September 11, 2013

Corporate Storytelling Skills – Developing Emotional Distance

Doug Stevenson - The Power to Persuade

At what point is it appropriate to tell the story about losing a son in a drunk driving accident? When are you ready to tell your cancer story? How much time must pass before you can use the tragedies of your past to help others?

Over the years, I’ve worked with many students and retreat participants who have a tragic story to tell. They want to tell their story because they believe it will help others to learn from their journey. They want to share their healing process or how they overcame their challenges, hoping they can give others the courage to carry on.

I call these stories Crucible Stories. They tell the tale of a severe life test. In many cases, they deal with life and death situations.  In every instance, they are extremely emotional and require a good deal of skill if they are to be effective.

Because these stories deal with difficult and stressful times in a person’s life, the telling of the story often stirs up genuine and raw emotion. To tell this type of story without emotion would undermine its power.  It would be a “rip-off” for your audience.  To tell this type of story with uncontrollable emotion would be unprofessional.  So, two questions needs to be explored:  1) when are you ready to tell the story? and 2) how do you work with your emotions during the telling of the story?

Emotional Distance

The answer to the first question has to do with emotional distance. As a speaker, you have enough emotional distance from the event that you can feel and express all of the emotions in your story without being overwhelmed by them. You can work with the emotions, rather than being worked over by them.

When you’re telling a crucible story, you want to use the raw and powerful emotions in a way that serves the story and your audience. It is unprofessional to be self-indulgent with your emotions or to have a cathartic “therapy session” on stage.

You know that you aren’t ready to share your crucible story if every time you tell it, the emotions are so powerful that you start to cry uncontrollably and it takes over a minute to regain your composure. When you lose your composure in front of your audience, you don’t have enough emotional distance.

We’ve all heard that time heals all wounds, but the amount of time to heal an emotional wound can vary from person to person, and from situation to situation. Emotional distance does not necessarily mean distance, (in a specific amount of time), from the actual event.  It includes a degree of healing, combined with a calling or passion to share that story to help others. Sometimes emotional distance can be achieved by simply waiting for more time to pass.  Sometimes therapy or counseling helps it happen. There are no hard and fast rules, but the individual knows when they have enough emotional distance by what happens to them when they work on or tell the story.

If the emotion in your story is genuine, honest and real, (and doesn’t overwhelm you), you are ready to tell that story and express the emotions natural to it.

Now, let’s look at question number two: how do you work with your emotions during the telling of the story.

Growing up, I never learned how to deal with my emotions properly. As a boy, crying was discouraged. If I got hurt or scared, I was told to “stop crying like a baby.” So, like most people I’ve talked to, I learned to stuff my feelings.

Then I got into acting. In acting class, if you had an emotional scene and you cried, you were rewarded with applause. In that context, it was okay to cry in public. Furthermore, if you wanted to be considered a great actor, you were expected to be able to cry on cue when the scene required it.

For over a decade, I took different kinds of acting classes, and finally I learned how to cry on cue. The most effective training I discovered was Method Acting. The method required you to recall a painful moment from your past, draw on the emotions stirred up by that memory, and then apply it to the scene you were acting. Bingo – you got tears! That method works very well for actors.

Then I became a motivational keynote speaker. In that context, I was no longer an actor hiding inside a character in a movie or play, but I was myself: a motivational speaker standing in front of an audience in a hotel ballroom in Indianapolis or Dallas or Seattle. The stories I told were my stories, and the emotions were real.  It was clear that I wasn’t in Hollywood any more. What I needed was a new method for managing my own emotions that were true to the story.

How to Manage Your Emotions

Here’s what I developed to manage the emotion. You can apply this method to the emotional moments in your stories, so you can better serve the story and your audience.

When the emotional wave hits:

  • Stand still – get grounded and relax
  • Stop talking
  • Breathe – take a big slow breath
  • Allow the wave of emotion to well up (rise and fill you)
  • Allow yourself to feel choked up, feel flushed in your face or nose, or even shed a tear or two
  • Allow the wave to pass
  • Breathe again
  • When the wave has diminished in power, continue with your story

Let me tell you about an experience I had during the recording of one of my Story Theater video learning modules.  I had told all of the key stories I wanted to capture on video, and was near the end of the second day of filming. There was one additional story I wanted to tell, but I’d only told it once before, many years earlier. I called it my True Love Story. It’s the story of my life-long struggle to find true love. I spontaneously decided to tell it and get it on video.

As I was telling the story, I became more and more emotional. At one point in the story, when I was talking about finally finding my true love, Deborah, a wave of emotion rose up inside of me like a volcano wanting to erupt.

At that moment, I simply stopped talking. I stood still and took a few deep breaths and allowed the emotional wave to pass. It only took a few seconds, maybe five or six seconds. But it was an amazing five seconds. I felt the emotion, my face and body naturally showed the emotion, and I could tell that my audience was feeling the emotion, too.  Then I went on with the rest of the story.

My years of struggle to find true love happened decades ago.  Deborah and I have been married for more than 20 years now, and we have both done a lot of deliberate healing of our past wounds.  During those years of both time and healing, I gained emotional distance. That emotional distance allowed me to tell the story in a logical and linear sequence (using The Nine Steps of Story Structure), with IN moments and all of the techniques I teach in my Story Theater Method, while simultaneously being available to the true emotion of the moment.

FYI: Not only have Deborah and I been married for almost 20 years, I also got the kids I’ve always wanted.  I am the proud stepfather to Michael and Bennett (and their wives Christina and Jessica). And now I’m even “Opa” to our little one-year-old granddaughter, Sage Olivia Merriman, (Bennett and Jessica’s daughter).

The power and beauty of your crucible story is that it’s about a very challenging time in your life. The more challenging the event, the more powerful the story. Every crucible story I’ve helped my students craft and perform is an absolute testament to the human spirit. These stories inspire me and make all of my little problems seem insignificant.

Often our most powerful life lessons come from our moments of deepest pain and despair. If you have a crucible story to tell, determine if you have the emotional distance, then learn how to tell it with the true emotion of the story. Your audience deserves to hear it. If you would like help learning to tell and emotional story with grace, dignity and professionalism, consider attending the Story Theater Retreat in Tucson, AZ.


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: [email protected]

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:


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:

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