January 16, 2015

Storytelling for Leaders

Stories revolve around moments: big moments, small moments, meaningful moments.

Think about your life over the last six months. Did any challenges or obstacles cross your path? Were there things that didn’t go according to plan: big things, little things, important things?

Garrison Keillor, the host of A Prairie Home Companion on NPR radio, says that your “best stories are about mistakes, failures and small disasters”. In the context of my Nine Steps of Story Structure, I call these “obstacles”. They can be big obstacles, like life threatening illnesses or tragic event; or small obstacles, like a misunderstanding or getting stuck for two hours in a traffic jam.

Mistakes, Failures and Small Disasters

The mistake, failure or small disaster is the obstacle that gives your story tension and infuses it with emotion. Think of “the moment” that you encounter the obstacle as the pivot point of your story. This moment causes you to make choices about what to do next.  In a past article, I referred to this moment as “The Iceberg Moment.” In the story of the Titanic, everything was going along fine until the ship encountered the iceberg.

The moments that make for a great story don’t have to be profound or dramatic. Most of the stories I work on with my students are about everyday events and situations. They’re about things that happen at home, at work and everything in between.

The Event Doesn’t Have to Be Tragic

The power of story lies not in the event, but in finding the meaning in the moment. More often than not, the lesson of the story turns out to be a metaphor. You don’t have to have an interaction between a leader and an employee to have a lesson that is a metaphor for good leadership. The story could be about hiking, sailing, or walking your dog, as long as there is a metaphorical lesson that comes out of what happened and what you did about it.

Just last week I went into a store to purchase something. As I was standing in line at checkout, the person in front of me paid for his purchase and left the store. As I was checking out and paying for my purchase, the man came back into the store, walked up to the clerk and said, “You gave me too much change,” and handed him a dollar bill.

Find the Meaning in the Moment

The clerk who had made the mistake was dumbfounded.  The guy standing behind me said, “At least someone is still honest.”

It was a nice moment. What meaning can you find in this moment? How could you use that story in a presentation? What lesson can be learned?

I can vividly remember a moment in my life, from over 30 years ago. I was in rehearsal for a Shakespeare play, All’s Well That Ends Well. I was 33 years old and had been acting for 14 years at that point and had yet to make much headway in Hollywood. I was a typical young struggling actor. No one in the cast was being paid in this particular production

As I looked across the stage, my eyes settled on a couple of men in their late 50’s who had small roles as dukes and magistrates. In that moment, I made a decision never to be a 50-year-old actor working for free. I was already tired of the struggle of living hand-to-mouth, and I didn’t want to be doing that for another 25 years. I wanted to be successful at something, and it didn’t seem like acting was going to do it.

Look for Turning Point Moments

That was a turning point moment in my life. From that moment forward, my life took on a new direction. A year later, I left Hollywood, relocated to Colorado Springs and became a realtor. During 11 years in real estate, I became successful, bought my first house, met my future wife and discovered the profession of speaking.

Acting in Shakespeare plays was like a masters class in storytelling. It not only taught me a lot about a good story, it paved the way for me to help individuals and organizations tell their stories.

All’s Well That Ends Well indeed!

Turning point moments happen to you and me all the time. It’s not the moment that counts, however. It’s your ability to find the meaning in the moment. Stories are teaching tools. When told with elegance and craft, they bring meaning to life. They help people see new possibilities and alternative choices.

Stories have the ability to make sense of the seemingly random obstacles, pernicious pitfalls and happy coincidences that insert themselves into our daily lives. They teach us how to live.

All Stories Are About Change

In the end, all stories are about change of some sort: change that is forced upon us by outer circumstances, like car accidents, health challenges and hurricanes; or change that takes place within us, such as the decisions we make about how we want to live our lives.

Our lives pivot one way or the other at moments of change and choice. As storytellers, we have to find the meaning in these moments if we are to serve our audiences, employees and stakeholders.

Consider the moments of change and choice you have faced in the last six months. Were they challenging, painful or just plain frustrating? Regardless of how big or small the moments are, your job is to find the meaning in the moment, and share that story.


Doug Stevenson, CSP, works with individuals and organizations to help them identify and tell inspiring stories that make a point, teach a lesson or sell a product or service. He is the president of Story Theater International, a Tucson, Arizona based consultancy. He is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method and the Next Level Video eLearning Series.

His has delivered keynote speeches, workshops and training courses on storytelling and story selling for clients in 16 countries including Aetna, Abbott Labs, Amgen, Caterpillar, Con Agra Foods, Deloitte, Google, Genentech, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Oracle, Volkswagen, Verizon, The Nickelodeon Channel, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

To inquire about Doug’s availability email: deborah@dougstevenson.com

Doug can be reached at 1-719-310-8586. Learn more about how Doug can help you tell your story, attend a Story Theater Retreat, purchase the book, eBook or Story Theater audio six pack, and sign-up for the free Story Theater newsletter at: www.storytelling-in-business.com.


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