Serve the message

by Doug Stevenson 2001

This is the SERVE THE MESSAGE Issue

Quote of the Month

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” — Anais Nin


STORY THEATER Tip of the Month – Serve the Message


As an actor in a play, you don’t try to please your audience. Your job is to serve the message. Before you even begin to memorize our lines, the playwright has spent thousands of hours crafting the message. He or she has considered every choice, visualized every scene and agonized over every word. When the actors and directors arrive on the scene, the message is clear. Prior to the opening night performance, many hours will be spent in interpretation and experimentation, all in the service of the message.

The reason I love speaking even more than theater is that I get to be the playwright, the director and the star of the play. I have never forgotten my roots, however, and my responsibility to serve the message. I know that when I serve the message, I serve my audience. In that way…I bring a fresh perspective to the speaking profession because I don’t struggle with a need to please my audience. My focus is on my message…what do I have to say?

Does that mean that I don’t care about my audience? Not at all. I love my audience. I care so deeply about them that I have chosen to go through the considerable wear and tear on my body of flying all over the planet to stand in front of them, on the off chance that I’ll make a dent. And when that one very special person comes up to me after my program, squeezes my hand a little too tightly, looks me in the eyes and says, “thank you”, I know that I have pleased my audience. The difference for me is, if I did my job correctly, my intention was not to please them, but to serve the message.

As a keynote speaker, I have suffered the indignity of audiences that resented my presence, didn’t care for me or just plain didn’t care. The harder I tried to connect with them, the deeper the divide between us grew. Those difficult audiences were precisely the ones that I should have left alone. And in those instances where I took the bait, fell into the trap and altered myself and my message to please them, the message that I had thoughtfully prepared for them became a casualty. I served neither the audience, nor the message, nor myself.

At the end of the day, I want to get on the plane or go back to my hotel room feeling like a winner. I want to feel good about myself and the meeting. I want to celebrate a success. Damn it…I want to kick ass and take business cards! And the best way that I’ve found to do that is to serve the message.

I’ve come to realize that I’m a very limited person. As talented as I am, I cannot rewrite my program in front of an audience. I’ve tried and failed. I’m much better when I do the program that I prepared, speak the truth that comes from my heart and let the chips fall where they may. For me, the best course of action is to carefully choose the message, understand the message in all its facets, rehearse the message, and in the moment of performance…serve the message.




In storytelling, there are four types of language: verbal, visual, vocal and emotional. They can be used singly, or in combination. Verbal language is the words. The words are only one component of communication. If you only use words when you tell stories, you are missing out on the transformational power of your story.

Visual language is what the audience sees; what you show them. It can occur during verbal, vocal or emotional language, but by itself, it occurs in silence. In the story theatre retreat, 52 wall signs decorate the room. They denote different techniques and concepts. One of them states… “Silence Speaks.” At the end of the retreat, I ask my students to choose three signs that mean the most to them. Silence speaks is always chosen, and for good reason. Until the retreat, most speakers that I coach have never considered silence as a form of language. Silence is visual language that speaks as eloquently, if not more so, than words.

Consider a story in which you receive startling good news… Simon and Schuster is going to publish your book and give you a $300,000 advance. You tell the audience of the startling news and then describe your reaction. “When I heard the news I was blown away; I was ecstatic. I knew my life would never be the same.”

In Story Theater, you show the reaction in silence. Words are not necessary.

First, you feel the natural organic response and then communicate that response with your body. What does ecstatic exuberance look and feel like? To find the natural expression, you don’t think about exuberance…you recall the moment when you received the good news and let your body react naturally. Just for grins, lets say that your body interpreted ecstatic exuberance like this: You do a little dance that propels you in a circular motion while you shake your hands above your head. Your body is arching up as you do this with your head thrown back and you’re smiling. This reaction, shown rather than spoken, is visual language.

Now lets add vocal language to the same reaction. What sounds do you make? Do you shriek, holler, shout “yippee”? Your vocalized expressions of emotion are vocal language.

After you come down from the emotional high of your celebration dance, you could talk again, or you could go one step further: You could employ emotional language. Let’s say you do your dance, stop, then you go IN. You go into your private moment, and just stand still. As you stand there, you realize that this is a lifelong dream come true, a dream that you’ve had since you were sixteen years old. No one in your family has ever written anything, much less had a book published. You’ve struggled through years of hardship and pain, much of that time living from paycheck to paycheck. And now, you’re going to be a published author; you’re going to have $300,000. As this realization hits you full force, you become overwhelmed with emotion. The audience watches as you…in silence…complete the reaction with a tender moment of reflection and tenderness.

This last reaction, felt rather than spoken, is emotional language. After the reaction is complete, then you could say, “I knew my life would never be the same.”

I want you to pick one of your stories for review. Look for a place to add visual, vocal and emotional language. Rehearse the moment at home. Slow down and feel. Get used to taking the time to speak without words. Trust me, silence speaks, and your audience will hear you loud and clear in the silences. But now you’ll be speaking to their hearts and souls, as well as their brains. You’ll move them to tears and laughter.

Speakers who use all four types of language connect at a deep level and leave a lasting impression. This connection is the intangible that separates one speaker from another. Learning to use these four types of language, to move beyond left brain content to a more holistic approach that speaks to the whole person, is the work we do in Story Theater Retreats. It is what I believe and what I teach. It has to be experienced to be integrated.

Making the transition from talking to emoting, from sharing intellectual concepts to creating the emotional and even spiritual connection that I am referring to, takes practice. My students tell me that the process that I take them through is a paradigm shift from what they’ve been taught to do. Are you ready to make that shift?

For more detailed information on adding silence to your stories and presentations, purchase the Story Theater Audio Six-Pack Learning System. For more information go to:


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