That Time I Invited a Poet To Speak at a Business Conference

In 2005 I invited the poet/philosopher David Whyte to speak at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) conference in Seattle for a track I created for coffee communications professionals. More than 10 years later, people still talk to me about it. I have been tromping through some old computer files and I came across the introduction I wrote for that day. This is me introducing David Whyte in 2005:

Mike Ferguson Introduces David Whyte
CoffCom 2005

In the summer of 1997 I was halfway through a graduate degree in fiction writing and even though graduation was nine months off I was already experiencing anxiety about what would follow. Though I loved writing, I had come to understand that the stereotypical writer’s life was not for me, not only because I enjoyed the regular company of people but because I also enjoyed the dynamics of the workplace. I was drawn to the business world and read almost as many business and management books as works of fiction and poetry. That summer I was lucky enough to be house-sitting in the Santa Cruz Mountains south of San Francisco. Nestled deep in the redwoods, the home was a writer’s dream with views of trees out every window, deep silence, and a large, eclectic library with as many books of poetry as books on leadership. Among the poetry I found a book by David Whyte and on the same day, an audio tape of David Whyte, but the tape was in the business section because he was speaking to business leaders.

Reading and listening to David Whyte that summer I began a process of bridging the felt gap between my artists self and my workplace self that would result less than a year later in my coming to work for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Far from being chance, SCAA was the end of a very deliberate and specific search for the right workplace.

When we began planning a coffee communications summit, some echo of our intentions recalled to me the voice of David Whyte. As functions within an organization, marketing and public relations are subject to a significant degree of suspicion, not always undeserved, and yet the marketing and communications professionals are often more likely than others to be in touch with the spiritual act of creativity. Yes, we are responsible for selling the story of our organization but within that, or before that, in every way inseparable from that, we are responsible for the telling of the story. We are the storytellers and this is in my view an enormous responsibility. The storyteller is in a very real sense the soul of the community. And this is why we’ve asked David Whyte to speak to us today, because as the storytellers, there is soulfulness in what we do and the soul must not go untended.