March 3, 2010

Storytelling in Business – Create Memorable Characters

You are the main character in most of your stories. That’s because they’re stories about something that happened to you and you’re telling the story from your perspective.

The other characters in your stories, however, are equally important to making your story work. Think of them as your supporting cast. They’re also some of your best opportunities for humor because we can all relate to the relationships that you describe and the interactions that you act out as IN moments.  (For more information on IN moments, refer to the book, Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method, pages 221- 233; or see below for the 72-Hour Product Special  for two free articles about IN Moments.)

Bring Your Characters to Life with Colorful Descriptions

The way you describe your characters, physically, allows your audience to form a mental image of them. This gives them an opportunity to SEE the characters in their imagination as you move through your story. When your listeners see the other characters, they relate to them specifically rather than generically. Believe me, it makes a difference.

Don’t stop with, “My friend Mark was supposed to pick me up at the airport.” Go deeper. For example: “My friend Mark is about 6 feet, 3 inches tall and about 150 pounds. We used to call him “Daddy Long Legs”… with a mustache. He was a real string bean of a guy who worked as a computer tech  – a real nerd, an absolute genius with computers. So Mark, this lanky, nerdy guy, was supposed to pick me up at the airport and bring me home after my long trip.”

All I did was to go beyond the normal description to give the story more texture. I used a colorful description, perhaps with a little embellishment for effect, to help you see Mark. Chances are, most people in your audience know someone who resembles Mark, so they can now see him standing next to you at the airport. This description is especially helpful if you’re a tad short. Now we have an image of two mismatched buddies walking through an airport. It’s a funny visual.

I also used metaphors to aid the description: “Daddy Long Legs” and “string bean”. Both of these metaphors add to the colorful description. In addition to metaphors, I encourage you to get out your trusty Thesaurus and find some fun words to describe the characters in your story.

Mimic Them Physically

One of the best ways to make your characters come alive is by mimicking them physically. People love it when you mimic someone else. Most of us do it naturally when casually telling stories to our friends. Showing how your friend Lisa walks or uses her hands when she speaks is far better and often funnier than simply describing her.

Different characters can be created very easily.

  • By simply dropping your shoulders forward a little, you can become an older person.
  • By moving your shoulders up and back, you tell the audience that the character is very proper, confident or perhaps, stuck up.
  • When you walk as the other character, you can simply shorten or lengthen the distance between your steps to transform them into someone taller or shorter, older or younger.
  • Does the other character talk with their hands in a certain way? By creating a contrast between the way they talk with their hands and the way you talk with your hands, you can make it easy for your audience to differentiate the two of you in a two-character conversation. (For more info on the Two-Character Two-Step, see pages 245-257 of Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Method.)
  • Facial expressions are also very effective. If the character scowls, squints or smiles, mimic their facial expressions. It’s easy to make a face when you are portraying that character.

If you want to study how professionals do this, watch comedians. Be forewarned however, in order to make your characters come alive physically you must commit. You can’t do this halfway. It requires a willingness to play, to have fun and to take yourself and the other characters in your story lightly. The payoff is worth it.

Once you’ve decided to use a physical choice to create a character, practice the transition from you to them. Do it many times. It is the transition from one character to the other that is most challenging. I memorize their posture and practice repeatedly moving my body from me to them, almost robotically, to teach my body what I want it to remember. It’s like learning a dance step. Once your body remembers, it’s much easier to replicate while you are telling your story.

Have Fun with Voices and Inflections

Another great way to create memorable characters is vocally. Give them a character voice. It doesn’t have to be a huge difference from your voice, but it needs to be enough to sound different.

  • Raise or lower your volume.
  • Give them an attitude. Do they sound angry, dismissive, perky, tired, eager…?
  • If they have a slight accent, have fun with it.
  • Change the tempo. New Yorkers speak faster than southerners.

Often, my coaching students will tell me that they are not good at doing voices.  When we work on it, we discover that the problem is only their hesitancy to sound foolish or condescending. It’s not a technical problem; it’s a perception problem.  When you’re telling a story, you’ve stepped into another realm. Your audience immediately gives you permission to be broader, sillier, more emotional, more outrageous, more colorful and less realistic. The very form of storytelling is playful and imaginative. It’s supposed to be fun!  Therefore, the audience is very forgiving if you sound foolish.  They even want to go there!

In theater, there is a phenomenon called “the suspension of disbelief.” People suspend their logical brains for a period of time – and suspend their analytical faculties – and allow their imagination to take the lead. Even though we’re standing right there in front of them, we can create all kinds of imaginary worlds and realities and they willingly go along for the ride. They WANT to go along for the ride and they WANT us to take them on that ride. So take them there. Don’t be tentative. Go for it.

What About Being Offensive?

This is a very real and valid concern. You don’t ever want to be condescending or mean. You don’t want to offend. However, as you have no doubt discovered, some people are offended by the most ridiculous things. There is almost no way you can express yourself freely and not offend someone. If you have a strong personality at all, someone will find a way to find you or something you do or say offensive. The danger of being “watered down” in your presentation, for fear of offending someone, is a greater risk than that of offending someone!

Having said that, here are a few things to consider:

  • If you are not an offensive person on a daily basis, it is not likely you will be an offensive storyteller. Don’t fear the one person who may be offended.
  • If your colorful characters are true to life, they will be accepted as an integral part of the story. If a character had a southern accent, and you do a southern accent, that’s simply being true to life.
  • Avoid ethnic or regional stereotypes simply for effect, but be true to the facts.
  • If your tone is playful, you will generally be given the benefit of the doubt that you are not being mean, but rather you are exaggerating for comedic effect.

When describing the other characters in your story, vary your inflection and attitude to communicate how you feel about them. If they drive you nuts, let us hear it in the way you describe them. If you are in awe of them, let that come through in your voice.  Some of my students are better at using their bodies to create characters than others, but they all have had success using vocal inflection and attitude.  Inflection is like a spice. It colors your words with emotional context.

As you craft the narrative of your stories, remember to make the other people in your stories vivid and colorful. Give yourself a strong supporting cast and your stories will be more memorable.


© Doug Stevenson All Rights Reserved

Contact Doug Stevenson at 719-573-6195 or visit his website at

Doug is a motivational keynote speaker, corporate trainer and speech and story coach. Check out his book, CD’s, DVD’s and other learning resources and learn more about his keynotes and training courses, Story Theater Retreats and small group coaching workshops and watch videos of Doug in action on his website.

Some of Doug’s past clients include Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco Systems, Aetna, Century 21, The American Medical Association, The National Education Association, The National Association of Realtors, Amgen, Bayer Canada, Glaxo Smith-Kline, Eli Lilly, National Cattleman’s Beef Association, Lockheed Martin, The Department of Defense and many more

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