Guest Star: Michelle Bushneff, Storyteller Extraordinaire

By Jackelyn Ho

There are some people you meet in this world that just strike you the right way. Whether it’s their effortless conversational flow, their neverending slew of genius ideas, or just their comforting presence in your life, the spark is there. I felt this when I first met Michelle Bushneff last year, when she reached out to me to do an Instagram takeover for Athleta. She was a #GIRLBOSS at its finest. Since then, we’ve collaborated several more times, my favorite being a personalized body image .gif she made of me using the Magic Chocolate Wall. Need a thoughtful, smart, and talented chica to make your dreams come true? Michelle is your girl. Michelle has dabbled in so many cool careers, but she is a natural-born storyteller and digital media maven. Her story is one of my favorites, especially because at a time when you would think someone should hold onto a stable job at a popular company, Michelle foraged her own path. She has a strong vision of what she wants to do and she’s not letting anyone or anything get in her way. Like the famous Robert Frost quote says, “Two roads diverged in the woods and I, I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.”

Tell me about yourself.

Well that’s a packed question! The short story is I’m an ordinary girl with a lot of passion, a drive to challenge norms (in a positive way) and a creative spark that fuels everything. I’ve been married to the love of my life for 25 years, and am loved by many great people. That makes me the luckiest girl on the planet.

How did you get started in your career and what is your current path now?

That’s a longer story… As an art student in college, I got hooked on computer graphics. At that time there wasn’t much courseware available to creative types, so I took a bunch of math and computer science classes alongside the art curriculum. That was weird, but it’s when I realized I’m a creative scientist-type. My dad’s penchant for being involved with pioneering work influenced me—he was a rocket scientist (literally) who worked on the Apollo space missions when I was growing up. My mom always supported my creativity and influenced my interest in fashion. She once gave me her wedding outfit, and encouraged me to cut it up and remake it into my own design. How many moms would do that?

After college I was determined to break into this new field of computer art, which led to starting my career as a digital artist and animator working on “edutainment” products for the emerging consumer software market. I worked on the very first Apple computers and numerous other platforms that are now relegated to history museums (hello, Commodore64!).

Fast forward through lots of tech evolution, career growth in creative and product leadership roles, and work for startups and brands in emerging markets–from educational tech toys to casual gaming to digital magazines and the pre-iPhone era of mobile applications.

Then in 2001 my radar honed in on social media, when blogging was just getting started and social networks like Friendster and MySpace were beginning to emerge. I dove in headfirst and have been riding the swells ever since. In 2007 I ventured into the retail world, joining Athleta to found and grow the social, content and influencer marketing programs from the ground up, with a vision for creating and curating meaningful content that forged the customer connection. At the time social media wasn’t acknowledged as a “real” job, so I also covered different roles in ecommerce and email marketing.

Where am I now? Well, some may think I’m out on a limb without a safety net. I’ve done all the things career experts tell you not to do, especially when you’re over 50… I left a coveted job in a growing market. I didn’t have another job. (According to this article, I should start building a raft so I’m ready to float out to sea when I hit 55.) None of that deterred me. I just knew it was time to leap…

My new venture, BIGthinkster Lab, centers on working with and “investing” in people and businesses that are challenging norms with authentic, meaningful products, services or media—all with a heart for social good. And I have tons of support from loved ones, so off I go into the wild blue yonder!

What does it mean to be a storyteller? How can one become better at storytelling in a personal and marketing sense?

There’s a line in the poem Desiderata that touches on how I feel about storytelling: “Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.” My interest in storytelling comes from curiosity and empathy. Everyone has a story. People connect through their stories. Storytellers have a drive to forge those connections.

For me, the key to being a better storyteller—personally or professionally—is to be a better “reader.” I’m not talking about reading a bunch of stories. That’s part of the equation, but the bigger part is learning to read less tangible sources. Study people, listen and observe group dynamics. Look for patterns and connections. Make it an ongoing practice to improve your “reading the intangible” instincts. Then when you set out to tell the story—in any medium—it will flow more authentically and is more likely to spark an emotional connection with the intended audience.

You are also an expert at social media campaigns from your experience in marketing. What are your favorite tips for start ups and companies to follow when executing a campaign?

Yes, I’ve conceived and managed a bunch of social campaigns, but expert? Nah. As a perpetual learner, I’m reluctant to call myself an expert at anything. Plus, the social media and content marketing channel is dynamic and somewhat unpredictable. What qualifies anyone as an expert today can shift tomorrow.

I don’t really have a favorite campaign execution tip that applies universally–what works in one scenario doesn’t necessarily apply to another. While that may sound complicated, it’s actually not. Executing a campaign is relatively easy. It’s the steps leading up to execution that are key. In general, knowing and serving your community, building a meaningful strategy to engage them while achieving your goals, and assuring you have passionate, brand-right creative talent on your side will put you on the best course.

What is your favorite story to tell?

What comes to mind is a story about my personal and professional connecting…

Once upon a time I had the opportunity to “meet” someone who was a big influence on my childhood, Dr. Seuss (aka Theodore Geisel). At the time I was executive producer for a series of products created in partnership with Random House, keepers of the Seuss license at that time. As the last step in gaining product sign-off, we traveled to La Jolla, California to present the product to Audrey Geisel, Ted’s widow.

The meeting started with a social breakfast at a historic hotel in La Jolla, where half a grapefruit was the first course and Audrey presented her collection of antique grapefruit spoons, inviting us to select one. I kinda fell in love with her at that point.

After breakfast, we were invited to the home she shared with her husband before his passing. Upon entering, she led me to a table in the entry and introduced me to the box containing his ashes. Such a sweet gesture! After a tour of the house, we showed Audrey the product. I recall her expressions of joy and delight seeing the opening animation, and that made me well up with tears.

I would have loved to meet Theodore Geisel when he was alive, but will never forget the experience of meeting Audrey and being in the place where he conceived some of the brilliant work that has transcended so many generations and touched so many hearts.

Tell me about a typical workout that you do. Okay, and what about one that you actually LOVE to do?

Typical and LOVE go hand-in-hand for me. I learned that secret in college (where I may or may not have worn workout fashion like this) and have been a body in motion ever since.

Yoga has been a cornerstone of my fitness routine for 10+ years. I love that there’s always something new to learn, and it’s so adaptable to any given day. Generally I go for a Vinyasa flow class, but have tried most every style of yoga.

Because I live in a spectacular area for hiking, that’s my go-to for cardio. I ♥ hills! Also love any type of dance fitness, and can’t pass up an outdoor boot camp-style workout when friends are involved. Workouts are my time to be social, exercise my brain with a good podcast, or just take in the beauty around me.

What is one mantra that you try to live by every single day?

Hmm, every day is different so that’s a tough one… Gratitude is definitely a common thread! And being OK with discomfort–because growth happens outside the comfort zone.