Friday, March 8, 2013


Last weekend I was honored to be the keynote speaker at the Southern Interscholastic Press Association (SIPA)'s annual convention, a gathering of high school journalists from across the south.

I know what you're thinking - it's the same thing that I thought when they asked me. 

Why me/you?  Couldn't they get anyone better?

Well, apparently not.  But also, my high school journalism teacher runs the organization.  She invited me to teach at the conference two years ago and I've been doing so ever since.  This year, she asked if I would kick things off with a 20 minute speech.

I was completely flattered, but also completely freaked out, having not spoken in a setting like this in years, if ever.  I knew I would not have a problem speaking for 20 minutes.  But finding something meaningful to say - that would be the challenge.

I associate keynote speakers with Chris Farley's character on Saturday Night Live who, "Lived in a van...down by the river!!" or with people who have achieved great things in their career.


I have had certainly had some career highlights - but I truly hope I haven't already reached my peak. 

After Googling "Keynote Speeches" (I really did), I decided to keep it generic (with the thinking that not all of the kids who are on the yearbook staff necessarily want to be journalists) and light (make as much fun of myself as possible) and practical (give them advice that they apply to their lives right now.)

I also decided to be completely honest - and tell them what I felt - that I'm not nearly qualified to give them advice about anything.

I called my presentation - "What I've Learned So Far," and it focused on some of the best advice I've received over the years.

Ask Questions. Listen. (And also, Shut. Up.)

Asking questions about everything and never taking things for face value is what makes me a good journalist.  Depending on who you ask, that quality is also what makes me a super annoying person.

I don't think, "why" was my first word, but it has quickly grown to be my favorite word. 

I'd say I've learned the most in my life, about life, by asking lots of questions and listening to other people, while never forgetting to listen to the voice inside your head that tells you, "It's time to move on," or "Don't give up," or "Put the shirt down and walk away from this expensive store."

None of the questions you ask are worth a damn if you don't listen to the answers, which requires, much to my chagrin, shutting the (bleep) up. 

embrace mistakes 2

Embrace Your Mistakes.
After telling all 450 eager students to shut up - which I thought they would think was funny but did not - I then told them that I wished that there life would be full of making mistakes.  I was on my way to becoming the meanest keynote speaker ever.  

I said that I believe it's only when we fail that we really learn about ourselves and allow ourselves to change for the better.  

I told them about some of my own embarrassing screw ups - including trying out to be an All-Star Dancer and getting a soccer mom hair cut at age 17 - I learned I'll never make it as a soloist and long hair is probably beset for me.

Playing it safe and doing the same thing in the same way means we may never be embarrassed or hurt or disappointed, but it also means we'll never fully realize our true potential.   

If you're not making mistakes, you're not doing anything, so hurry up and start making them.


Decide What to Be and Go Be It.

I heard this quote/lyric at an Avett Brothers concert and in an effort to appear hip and cool in front of the teenagers, I completely ripped it off during my speech.  I think it worked. 

I actually do happen to love everything about this quote, so it wasn't completely disingenuous.   

The concept is so simple - the only thing keeping us from what we want is our ability to decide and define what it is and the stamina/determination/skills/talent to go after it.

Yet it's so not simple at the same time - especially for someone like me who struggles with even the tiniest of decisions.  Sometimes knowing that the possibilities are endless feels overwhelming instead of empowering and often leaves me terrified, wondering, "What if I make the wrong choice?"

As I told them - and as I need to constantly remind myself - the best thing about deciding what you want to be is that it doesn't have to be a one-time decision.  As long as you're staying true to yourself and your beliefs and making intelligent and informed decisions (asking questions and making mistakes), there is no limit to how many times you can change your mind.


Side bar - I also had to fill them in on my own brutally honest advice that I made up myself and will
This phrase will likely be the title of my book so don't try to steal it -

"Nobody cares about you as much as you care about you."

I know, I know.  I'm the meanest keynote speaker ever.

But it's true - parents (mine included) pump their kids up so much that when they leave the nest they have a false sense of their worth.  I remember being shocked when I left the bubble of my hometown that jobs and opportunities weren't getting thrown at me at rapid fire speed.  I was bewildered and confused that not everyone thought I was awesome as my parents did.  I had to learn - quickly - that it's up to me to be my biggest motivator and #1 cheerleader and strongest promoter. 

On the flip side, believing that your existence and actions are under constant scrutiny is exhausting - so let it go!  Make mistakes - no one really cares about them as much as you think they do and not at all as much as you do.

Everyone is too busy worrying about themselves to worry too much about you.

"It's not about who you know - it's about who knows you." 

I cannot take credit for this quote whatsoever, but it's my favorite of all time, courtesy my first manager at CNN, Jason.

"People always think it's all about who you know around here," he said on my first or second day of work.

I nodded.  That sounded reasonable.

"But it's not," he said. "It's not about who you know - it's about who knows you."

Far too often, he said, people get so focused on meeting people and looking outward for opportunities, that they forget to do well the job they were hired to do.

Be awesome today, everyday, right now in the job and the life you're in and good opportunities will happen for you - and so will the recommendations from others who will see your potential. 


Despite a severe case of dry mouth that led to a few stumbles and stutters, the speech was a success and I had so much fun connecting with eager journalism students who will likely be gunning for my job sooner than I care to think about.  Their excitement reinvigorated me in my own job and made me think that it's time I start living some of the advice I've been giving.

I also love that in researching for my keynote address, I had an opportunity to talk to other people about the best advice they've been given.

What's yours?  Are you living it?


  1. Stephanie, your keynote was solid....good advice for your audience. I heard comment after comment during the weekend, esp from advisers saying, "My students were actually taking notes!"
    You are just getting started up the steps in your career. Who knows what the SIPA step will do for you.
    Get Feb. 28-March 2, 2014 on your calendar. We want you back.

    1. Thank YOU again for letting me be a part of it all. What a great experience!

  2. I am very impressed! I love your honest advice. Where can I pre-order your first book :)

    1. Thanks, Callie - it was that KEYS training that really helped. Maybe I could give you a discount on the book?

  3. Your awesome. Great advice.

    1. Ha - if I had a nickel for every time I screwed that up. :)

  4. What a great speech! Embrace your mistakes is the best advice EVER!! A mentor of mine told me once that if you aren't making mistakes you aren't trying. I share that with my students and my assistants all the time! You ROCK!

  5. Also maybe the greatest snl skit EVER....