The Art of Signature Stories

Posted in: Articles, Communication, Sales- Oct 11, 2011 No Comments

Stories can make or break your presentation.  One comment I hear a lot after I speak is “Rene, I loved the story you shared about ____. I could really relate to it.” And if you want to impact people, share with them stories they can relate to. If you want to have an impact on a lot of people when you speak, share a lot of stories.

The greatest orators, speakers and comics of our time, ALL TELL STORIES.   For years we have worked with our clients in helping them develop their stories and work on the skills on delivering them in an effective manner.  Here is an article that I found written by Doug Stevenson which I believe captures the elements necessary to make an impression on your audience through the art of signature stories.

Signature Stories

by Doug Stevenson 2004

“There are two ways to persuade people. The first is by using conventional rhetoric, which is what most executives are trained in. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone. The other way to persuade people – and ultimately a much more powerful way – is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.”

-Bronwyn Fryer, Senior Editor at Harvard Business Review

SIGNATURE STORIES: Part One – Choosing Your Million-Dollar Story

My definition of a signature story is a story that you become known for, maybe even famous for. Over time, you become so good at performing this story that people ask for it again and again. I know speakers that have made over a million dollars with one good story. Check that…one great story. I am one of those speakers.

My Streaking Story is my million-dollar story. I’ve told it over 250 times and never tire of it. Would you like to have a million dollar story? This series is about how to do it.

Choosing the Right Story

In part one of this series, I want to focus on choosing the right story. In my book, Never Be Boring Again – Make Your Business Presentations Capture Attention, Inspire Action, and Produce Results, I have identified seven types of stories. They are:

Story Type #1: Vignettes

More often than not, when business speakers tell me they love to tell stories, they’re referring to a type of story called a vignette. A vignette is defined as a short illustration – a brief, descriptive incident or scene. In other words, it’s a mini story. It usually only takes a minute or so to tell, and it isn’t as crafted or developed as a full story. The vignette, also known as an anecdote, is the simplest and most common form of business story, however it has less impact on an audience than a carefully structured story.

Story Type #2: Crucible Stories

A crucible is defined as a severe test. Crucible stories are stories of great loss, hardship, or pain. Olympic athletes, cancer survivors, and people who have overcome incredible odds tell crucible stories. They are often survivor stories that tell of near misses, encountering danger or severe challenges, and coming out alive. They are powerful because these “tests of the human spirit” are real, and because they reveal our human frailty, resilience and strength.

Because crucible stories deal with “life-and-death” matters, they have the potential to move audience members to a deep level of vulnerability and take them on a roller-coaster ride of emotion from depression to joy. As a result, presenters who share these high-impact stories need to have courage, honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable. They must take responsibility for consciously crafting their story and delivering it with integrity. There can be no artifice or insincerity.

Do you have a crucible story that taught you a profound lesson? If so, you have a responsibility to share it. For those of you who cannot sing, crucible stories give you an extraordinary voice. They enable you to create a blanket of intimacy that warms and comforts other individuals. When presented with delicacy and grace, 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 work slowly, over time. You may not be present when the final healing takes place, but you can play an integral part in its process by telling your crucible story.

Story Type #3: Imbroglio Stories

An imbroglio is defined as an acutely painful misunderstanding or embarrassing situation. Think of a time when you unwittingly found yourself in deep trouble, and you have the makings for an intriguing imbroglio story. Ironically, some of your funniest stories will come from your most humiliating moments.

Imbroglio stories allow us all to be comedians.

You probably don’t have to look too deep into your past to find a moment where you made a wrong turn, got in over your head, or rushed into a hasty decision that backfired. Perhaps you’re thinking of one right now. Did a family vacation turn into a fiasco? Did you ever try to impress a date and do just the opposite? Did a job interview turn into a comedy of errors? How about that home repair project that turned into a money pit? When we tell our imbroglio stories, people relate to us because they’ve had imbroglio moments, too. Identify the point that your “mortifying-at-the-time” experience could illustrate, and then plan it into your next presentation. You’ll show that you’re human and your audience will identify with you.

Story Type #4: Minerva Stories

Minerva was the Roman Goddess of wisdom. When you have a story or parable that draws upon ancient wisdom, whether from the Bible or a traditional American folk story, that is a Minerva story. Other resources for Minerva Stories include:

* Native American Indian stories

* Greek and Roman Mythology

* African-American folk stories

* Celtic folk stories

* Traditional American folk stories

* Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi and other religious stories

* Mythological stories and folk legends

Developing Minerva stories usually involves research and memorization because the stories themselves already exist in written, recorded, or visual form. Your goal is to interpret these legendary tales for modern day audiences so your listeners clearly “get” how the accompanying insight is timeless and universal.

Story Type #5: Credibility Stories

Credibility stories are any non-personal stories (meaning they didn’t happen directly to you) you find from outside sources such as books, articles, radio shows or TV broadcasts. They may relate to a current event, news story, or international incident that recently happened that “proves” a point you want to make in your presentation.

If you speak about management or leadership, all you have to do is look at the daily headlines to find plenty of “real-life” material. If your topic is Change, you could share a story pulled from the newspapers about an intrepid manager who was laid off only to rebound and use her severance package to start her own, now thriving, company.

Credibility stories do not make good signature stories, however, because they did not happen to you. Be sure to use stories from other experts sparingly. If other people’s insights form the bulk of your presentation, it’s in your best interest to stop speaking on that subject. Audiences want to hear what YOU have to say on your topic, not what everyone else under the sun has to say about that topic. You have no reason to be speaking on a subject unless you have some personal experience, insight, or recommendations to offer. Remember, credibility stories from other sources are there to add authority to your own insights, not replace them.

Story Type #6: Pattern Stories

When stories cover a period of time (from days to months or years) or when multiple stories share a common theme, they are called pattern stories. Though the circumstances may change from scene to scene or over the expanse of time, the plot structure builds on the use of a repetitive pattern, which gives the story a resonant structure.

This is a sophisticated technique that the best professional speakers use. They know that a well-crafted pattern can build suspense, anticipation, and a satisfying sense of full-circle completion in listeners. The first time you introduce a specific gesture or phrase, your audience will simply notice it. The second time, they will realize that a pattern is emerging. The third time they will “get wise” to the pattern and begin to anticipate and enjoy it. You may even see a few smiles of recognition or titters. By the fourth time, especially if you add a little attitude and exaggeration, the group will laugh out loud because by now they are “in” on the joke.

Pattern stories work well at the beginning of your talk because they engage and tickle the minds of participants. They can also be introduced towards the middle of the talk, but be sure to allow enough time to reiterate the pattern so it “matures” and the audience “gets’ the joke or receives the full value of the repetition. In some cases, your entire presentation may be one intricately crafted pattern story.

Story Type #7: Instructional Stories

Instructional stories rely heavily on narrative structure and often contain multiple points. While I teach that each story should only make one point, instructional stories break that rule. They must be crafted efficiently though so they don’t confuse the audience.

Instructional stories move back and forth from the story to the lesson. They look, sound, and feel different from other stories. First of all, they are more cerebral. The action in instructional stories is minimized and the narrative is maximized. In other words, there’s more TELL than SHOW. Instructional stories exist to teach rather than entertain, however they can have humor and entertainment. Because of my background in comedy, I’m convinced that almost any story can and should have humor, but in the case of the instructional story, the focus is on the clarity of the narrative.

You’ve probably heard the military advice about how to give a briefing: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; and then tell ’em what you told ’em.” I usually don’t suggest that much repetition, however that advice is wise when it comes to telling long instructional stories that cover multiple points. It’s our responsibility to make sure each point is illustrated logically, that it builds upon the preceding point, and that in the end, all three points form a contiguous body of knowledge. By following a clear, clean structure, participants will be able to concentrate on and follow what we’re saying instead of getting hopelessly lost.

Stick with Personal Stories

When choosing a story to develop into a “million dollar signature story,” stick with personal stories. Of the seven types of stories that I’ve just listed, Crucible, Imbroglio and Pattern Stories work best as a Signature Story. That’s because you lived them, you were there. You can recall details and provide insights that will make the story come alive.

Signature stories don’t have to be based on profound experiences. They become signature stories through development and performance. Ordinary experiences can become amazing stories if you understand how to develop them.

Pick Three Potential Stories

I’d like you to choose three stories that have the potential to become signature stories. Here are some criteria to follow:

* You learned a life lesson

* It was a memorable experience

* It was powerful and made a lasting impression on you

* It was a turning point for you

* There was a clear and present danger or obstacle

* You’ll enjoy telling the story for years to come


Part Two of this series will guide you through the Nine Steps of Story Structure. You’ll learn how to write and craft the narrative of the story so that it has all of the elements of a good story, including one clear and concise point.


Signature Stories part 2


by Doug Stevenson

This is the “Signature Stories” Issue – Part Two


“It is far better to cover three points that people remember and implement, than twenty- seven points that no one can remember. Speaking success is measured not by the volume of material disseminated, but rather by the velocity of change that results from the presentation.”

Signature Stories: Part Two – What’s the Point?


Last article I asked you to pick three stories that had the potential to become signature stories – stories that you wanted to develop and use time and again. The criteria for choosing your stories are as follows:

* You learned a life lesson

* It was a memorable experience

* It was powerful and made a lasting impression on you

* It was a turning point for you

* There was a clear and present danger or obstacle

* You’ll enjoy telling the story for years to come

This month, I’ll guide you through the Nine Steps of Story Structure. These steps will provide you with the architecture of your story. Using these steps, you’ll learn how to write and craft the narrative of the story so that it has all of the elements of a good story, including one clear and concise point.

Before we go into the nine steps, I want you to ask a question in regards to each story you are about to craft. What’s the point? If you don’t know what the point of the story is before you begin, you will most likely waste a lot of time. If your time is as valuable as mine, you cannot afford to make this common mistake.

I help a lot of salespeople develop the stories they use in their sales presentations. Salespeople, because they have limited time to make their presentations, understand that their stories must be strategic. Their stories are sales tools used for a specific and dynamic purpose.

I also do quite a few “train the trainer” workshops for corporate trainers. They need my help to make their content come alive, to enliven dull and technical information and to bring some entertainment and emotion to their presentations. I believe that trainers often think of stories as diversions – confections – that change the mood and shift the energy in the room. They sometimes think of them as entertainment, rather than as vehicles to teach or make a point. This was brought home to me recently, in a train the trainer session, when a trainer asked, “Do all stories have to have a point? Can’t some of them just be for fun?”

Please understand, I am an entertainer. My background is theater, musical comedy and rock ’n roll. I’m all for entertainment and fun…but in the business world, even the fun has to be strategic. Everything that I do in front of an audience is strategic. There is no fluff, no filler. I use my Streaking Story (an Imbroglio story) in the middle of a keynote or training to make a point about the liberating benefit of confronting fear and taking risks. Because it is a hilarious story, it also lifts the energy in the room and lightens the mood. I follow this hilarity and laughter with a powerful Minerva story that is much more somber and emotional. It makes the point that we often carry destructive burdens from the past into the present and that we must Put Them Down and move on.

These two stories are strategically chosen and sequenced to serve a purpose. The fact that one story entertains as it is making a point is a conscious choice. That it precedes a story that is much heavier is also strategic. They are part of the architecture of a keynote.

If you are speaking to a business audience, all of your stories must have one clear and concise point that serves the overall objective of the training session, sales presentation or keynote.

Therefore, as we move through the Nine Steps of Story Structure consider this…the point of the story is the destination. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll get lost along the way. Once you have chosen a story, jump immediately to Step Seven, Make the Point. Once you have defined the one point the story makes, you are ready to return to Step One and begin crafting your story.

Step One – Set the Scene

In step one; create the context for the story. Take your listener to a specific time and place. To do this, close your eyes and allow yourself to go back in time. Visualize the setting. What was the time of day or year? Use all five senses to recall specific details. Create a tapestry of images and sensations that your listener can relate to. What was going on emotionally, physically or spiritually? This step is the first step in weaving a magical spell that will compel your listener to leave their current reality and enter into your imaginary reality. Write down everything that comes to mind and then edit out that which is non-essential.

Step Two – Introduce the Characters

Help your listener see, feel and relate to the main characters in your story with visual descriptions. Think about height, weight, coloring, clothing and age. Mention pertinent details about your relationship. Consider their quirks, habits and behavior. You may wish to add a character voice when describing them or physically mimic their posture or physique. Do this with key characters only. Secondary characters do not require this level of attention. Introduce the characters when they appear in the story.

Step Three – Begin the Journey

What is the assignment, the goal, the journey? Where do you have to go? Who do you have to connect with? What is the challenge? Examples of journeys are: attending a business meeting inAustin,Texas; picking your daughter up after soccer practice; running in a 10K race for charity.

Step Four – Encounter the Obstacle

Without an obstacle, there is no story. The obstacle creates conflict, friction and drama. Someone or something must get in your way and make the journey interesting. The obstacle may be a person, a challenge to overcome or a self-limiting belief. It can be a flat tire on the way to an appointment or a supervisor that stands in the way of your success. If your story is an Imbroglio Story, exaggerate the obstacle to make it funny. If it is a Crucible Story, develop the drama and go deep to find real emotion.

Step Five – Overcome the Obstacle

How did you overcome the obstacle? What strength did you have to summon? Was there someone who helped you? Think the thoughts and feel the feeling of that moment in time. Be specific here. Break your solution down into logical steps in sequence. This is where the teaching and/or selling occurs. Go “in” and show how you overcame the obstacle. Re-live it. In Step Five you “seed” the story with the first mention of the point.

Step Six – Resolve the Story

Tie up any loose ends and make sure your audience knows how everything turned out. What happened to the other people, to your helper? Go back over your story for logic and hear it as the listener will hear it.

Step Seven – Make the Point

It is important that your story has one clear point. Too many points confuse the issue. One story, one point. Be concise. The fewer words you use to make the point, the better. The point must flow logically and effortlessly from the story. Write out the point and memorize it. Make it simple and easy to remember. This is where you insert your “Phrase That Pays.”

Step Eight – Ask the Question

Make your story their story by asking a question like: “How about you?” or “Has something like that ever happened to you?” Turn the point into a question. If the point was, “From that experience, I learned to take the initiative rather than waiting for permission,” you can ask the questions, “How about you? Do you take the initiative or wait for permission?” Follow that question with another that directly relates to the issue at hand. Push their buttons. This step makes your story pertinent to them and their issues. It adds power to your point.

Step Nine – Re-state the Point

Although I only recently named this step as the “ninth” step, I have been teaching it for years. In my book, Never Be Boring Again, I changed the Eight Steps of Story Structure to The Nine Steps, adding this step as the official ninth step. In Step Seven you make the point by stating what you learned from the experience. In Step Eight you bring your listener in by asking them if they, like you, have experienced similar challenges. As they are nodding their heads in affirmation, you conclude the story by re-stating your point. This time however, you state it as a call to action. It is more a command or forceful suggestion than a revelation. This is where you also re-introduce the Phrase That Pays.

Using The Nine Steps of Story Structure will make your story crafting easier and insure that you will develop a logically flowing story with a solid point.



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