see or accept the joy that was right there in front of me,” Segarra explains. Some pointers from her experience developing her own stories and coaching others:

Learn about story structure. There are classes and workshops both in-person and online that teach the framework for stories that have a clear focus. “I was afraid to be funny, although I wanted to be,” she says. “So I took a comedic storytelling class that was wonderful and taught me about structure, rhythms and ‘call backs.’ The story I worked on in that class ended up winning a StorySlam when I told it in 2016.”

Give the story the time and attention it needs to develop. Learning to allow a creative process to unfold is one of the most valuable side benefits of crafting a story to be shared in public. It is not unusual to work on a story for months, revising it over and over as it becomes clear what is important to include and what is best edited out.

Bring the audience into the moment. A powerful storyteller brings the listener into the scene for maximum impact. “I learned from another storyteller to try to always tell my story in the present — that helps the audience relive it with me,” says Segarra. This element of stories — when they engage both the emotions and imagination of the listener — has scientific evidence showing the reason they are such powerful conduits of human connection. Neuroscientist Paul Zak documented the surge of oxytocin, the brain chemical that produces “connection, care, and encourages empathy,” and cortisol which signal distress but also heightens attention, in listeners engaged with a story that communicated this kind of emotional immediacy.

Dig deep and allow yourself to be vulnerable. Spalding Gray used to say that he “walks around the stage on all flaws.” For a story to authentically connect, we must be ready to share the full measure of our fears and foibles as well as flashes of awareness. In her corporate work as well as coaching individual storytellers, Segarra noted that in relating specific events and experiences in their lives, storytellers “often forgot to talk about how it made them feel or what they were thinking when it was going on. Telling uncomfortable truths about ourselves is difficult, but that’s what resonates with an audience.”

Use sensory detail. “One technique I learned from one of my mentors is to use all your senses to try to flesh out a memory,” Segarra states. “What did it look like, smell like, sound like.” This lines up with research into the way our brains process information that explains the persuasive and compelling power of a well-told story. When the brain experiences rich imagery and emotionally compelling moments the story has the greatest impact and is more likely to be remembered. Research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience showed that when the brain hears “the crisp Granny Smith apple made a snapping sound as I bit into its taut green skin” the auditory cortex lights up when the sound is described, the gustatory cortex lights up at the description of the taste, as if the listener hears, tastes and feels that apple. When a storyteller says “I waltz to the door,” the motor cortex lights up. This brain activity is what makes a well-crafted story a lived experience for the listener.

Try to remember dialogue. Engagement is greatly enhanced when a storyteller is able to represent characters within it through their actual words and style of communication. “I was having trouble bringing someone to life in my story. My husband was actually the one who remembered something the character in my story used to say that was uniquely her, and told you in a sentence everything you needed to know about her. It got the biggest laugh in my story and gave my audience the insight they needed to have about her with a single sentence.”

Storytelling transformed Tracey Miller Segarra’s life, and it is her intention to continue down this increasingly rewarding and fulfilling road. On Saturday May 6 she brings her storytelling show “Now You’re Talking” to The Merrick Theater with a line-up of storytelling stars — click here for tickets — and she continues to perform, teach and write about this compelling art form that seems ideally suited to the times in which we live.

You know how they say when something is right, doors will start opening for you? Well, I feel like they’re flinging wide open for me. I’ve already booked workshops, speaking engagements, corporate work — just by sharing my stories and putting them out there. It kind of blows my mind. And makes me wonder what’s possible once I really start methodically working towards the goals I’ve set for myself. I hope to one day spend each and every day doing something related to storytelling for the rest of my life. Tracey Miller Segarra

Check out Tracey Miller Segarra’s website by clicking here

Buy tickets to Now You’re Talking at The Merrick Theater on May 6 here

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, MT is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is president of Lifestage, Inc a professional development company that is NYS-approved to offer CE for social workers, and host of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that features true stories- with a twist- told by people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds.