Humor big Drama small | Brad Montgomery

Humor big Drama small

by Doug Stevenson 2004

This is the “Humor is Big – Drama is Small” Issue

“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”
Victor Borge


Strategic StorySelling for Sales Success


At a recent conference on sales effectiveness, I gave two presentations on the use of stories as a sales tool. I tailored my Never Be Boring Again keynote to the sales process and followed it with a breakout session on Strategic StorySelling.

I received two main feedback comments: the first was that the vast majority of sales managers and salespeople are still stuck in data delivery mode, and the second was that a savvy minority are starting to realize the power of stories to build rapport, gather information, overcome objections and close sales.

It’s no secret that it’s becoming harder and harder to compete. The marketplace is jammed with ruthless competition and spammed with interference, making it difficult to get through to customers and prospects. Your prospects are overwhelmed with too much data, too many choices and too little time. When you do get an appointment with them, you have to make the most of it. The “three strikes and you’re out” rule is history. When you make a sales presentation today, you have one shot to make a positive impression and initiate the sales cycle.

Stories are effective because they stick. They contain audio, visual and kinesthetic stimulation while connecting with both the left/linear and right/creative hemispheres of the brain. Data doesn’t stick because it connects only with the left-brain. It lacks multiple avenues of stimulation. Think about it. Have you ever fallen asleep or gotten lost in the data while listening to someone give a presentation that was saturated with statistics? But what happens when someone starts to tell a story? You pay attention because all of your senses, including your imagination, are stimulated. While facts and data are interesting and essential, on their own they are boring and lose peoples’ attention.

When you take the same facts and data and weave them into the narrative of a story, you can educate your prospect about your product or service and at the same time, stimulate their imagination. You can actually give them a “test drive” in their minds of what it would be like to experience your product or service.


Humor is Big – Drama is Small


I recently watched two very different movies. The first was Johnny English with the British comedian, Rowan Atkinson. You may know him as “Mr. Bean” from the Mr. Bean TV series. He is a bumbling, stumbling goofball who can’t do anything right. His humor is broad, exaggerated, physical humor.

The other movie was Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. Once again, she manages to win us over with her unconventional beauty, brilliant smile and genuine warmth. These two very different movies illustrate one of the most powerful principles that I teach in Story Theater: Humor is Big; Drama is Small.

Humor is Big

If you want a laugh, you can often get one with a well-written line and the right line delivery. Timing, inflection and syncopation also play a major role in getting a laugh. Comedy is a lot like jazz: there’s music to it. If you put the emphasis on the wrong word, a funny line will fall flat. With the right combination of comedic structure and vocal delivery, however, you will get a nice laugh – what I call a “head laugh.” It won’t be a very loud laugh, but when you’re trying to be funny, any laugh is better than no laugh.

But, if you’re looking for hilarity and big, huge, belly laughs, there are physical dynamics that can act as punctuation to a funny line and can take it to the next level. That’s where Rowan Atkinson comes in. He is the king of the prat fall, the master of mugging, the ambassador of embarrassment. His humor is physical humor. He uses his body and face like Michelangelo used a brush and chisel. He epitomizes what I mean when I say “Humor is BIG!”

I’m not suggesting that you will ever want or need to do a prat fall or be as “over the top” as he is. What I am suggesting is that you study what he does that gets a laugh. Some of it is very subtle. If you want to be funnier than you are now, you must study the masters. By doing so, you will come to understand the principles of humor. There is more to getting a laugh than saying a funny line.

When you analyze Rowan Atkinson’s style of comedy, you notice that he gets a lot of laughs without saying a word. All he needs is a situation, a couple of absurdly stupid choices and an environment within which to stumble, bumble and react. Like a great jazz musician, he improvises movements, gestures and facial expressions off of the melody playing in his simple mind. He makes stupidity seem elegant.

Your “humor homework” for this month is to rent Johnny English and study it. Analyze Rowan’s comedic style and every time you laugh, rewind the tape and study what he did to make you laugh. You will be looking for three specific things:

1. Physical dynamics – body postures, movement, hands and legs, falls, stumbles…

2. Facial dynamics – attitudes such as cockiness, confusion, playfulness, mugging…

3. Vocal dynamics – volume, inflection, interpretive sounds, goofy sounds…

Drama is Small

Now let’s talk about drama and Julia Roberts’ performance in Mona Lisa Smile. Julia has the ability to laugh big and cry deep at the drop of a hat. Her smile is a mile wide with a piano keyboard of white teeth and her soulful eyes draw you in.

Julia plays a new art history professor at the ultra conservative Wellesley College in 1959. There is a scene in the movie where she is standing before her first class in a huge lecture hall. We already know that she is apprehensive, because in the prior scene we see her standing outside of the lecture hall, hesitating to go in.

She begins the class session by showing slides of famous paintings, artifacts and works of art. Before Julia can get out a word of instruction, the snobby girls shout out all of the pertinent facts about each slide. Apparently, all of the students have already studied and memorized the class syllabus that lists the art slides to be covered in that sememster. It is clear that she is being tested and challenged by her brainy brats.

This is where you can learn something about drama. As she is “one-upped” by her students, we see her fighting for a sense of control. With each slide, another student throws an emotional dagger at her. She hides her hurt from her students, but we see the effects of the wounds in her face. Her reaction is small and contained, as if she is feeling hurt inside, but hiding it outside. She uses emotional language to convey the battle raging within her for control. You can feel and understand what we call in Story Theater, her “inner monologue.”

Her eyes get moist, but no tears flow. Her movement diminishes. Her speech falters, but so slightly as not to be noticed. This moment exemplifies the concept, used in strategic storytelling, that “Drama is Small”.

Brilliant dramatic moments are defined more by what the actor doesn’t do, than by what she does. The use of silence, filled with emotion and subtext, is far more eloquent than words. It is not in the action, but in the reaction that we relate to the actor. During the next few weeks, as you watch TV or see a movie, I’d like you to study how actors use silence and reaction as non-verbal, emotional language.

Once you begin to see and understand how “small” drama can be, I’m convinced it will liberate you from your fear of trying it. As you experience how your mind and body function as one during these moments, you will understand why the use of these skills in a story will ensure that your audience “gets it” rather than merely “hears” it.


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

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