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Panel Nerds: PostSecret Tells Half The Story

nerdzWho: Frank Warren (PostSecret)

What: Barnes and Noble’s “An Evening with Frank Warren” for “PostSecret: Life, Death, and God

Where: Columbia University Teachers College’s Cowin Center

When October 6, 2009

Thumbs: At our sides

Frank Warren delivered a memorable and well-rehearsed presentation detailing the many lives his Web site and pet project, PostSecret, has impacted. Warren performs as a self-help guru and therapist to hundreds of thousands of strangers, including some of the event’s attendees. They showed up to continue to share their stories — of which Warren has now published five books worth — and Warren wanted to hear them.

Warren says he’s received secrets written on seashells, nude pictures, bananas, death certificates and even sonograms. He posts his favorites on his site for all to read, digest, analyze and decipher. His blog succeeds because Warren allows the post cards and messages to speak for themselves. He pointed to several instances where images he has posted elicited a strong and influential response from others who faced similar predicaments or trauma to the one expressed on the site.

We would have preferred if Warren had allowed his material to speak more loudly than him. It was evident that he’d run out of new ideas halfway through the event, repeating messages of love and forgiveness and themes of self-identity and transformation. While heavier trends like these turn up on the site — and the site itself can provide a life-changing connection for some —  we would have liked Warren to focus more on the lighthearted and whimsical entries, too.

For instance, what’s the most common secret Warren has seen? People pee in the shower. He mentioned that he frustrates many readers by leaving the barcode sticker on the side that can block out words from notes. After sitting through the secrets shared by the audience, we were most intrigued by the dietician who revealed that she hates talking about nutrition and enjoys drinking beer. That was the most honest and universally relevant story we heard all night.

What They Said

“They have some kernel of truth or wisdom to grow from or live from.”

– Frank Warren says that people can say more with their secrets than anything else

“Sometimes when we think we’re keeping a secret that secret is really keeping us.”

– Frank Warren has learned things about himself from sharing his own secrets

“Every secret is like an individual voice being heard for the first time and when you see them all together it’s like a conversation.”

– Frank Warren manages to hear all those voices at once

What We Thought

  • We wish Barnes and Noble would co-sponsor more events at universities. It drew the young crowd of students that this event deserved, and prompted the current and future teachers to consider how to work Warren’s lessons into their classrooms. It would have had a different audience and feel to it had this lecture taken place at a local book store.
  • Warren said that interviewers are often more interested in hearing about his post cards that deal with crime. He said that nobody ever asks about the stack of cards he gets that divulge people’s struggles with eating disorders, self-harm and suicidal tendencies. It isn’t surprising to learn that Warren used to work at a suicide hotline where he gave an underrepresented population an outlet to share their feelings.
  • He displayed a series of notes that the publisher rejected from the book. It led Warren into a rant about how Wal-Mart is a major source of censorship in this country, and how he’s proud that none of his books have been sold there. Had Warren spent significant time talking about how censorship related to his blog, we would have been intrigued and probably even supportive. The way it came out of the blue, though, Warren wound up sounding a bit too disgruntled for our liking.


Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Lousy Storytellers

Warren asked the audience to share their secrets during the Q&A. Some people offered up stories they’d never told anyone before. Then one guy told a story about how he tried to implement the PostSecret model into a lesson for his ninth grade class. He indicated that one student in particular was struck by the assignment and produced an artistic achievement that began to explain some of his academic and emotional troubles. We had our own set of trouble understanding the retelling of the story since it was full of loose and distracting details. Brevity is the key to PostSecret and its connected stories.

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