by Doug Stevenson 2004

This is the “Signature Stories” Issue – Part One


“There are two ways to persuade people. The first is by using conventional rhetoric, which is what most executives are trained in. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone. The other way to persuade people – and ultimately a much more powerful way – is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.”

Bronwyn Fryer, Senior Editor at Harvard Business Review


SIGNATURE STORIES: Part One – Choosing Your Million-Dollar Story


My definition of a signature story is a story that you become known for, maybe even famous for. Over time, you become so good at performing this story that people ask for it again and again. I know speakers that have made over a million dollars with one good story. Check that…one great story. I am one of those speakers.

My Streaking Story is my million-dollar story. I’ve told it over 250 times and never tire of it. Would you like to have a million dollar story? This series is about how to do it.

Choosing the Right Story

In part one of this series, I want to focus on choosing the right story. In my book, Never Be Boring Again – Make Your Business Presentations Capture Attention, Inspire Action, and Produce Results, I have identified seven types of stories. They are:

Story Type #1: Vignettes

More often than not, when business speakers tell me they love to tell stories, they’re referring to a type of story called a vignette. A vignette is defined as a short illustration – a brief, descriptive incident or scene. In other words, it’s a mini story. It usually only takes a minute or so to tell, and it isn’t as crafted or developed as a full story. The vignette, also known as an anecdote, is the simplest and most common form of business story, however it has less impact on an audience than a carefully structured story.

Story Type #2: Crucible Stories

A crucible is defined as a severe test. Crucible stories are stories of great loss, hardship, or pain. Olympic athletes, cancer survivors, and people who have overcome incredible odds tell crucible stories. They are often survivor stories that tell of near misses, encountering danger or severe challenges, and coming out alive. They are powerful because these “tests of the human spirit” are real, and because they reveal our human frailty, resilience and strength.

Because crucible stories deal with “life-and-death” matters, they have the potential to move audience members to a deep level of vulnerability and take them on a roller-coaster ride of emotion from depression to joy. As a result, presenters who share these high-impact stories need to have courage, honesty and a willingness to be vulnerable. They must take responsibility for consciously crafting their story and delivering it with integrity. There can be no artifice or insincerity.

Do you have a crucible story that taught you a profound lesson? If so, you have a responsibility to share it. For those of you who cannot sing, crucible stories give you an extraordinary voice. They enable you to create a blanket of intimacy that warms and comforts other individuals. When presented with delicacy and grace, stories of overcoming adversity are like medicine for the soul. They heal invisible wounds with the gentleness of a caress. Like time-release medicine, they work slowly, over time. You may not be present when the final healing takes place, but you can play an integral part in its process by telling your crucible story.

Story Type #3: Imbroglio Stories

An imbroglio is defined as an acutely painful misunderstanding or embarrassing situation. Think of a time when you unwittingly found yourself in deep trouble, and you have the makings for an intriguing imbroglio story. Ironically, some of your funniest stories will come from your most humiliating moments.

Imbroglio stories allow us all to be comedians.

You probably don’t have to look too deep into your past to find a moment where you made a wrong turn, got in over your head, or rushed into a hasty decision that backfired. Perhaps you’re thinking of one right now. Did a family vacation turn into a fiasco? Did you ever try to impress a date and do just the opposite? Did a job interview turn into a comedy of errors? How about that home repair project that turned into a money pit? When we tell our imbroglio stories, people relate to us because they’ve had imbroglio moments, too. Identify the point that your “mortifying-at-the-time” experience could illustrate, and then plan it into your next presentation. You’ll show that you’re human and your audience will identify with you.

Story Type #4: Minerva Stories

Minerva was the Roman Goddess of wisdom. When you have a story or parable that draws upon ancient wisdom, whether from the Bible or a traditional American folk story, that is a Minerva story. Other resources for Minerva Stories include:

* Native American Indian stories

* Greek and Roman Mythology

* African-American folk stories

* Celtic folk stories

* Traditional American folk stories

* Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi and other religious stories

* Mythological stories and folk legends

Developing Minerva stories usually involves research and memorization because the stories themselves already exist in written, recorded, or visual form. Your goal is to interpret these legendary tales for modern day audiences so your listeners clearly “get” how the accompanying insight is timeless and universal.

Story Type #5: Credibility Stories

Credibility stories are any non-personal stories (meaning they didn’t happen directly to you) you find from outside sources such as books, articles, radio shows or TV broadcasts. They may relate to a current event, news story, or international incident that recently happened that “proves” a point you want to make in your presentation.

If you speak about management or leadership, all you have to do is look at the daily headlines to find plenty of “real-life” material. If your topic is Change, you could share a story pulled from the newspapers about an intrepid manager who was laid off only to rebound and use her severance package to start her own, now thriving, company.

Credibility stories do not make good signature stories, however, because they did not happen to you. Be sure to use stories from other experts sparingly. If other people’s insights form the bulk of your presentation, it’s in your best interest to stop speaking on that subject. Audiences want to hear what YOU have to say on your topic, not what everyone else under the sun has to say about that topic. You have no reason to be speaking on a subject unless you have some personal experience, insight, or recommendations to offer. Remember, credibility stories from other sources are there to add authority to your own insights, not replace them.

Story Type #6: Pattern Stories

When stories cover a period of time (from days to months or years) or when multiple stories share a common theme, they are called pattern stories. Though the circumstances may change from scene to scene or over the expanse of time, the plot structure builds on the use of a repetitive pattern, which gives the story a resonant structure.

This is a sophisticated technique that the best professional speakers use. They know that a well-crafted pattern can build suspense, anticipation, and a satisfying sense of full-circle completion in listeners. The first time you introduce a specific gesture or phrase, your audience will simply notice it. The second time, they will realize that a pattern is emerging. The third time they will “get wise” to the pattern and begin to anticipate and enjoy it. You may even see a few smiles of recognition or titters. By the fourth time, especially if you add a little attitude and exaggeration, the group will laugh out loud because by now they are “in” on the joke.

Pattern stories work well at the beginning of your talk because they engage and tickle the minds of participants. They can also be introduced towards the middle of the talk, but be sure to allow enough time to reiterate the pattern so it “matures” and the audience “gets’ the joke or receives the full value of the repetition. In some cases, your entire presentation may be one intricately crafted pattern story.

Story Type #7: Instructional Stories

Instructional stories rely heavily on narrative structure and often contain multiple points. While I teach that each story should only make one point, instructional stories break that rule. They must be crafted efficiently though so they don’t confuse the audience.

Instructional stories move back and forth from the story to the lesson. They look, sound, and feel different from other stories. First of all, they are more cerebral. The action in instructional stories is minimized and the narrative is maximized. In other words, there’s more TELL than SHOW. Instructional stories exist to teach rather than entertain, however they can have humor and entertainment. Because of my background in comedy, I’m convinced that almost any story can and should have humor, but in the case of the instructional story, the focus is on the clarity of the narrative.

You’ve probably heard the military advice about how to give a briefing: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; tell ’em; and then tell ’em what you told ’em.” I usually don’t suggest that much repetition, however that advice is wise when it comes to telling long instructional stories that cover multiple points. It’s our responsibility to make sure each point is illustrated logically, that it builds upon the preceding point, and that in the end, all three points form a contiguous body of knowledge. By following a clear, clean structure, participants will be able to concentrate on and follow what we’re saying instead of getting hopelessly lost.

Stick with Personal Stories

When choosing a story to develop into a “million dollar signature story,” stick with personal stories. Of the seven types of stories that I’ve just listed, Crucible, Imbroglio and Pattern Stories work best as a Signature Story. That’s because you lived them, you were there. You can recall details and provide insights that will make the story come alive.

Signature stories don’t have to be based on profound experiences. They become signature stories through development and performance. Ordinary experiences can become amazing stories if you understand how to develop them.

Pick Three Potential Stories

I’d like you to choose three stories that have the potential to become signature stories. Here are some criteria to follow:

* You learned a life lesson

* It was a memorable experience

* It was powerful and made a lasting impression on you

* It was a turning point for you

* There was a clear and present danger or obstacle

* You’ll enjoy telling the story for years to come

Part Two of this series will guide you through the Nine Steps of Story Structure. You’ll learn how to write and craft the narrative of the story so that it has all of the elements of a good story, including one clear and concise point.


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