From the ground up

by Doug Stevenson 2002

This is the FROM THE GROUND UP issue

“Tragedy brings forth the need to create meaning – to tell new stories that can reweave the frayed ends of live into a coherent whole.”
Joan Borysenko




I’m going to share with you my process for choosing and developing a story from the ground up.

I’ve taken up running as a way to work out and stay in shape. It’s a painful exercise. I used to pump iron at the gym and work out on the Stairmaster. That was painful too. As a matter of fact, everything I’ve ever done to strengthen my body and stay in shape has been painful.

Back in the early 70’s, I got into Hatha Yoga at the Integral Yoga Institute in Los Angeles. My guru at that time, Swami Satchidananda had a saying, “No pain – no gain.” He was right – even doing gentle Hatha yoga hurt.

I’ve been wanting to do something using the metaphor of pushing through pain as it relates to success in life. My philosophy is this: people who avoid pain and play it safe seldom succeed at accomplishing much. On the other hand people who acknowledge and accept the fact that pain is just part of the process of personal growth, accomplish much more.

If you push through the pain, you win. If you avoid pain, you lose. Either way, you experience pain.

In the process of looking for my pain story, I’ve come up with two possibilities. The first story revolves around turning fifty in the year 2000. I set a goal of running two miles without stopping by my 50th birthday. I accomplished my goal.

The second story revolves around a 5K race (3.1 miles) I ran last month. It’s the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, a fundraiser for breast cancer research. Once again, my goal was to finish the race without stopping. I did.

Both of those stories can work just fine. In addition, I have a plethora of painful stories such as failing to make it in Hollywood, getting my heart broken a bunch of times and finding myself homeless and broke on the streets of LA, questioning if God really did exist.

The challenge is to choose what goes in and what stays out. I’ve chosen to go with the Race for the Cure story for two reasons. Number one: more people can relate to contributing to a worthy cause than can relate to turning fifty. I will achieve more emotional buy-in from my audience by including myself in a fundraising effort that many people are aware of, rather than with a solitary effort.

Number two: People of all ages and walks of life are affected, either directly or indirectly, by breast cancer. People of all ages, walks of life, and varying association with cancer, run in the race. The pain metaphor applies on two levels. The story is not just about me anymore. I now have a larger canvas to work with.




The next step is to build the story. Do I start at the race, before the race, after the race? Do I tell it in a flashback? Do I bring in a story of a breast cancer survivor or someone I know who lost the fight with breast cancer?

In considering my options, I’ve decided to take my audience with me to the race and let them experience it. I want them to see what I see, hear what I hear and feel what I feel. I begin the process of building the story with an outline.

Outline of Race for the Cure Story

1. Set the Scene

a. The carnival atmosphere at the site / USAF Academy

b. Tents with food / pamphlets / merchandise

c. My thought process / inner monologue / warming up

d. 7000 people / all ages / teams / pink survivor shirts

e. Describe the “in honor of” signs on people’s backs

2. Begin the Journey

a. Staggered start times based on your one-mile time

b. I was in the third wave of three

c. 8:30 AM / the gun goes off and the race begins

3. Introduce the Characters

a. From kids to grandmas / all shapes and sizes

b. The pink shirt lady / a survivor / an encourager

c. The old lady with a NO FEAR t-shirt

4. Encounter the Obstacle

a. The heat / the altitude / the incline

b. Pain / legs / lungs

c. The battle in my brain

5. Overcome the Obstacle

a. Push through the pain / No Pain – No Gain

b. The mental game / one step at a time

c. “In honor of Lynn Akers”

6. Resolve the Story

a. Finished the race without stopping

b. The pink shirt lady congratulated me

7. Make the Point

a. My strength coach at the gym /“Push through the pain”

b. Two kinds of pain

i. Healthy pain that leads to strength

ii. Unhealthy pain that leads to weakness

c. Success in life is achieved by overcoming pain

d. Push through the pain (Phrase That Pays)

8. Ask the Question

a. How about you…?




In looking over the past issues of this newsletter, I realize that I have given little coverage to one of my most important techniques – The Phrase That Pays.

The Phrase That Pays is a very short and concise phrase that sums up the point of your story as a call to action. It brands your message and your point and gives your audience something simple to remember and take home with them.

It pays off in that your audience remembers the point of your story and therefore remembers you. In that way, it is a marketing technique as well. I advise all of my students to create a tent card with the Phrase That Pays on the front in big fat letters. Below the Phrase That Pays is your contact information. Give one of these to every member of your audience.

Here are some simple guidelines for choosing a Phrase That Pays:

1. It is short and sweet – the fewer words the better

2. It is musical and rhythmic

3. It is a call to action – the first word is a verb or action word or command

4. It is positive – something for them to do rather than not do

a. Positive – Make Your Move

b. Negative – Don’t Just Sit There

I suggest that you make each of your main points a Phrase That Pays. The one on the tent card is the one for your entire speech.

Examples of good Phrase That Pays are:

Make Your Mark

Walk Your Talk

Stay The Course

Finish The Race

Do Your Own Thing

Take The Retreat

Manage The Moment

Inhale – Exhale – Jump

Overcome Resistance with Action

Listen with Your Eyes

Hug Your Kids

Wear Clean Underwear


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