May 29, 2012

How to Tell an Inspiring Story – Motivational Storytelling

Crucible Stories

by Doug Stevenson, creator of The Story Theater Method

A crucible is defined as a severe test. If you’ve suffered a great personal loss or hardship or endured a life threatening illness or challenge, you have a crucible story. Over the years, I’ve worked with Olympic athletes, cancer survivors, Mt. Everest climbers, amputees, tri-athletes, rape victims and people who have overcome incredible odds to find success in life. Their stories are survivor stories – often tales of near misses, of risking death and coming out alive. It takes courage, honesty and vulnerability to share these stories. They are very powerful stories, because they are real.


You don’t have to have faced a near death experience, however, to have a powerful crucible story. The loss of your job, your house or your marriage may have dashed your hopes and dreams. Loss of hope can be as devastating as the loss of a limb.


There can be no artifice or insincerity in the telling of a crucible story. Because these stories are so serious and have the potential for taking an audience to a deep level of emotion and vulnerability, you need to know what you’re doing.


Crucible stories reveal our human frailty, and at the same time, they reveal our incredible strength. They are testaments to the human spirit and can take an audience on a rollercoaster ride of emotion from sadness to joy. Sharing these stories is like walking a tightrope. And for your audience, it is as if they are sitting on your shoulders as you walk the tightrope. They are there with you.


Perhaps that’s why so many of my students come to the Story Theater Retreat wanting help with their crucible stories. These powerful stories have the power to inspire change in each audience member, but they are more complex to structure and present than “everyday” instructional stories.


I believe that each of us have crucible stories. We have each felt pain and loss. We have experienced defeat and overcome adversity. A single mother of three who goes on to complete her master’s degree need not feel humbled by someone who has climbed Mt. Everest. Anyone who has survived cancer knows as much pain as someone who has suffered the abrupt loss of a child or spouse.


There is no formula, no qualification, and no litmus test for what will make a powerful crucible story. There is however a vital requirement before you can step to the front of the room to share it.  You must have enough emotional distance from the event to share the story without completely re-living it. Emotional distance does not mean that you could and should tell the story without emotion. Emotion is the fast lane to the brain. You want and need to express emotion in every story you tell. You want to be able to re-enact and feel the powerful moments of the event. You just don’t get to do therapy in front of an audience.


Assuming that you have healed sufficiently to manage your emotions while telling the story, you have a responsibility to find and share the profound and personal truth of the story. Find the lesson from the experience that will benefit all who hear it.


What is a profound and personal truth?  It must be broad enough for everyone to relate to, regardless of whether or not they have experienced your particular situation or pain.


Many who survive a traumatic event find a depth of faith and understanding, a peace that comes from release.  Olympians challenge us to believe in ourselves and to hold on to our dreams. Many people have stories that teach us to work hard every day and never give up. Cancer survivors remind us to live for today, or to count our blessings. Amputees inspire us to persevere and to find creative ways to do things.  If the storyteller is credible and his or her intention is to help others, these profound truths are powerful, not trite.


Do you have a crucible story? If so, you have an immense responsibility to share it and make a difference. Crucible stories give you an extraordinary voice. They enable you to create a blanket of intimacy that warms and comforts people.  They enable you to challenge your listeners to a new level of perspective and attitude.


When presented with delicacy, grace and power, stories of overcoming adversity are like medicine for the soul. They heal invisible wounds with the gentleness of a caress. Like time-release medicine, they sometimes work slowly, over time. You may not be present when the final healing takes place, but you play an integral part in the process.


Ten Protocols for Crucible Storytellers:


  1. Start with the lesson in mind. What is the point of the story? What did you learn?
  2. Craft your story using The Nine Steps of Story Structure. Don’t wing it.
  3. Rehearse your story out loud in front of others. Get used to sharing your truth and experience, and creating a heartfelt relationship with your audience.
  4. Don’t try to rescue or protect your audience. They are quite capable of being there with you and for you as you tell your story.
  5. Connect with eye contact. Share your story with one person at a time and the whole audience will feel connected.  Your audience members can be very supportive if you give them a chance.
  6. Intimacy is the key. Be real, vulnerable and emotionally honest.
  7. Slow down. Crucible stories are a waltz, not a quickstep
  8. Allow your emotions to have their space. Emotions are energy and need to flow through you rather than get blocked by embarrassment. If you are going to share your story, stand in your power and share it.
  9. Get comfortable with the silence. Your audience members will be experiencing their own vivid memories during your story. They might even look away from you or cry a few sweet tears. That’s okay. They are being touched, maybe even healed. Let them do their work, while you do yours.
  10. Find the subtle humor. Use it sparingly. A tiny laugh at the right moment is fine, but remember, this is not a comedy. Don’t ruin the drama or undermine the power of your story with too much humor.


Several years ago, a good friend of mine died of cancer. At the end, when it was clear that she needed hospice care for her last days, an ambulance arrived to transport her. As she was wheeled

out of the house and loaded into the van, her sense of humor put everyone else at ease. She joked with the drivers about her bald head, told them not to hit any potholes or she’d “clobber ’em”, and so on. In the midst or her pain, there was humor; in the midst of sorrow, there was joy. Give your audience three or four laughs along the way to relieve the pressure. Find the humor for their sake.


The placement of a crucible story in a speech is critical. In a 60-minute keynote, give the audience at least 10 minutes to get to know you, perhaps longer. . Don’t open your speech with a crucible story.  Find something to open with that is light. Perhaps you start with a quote that will frame your message, and make some comments about the quote. Another option is to begin with a short example or vignette.  Also, don’t close with a crucible story. You don’t want to end your speech on a somber note. Carefully craft the last three to five minutes of your speech to end on an uplifting note of hope.


In the near future, I’ll be hosting a series of webinars devoted specifically to each of the 8 types of story that I’ve identified in my book. In addition, there will be webinars on comedy, drama, keynote construction and much more.


If you’re interested in being notified specifically about the webinars, please email Deborah at:  In the subject line write: Webinar Series.


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