September 11, 2013

Storytelling in Business – The Iceberg Moment

Life is filled with obstacles and challenges. No matter how much you plot and plan, stuff happens that you think is not supposed to happen.

Your car breaks down; a cop gives you a speeding ticket; or your boss micro-manages everything that you do. These are obstacles that prevent us from doing what we were intending to do. A perfect example of an obstacle is what we are experiencing in Colorado right now: wildfires. Here in Colorado Springs, over 500 people lost their homes and everything they owned in the Black Forest Fire. We hold them in our hearts with compassion and understanding.

Obstacles and challenges are the foundations of storytelling.

Fires and other obstacles are what stories are made of. Without the bad guy, James Bond is just a handsome guy in a tuxedo. Without aliens from outer space, the Avengers are just a bunch of weirdos in Halloween costumes.

And without the Iceberg, the Titanic is simply a story about a cruise ship crossing the Atlantic.

Because we seem to learn more when things go wrong than when things go right, it’s important to know HOW to portray the Iceberg Moment in your story.

The Iceberg Moment is the turning point in your story.

It’s the moment when you encounter the obstacle, (Step Four of The Nine Steps of Story Structure). Up until that moment, everything is going according to plan. Consider the movie, Titanic.

The movie starts with the ship in port. People are arriving in fancy carriages, luggage is being hoisted onto the decks and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is playing poker.

Once the ship leaves port, it’s a big party. Everyone is having fun and Kate Winslet and Leonardo are falling in love. Everything is going according to plan until the Iceberg Moment. At that moment, the story takes a dramatic turn and people react.

In reality, no matter what the situation is, when we encounter the obstacle or challenge in our lives, we react. The first level of reaction is usually emotional: anger, frustration, shock, sadness, denial, resentment, disbelief, etc. In the movies, it usually involves a close-up.

The close-up in a movie is used to focus on the character processing this new information and deciding what to do about it. A close-up can last from five to ten seconds. It is filled with emotion.

The Iceberg Moment in your story should start with an emotional reaction as well. The technique I teach for this moment is called Hold the Moment.

The Iceberg Moment is a stop sign.

It’s as if you’re driving across town to an appointment and you’re hitting green light after green light. When you encounter the obstacle or challenge, however, it’s a red light. Everything stops for a few seconds. There are no words or explanation. You simply stop and react.

Think about one of your stories right now. Think about the time leading up to the obstacle or challenge. If you’ve constructed your story correctly using The Nine Steps, you started off on your journey with every expectation that things would go according to plan. And then the plan changed. Something that you couldn’t have foreseen happened: the obstacle, crisis or challenge.

If you can recall that moment in time, you probably froze for a few brief seconds. Time stood still during that moment as you processed the situation. You probably experienced one of the emotions listed above.

Your story pivots on this moment. It changes from an ordinary story about an ordinary day to a story about a challenging day – a day with an important lesson learned. Because this is the pivotal moment in your story, you need to understand where it is and what to do to portray it.

The other day I saw a woman riding her bike. She slipped on some loose pebbles and fell hard on the ground. When she hit the ground she just laid there for a few seconds without moving. It was an Iceberg Moment. After about five seconds, she moved. She slowly got up and checked herself and her bike for damage. Those five seconds on the ground were a full stop.  If the woman were telling the story, this would be the place for her to hold the moment.

I recently got a call from a client who was very excited about the program he saw me present at the American Society of Training and Development conference in Dallas in May. He asked me if I had the eLearning version of my Storytelling in Business Methodology. He wanted it for a virtual workforce of 100 people who are spread out across the world.

It was an Iceberg Moment for me. Up to that moment, my day was going fine. I was making phone calls, creating workbooks and talking to coaching clients on the phone. At that moment, however, I encountered the obstacle. It was a full stop. I knew I needed to make a change in my business model.

When I hung up the phone, I just sat there at my desk in silence. I was angry with myself for letting short-term busyness get in the way of long-term product development.

For years I’ve been planning to get around to developing an eLearning system. I even went into a TV studio last year and recorded 38 video learning modules for just that purpose.

The answer to his question was “NO, I do not have an eLearning version available.” And because the answer was NO, he moved on and I lost an opportunity to expand the reach of my business at that time. The Iceberg Moment has caused me to reorder my priorities, and I am now in the process of working with an eLearning designer to create the Next Level Storytelling Video eLearning System.

The Iceberg Moment turns your story around.

After the Titanic crashed into the iceberg, the story changed.  It became a story of survival. For the rest of the story, we witnessed people in distress. Some peoples’ responses were honorable and noble while others’ were selfish and mean. The story leading up to the Iceberg Moment introduced the characters and their relationships. The story after the Iceberg Moment revealed what kind of people they really were.

It’s a fact – we learn more about how to deal with life when things go wrong than when things go right. Develop the stories from your life where things got tense, messy or downright disastrous. When you encounter the pivotal Iceberg Moment, Hold the Moment to increase the power of your story.


Doug Stevenson works with individuals and organizations to help them choose, craft and deliver compelling speeches, presentations and stories. He is the president of Story Theater International, is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method and The Dynamite Speech System.

His keynote speaking, corporate training and executive coaching clients include Aetna, Abbott Labs, Amgen, Coca Cola, Compassion International, Deloitte, Hewlett Packard, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Oracle, Volkswagen, The Nickelodeon Channel, The Department of Defense, The National Education Association and many more.

To inquire about Doug’s availability email:

Doug can be reached at 1-800-573-6196 or 1-719-573-6195. Learn more about how Doug can help you tell your story, purchase the book, eBook or Story Theater audio six pack, and sign-up for the free Story Theater newsletter at:


Leave a Comment