July 27, 2010

How to Choose the Point of Your Story

Recently, I was in Indianapolis presenting a 4-person coaching intensive. We came together for an intimate and concentrated exploration of advanced storytelling using The Story Theater Method. Four participants, four different stories and four different reasons why they needed to use stories more effectively.

One man had an important keynote speech coming up and he wanted to stand out from the other speakers by using stories effectively. Another man needed to learn how to get comfortable telling stories about his consulting process, so people would understand what he does and hire him.

The other two students shared a challenge that I’ve encountered hundreds of times before. They worked in a conservative environment and felt that their colorful personalities needed to be toned down when they gave a presentation. As a result, they felt stifled and stiff in front of an audience of their peers. They knew that telling stories would help them be more natural.

Each participant brought one story to work on in the Coaching Day.  In each of the four stories, there was an interaction or conversation between the storyteller and someone else. And, in each of these four interactions, there was conflict and tension. One story had a conflict with a cop and another story had an interaction with a rude person cutting in line. In a story, it is often the conflict and tension that gives rise to the teachable point. Not all stories have conflict or tension, but the most interesting and compelling ones usually do!

After all, what would Star Wars be without Darth Vader? How interesting would Titanic be if the ship didn’t sink? And American Idol would simply be another talent show if it didn’t have Simon Cowell to play the touch guy. In storytelling, tension and conflict is a good thing.

In my Nine Steps of Story Structure, the conflict or tension is Step Five: The Obstacle. The teachable point or lesson of the story comes from how the obstacle is overcome. What you do when confronted with an obstacle, how you deal with it, is the basis for the lesson or the point of the story.

At the end of the 4-Person Coaching Day, I said goodbye to my students and caught the hotel shuttle to the airport. I had plenty of time to get there, check in and catch a 7:20 pm flight home. On the way to the airport, I got a call from Deborah telling me that my flight from Indianapolis to Chicago was delayed because of bad weather at O’Hare Airport. I had encountered “The Obstacle.”

The delay meant that I wouldn’t be able to make my connection in Chicago and get back home to Colorado Springs that night. I knew I would have to spend another night in Indianapolis and fly home the next day. But in order to get rebooked on another flight, I still had to go to the airport.  Then I’d  have to get another cab and go back to my hotel. What a hassle.

The scene at the airport check-in counter was tense. When O’ Hare shuts down, it’s a mess for all of the airports. The three attendants on duty were working as hard as they could to meet their customers’ needs, but the computers were slow and it was taking a long time to rebook each passenger. More and more people arrived for their flights only to hear the news that they weren’t going anywhere that night. The people in line with me were beginning to get testy.

I’d been on the road for a week. I, too, was anxious to get home. As a frequent traveler, this was not the first time weather delays had interfered with my plans, and it wouldn’t be the last. I had a choice to make. How was I going to deal with the situation this time? Was I going to lose it and be a jerk, or stay calm and make the best of the situation?

After fifteen minutes of waiting in line, and not moving an inch, I sat down on my luggage and watched the events around me unfold as if they were scenes in a movie. Two young women on their way to Detroit were freaking out and getting angry at the attendants. A sales rep behind me in line was arguing with his wife on his cell phone. As the minutes clicked away and the line didn’t move, tempers were starting to flare.

And then, something nice happened. The couple in front of me who were on their way to Frankfurt gave up their place in line to an older woman who was on her way to a funeral. The older woman got one of the last tickets out, and as she left, she gave the young couple a hug and said, “Thank you”.

About thirty minutes later, I was finally next in line to speak to a ticket agent. I could see that she was a lovely young woman who was obviously the supervisor on duty, because the other attendants kept asking her questions. One look at her face, however, told me that she was running on empty. I overheard her tell one of the other agents that she hadn’t eaten a thing all day. She’d probably been too busy dealing with cancellations and cranky customers to take a break.

When it was my turn, she was polite and professional, but it was obvious that she was too exhausted to muster up even a hint of a smile. She looked at me and said, “How can I help you today?”

After she had finished rebooking me on a flight home on the next day, I reached into to my shoulder bag and pulled out a Power Bar. I asked her if she’d like to have it. Her face lit up with the most beautiful smile you’ve ever seen. “Yes, yes!” she said as she did a little dance. “Thank you so much. You made my day.”

As I’m recounting this story to you, I can still see her smile. My small act of kindness…and nourishment …made a difference for both of us.

What I learned from that experience was…

Rather than giving you the point of the story, I want to ask you what you think the point could or should be. What did you take away from the story? What was the lesson for you?

Once you’ve narrowed down what you think the lesson is, challenge yourself to translate the lesson into a Phrase That Pays. Turn the lesson or the point of the story into a call to action. Start the Phrase That Pays with a verb, and use six words or less.

In the next newsletter, I’ll share the responses I received from my newsletter subscribers, and continue the discussion of how to choose the point of a story.  It should be an interesting discussion.

Until next time, your story coach and trainer,

Doug Stevenson

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