Frame it with a story

by Doug Stevenson

This is the FRAME IT WITH A STORY issue

“We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.”
Thomas Alva Edison

“Reality is a crutch for people who can’t cope with drugs.”
Lily Tomlin




I was in a coaching session with a CFO, the other day. He was preparing a presentation and wanted to make it more interesting. As we talked about the presentation, it became obvious that much of what he had to communicate was rather boring. It was financial stuff, rules and regulations. There was one new regulation in particular that was causing problems for people and he wanted to make sure they understood the gravity of the situation.

“Where you can help me is with the story, Doug,” he said. “I just don’t think that way. I can just tell them about the new regulation,” he continued, “but I don’t think they’ll really get it that way.”

He made my job as a coach very easy. He came to me with an obstacle: the new regulation. Every good story has an obstacle, a problem, something to be overcome in order to have a happy ending. Sometimes a student comes to me with an interesting story but it lacks a clear and definable obstacle. Not this time. All we had to do was to frame the obstacle with a story. In The Nine Steps of Story Structure, encountering the obstacle is step four.

If you have an interesting story, but it doesn’t have an obstacle, it will never be a great story. It may be cute, but it won’t be powerful.

I asked him to tell me a story that illustrated the problem. All he had to do was to give me an example of how this new regulation affected his relationship with one of his clients. As the story unfolded, there was a clear “before and after” scenario. There was the way they used to do things and the way they were going to have to do things in the future.

After he told me the “before” story, I asked him to describe, in detail, how and when he encountered the obstacle (the new regulation). This gave him a chance, inside the body of the story, to talk about the new regulation and what it meant in the way they would have to do business in the future. Instead of a dull and dry analysis of an extremely technical regulation, it became part of the story.

The fifth step in the Nine Steps is to overcome the obstacle. This is the teaching step where the storyteller outlines HOW they overcame the obstacle. I asked him to walk me, step-by-step through his creative solution. To make it more interesting, I helped him craft an IN moment where he pretended to be alone in his car, thinking out loud. As he talked to himself (a private moment), he solved the problem of working with, and at the same time around, the new regulation.

In no time at all, we created a basic outline for the story using The Nine Steps of Story Structure. His next step was to go home and ‘talk the story onto paper’ using the outline we created together. (Well… first he had to break out his new voice recognition software program and program it!)

Sometimes the information you need to communicate is pretty dull, dry and boring. You have two choices; you can just tell it like it is and risk the chance that people don’t really listen and HEAR what you are saying, or you can frame it with a story. If you want people to pay attention and learn, be crafty. Use the Nine Steps of Story Structure to guide you forward.




There are two parts of a joke: the setup and the payoff. The setup is the first part of the joke that sets the premise. The payoff is the zinger, the rim shot, the laugh line. Take Henny Youngman’s old joke:

Take my wife…please!

“Take my wife” is the setup. “Please” is the payoff. Here’s another one:

“Laugh and the world laughs with you…snore and you sleep alone.”

Anthony Burgess

And another:

“Smartness runs in my family. When I went to school my teacher was in my class for five years.”

George Burns

And another:

“What do you give to a man who has everything. Penicillin.”

Jerry Lester

There are two things that you can do to make the setup and payoff work:

The first is timing. In between the setup and the payoff, you must take a syncopated beat. It is a pregnant pause; it creates the music of the delivery of the line. I believe that people who can’t tell a joke have no rhythm. The words will work if the rhythm is correct. As you work on a joke, work the timing over and over. Feel the tempo of the first part, the setup, and then – take a beat – and deliver the payoff line.

The second thing you can do is physical. Imagine that you are standing in front of an audience. As you prepare to deliver the setup line, angle your body 45 degrees to the left. You are now facing the people on the left side of the room. Deliver the setup line to them. Next, during the syncopated beat in between the setup and payoff, turn your body 90 degrees to the right. Now deliver the payoff line. This move is called The Transition Two-Step.

Use timing and the Transition Two-Step and you will get a bigger laugh on your jokes.


Copyright 2005 by Doug Stevenson. Reprinted with permission. Doug Stevenson is the creator of the Story Theater Method. He is an author, keynote speaker, and workshop leader. Reach Doug at or 800.573.6196