Chris Robertson fell for the woman on stage because of some very compelling visual aides. As designer Pamela Steiner told her story, he became more and more compelled, first by the usual matter things people have in common, and then, the kicker: she told the audience about how she enjoyed sending emails to her coworkers with corny jokes in them, and didn’t understand why no one else thought they were funny. Robertson thought it was hilarious. He and Steiner have been together ever since.
“It’s something so simple and something you wouldn’t have found out any other way,” Robertson says.
The duo met at Me So Far, a singles night-meets-storytelling monthly event held at the Den Theatre in Chicago. The evenings are the brainchild of Lakshmi Rengarajan, a strategic planner at the Draftfcb advertising agency. She, like many in her field, watched the rise of slideshow culture and visual storytelling to prominence in new media in business, most notably in the TED Conference and Pecha Kucha Nights. Her events take the Pecha Kucha format—slides to present a design or architectural idea in a quick, well-flowing and highly visual manner—and translate it to the single experience.
“I combined that with the idea that the way people are dating today, it’s led by their intellect and not by their hearts, and I think this is one of those arenas where your heart should lead more than your head,” she says.
Rangarajan says there is a lot of space between the way people date now and how relationships typically form. Whereas online dating relies on snap judgments and instant gratification, when Rangarajan interviewed couples to find out how they met, what she found was that they most often said they “grew on” each other. Me So Far seeks to bypass the awkwardness and occasional sheer terror of small talk, replicate the experience of growing on someone and creating that level of intimacy and appreciation in a single night.
Me So Far’s participants (10 to 12 per event) have 20 seconds to discuss each slide, designed with their own touches in a manner akin to PostSecret cards, and in doing so, they weave an account of their life experiences—“the meaningful, the mundane and everything in between,” Rengarajan says, as opposed to the major talking points one would put on a Facebook profile—in a way audiences and fellow singles can connect and enjoy.
Rengarajan says she is not against online dating—she views Me So Far as being a complementary experience to dating sites as opposed to a replacement. “Online dating is like Pandora,” she says. “We’re like going to Pitchfork.”
It’s not storytelling in the traditional sense, Rangarajan says, in that participants are not required to put together a linear narrative, and are in fact somewhat discouraged from it. It is in the sense that everyone has a story in them, and one that is compelling and true and worth conveying.
People take to that level of intimacy in different ways. A rather surprising number, as seen on past slides Rangarajan exhibited at the one-year anniversary celebration in March of 2012, talk about previous relationships with an almost refreshing openness.
“I think traditionally, when we view our past relationships, it’s usually a sob story,” Robertson says. “But I think the people who come here are comfortable enough in saying, ‘This is who I am, this is how I got here.’ Out of that story, sometimes, is a relationship you used to have.”
Some of the prompts take traditional dating-icebreaker questions and turn them on their heads. Instead of “What’s your favorite movie?” which can only reveal so much about a person (and usually just what kind of lies they like to tell), the speaker is asked, ‘What is your favorite movie to watch when you’re sick or hung over?’ Not only is this probably the presenter’s real favorite movie, but obviously a far more intimate admission.
Rangarajan’s favorite question in the deck, which every participant must answer, is “What’s your number?” As opposed to being about telephone digits or previous partners, participants must respond with a number of significance to them and explain why. One participant offered their graduation year—2011—the year they became the first person in their family ever to be awarded a postgraduate degree. For Steiner, that number was 42—the number of animals she had growing up.
“It’s the strange stuff that I think is awesome, but I also want to make sure my date thinks it’s awesome, so I’m just going to tell it to you now,” Steiner says. “I don’t want to feel like, ‘What’s he going to think when he finds out I had three horses, a donkey and five chickens growing up.’ So I’m just going to tell him now and he can do whatever he wants with it.”
Me So Far has generated some interest in other cities, but bandwidth is an issue. For now, you’ll have to head to Chicago to participate, but she’s looking for funding and people to launch the event in other cities.
The events often have a theme tied in: “Hot For Teacher” was a night for Chicago Public Schools and local university teachers to take the stage and talk about something other than the curriculum. Their next event, on March 31, will be “New In Town,” where all the speakers are recent Chicago transplants or anyone who feels like they’ve just arrived. The organizers held their first all-LGBTQ event in February. April’s event, “Me vs. Cancer,” is an opportunity for participants fighting cancer, survivors or anyone strongly affected by illness to come and share their experiences in the same format.
Rangarajan says the event has a “re-setting” effect on people. They start to look at dating and interacting with others differently, and enjoying being single.
“Every single person in the audience was smiling,” she says. “Not laughing, smiling. And it was just such a great moment to see people enjoying being single and being in this moment.”
There have been other “a-ha” moments for Rengarajan. The awkward presenter who came in, found his stride and owned the space. The participant who emailed her to say, “I’ve become a hopeless romantic again.”
“There’s something about it that says you’re going to be more open and lean into your feelings and believe,” Rengarajan says. “And if we’re getting people back to that, their natural state, I think that’s good.”
• What’s one thing you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?
• What do you think people say about you when you’re not in the room?
• What’s your number?
• How did doing this assignment make you feel?
• Go through your internal dialogue when making a household purchase.
• What is something you have realized about yourself in the past year?
• What word do you overuse?
• “My life changed dramatically when ______.”
• Give us an excerpt from your most recent credit card statement and talk us through some of the purchases.
• Break down your ideal versus actual time usage.