Speak from the heart

by Doug Stevenson 2001

STORY THEATER Tip of the Month: Speak From Your Heart


I’ve had a revelation and it has changed my keynote delivery forever. The change was so subtle and powerful that it amazes me that I didn’t get it sooner.

It happened in Philadelphia at the Liberty Bell Chapter of the National Speakers Association. At least that’s where the revelation hit me with full force. I had just presented Story Theater to the

chapter members and…once again…it was an amazing experience. I say once again because I’ve presented Story Theater at fifteen chapters over the past four years and it’s always been a huge hit.

There’s something about speaking to speakers that touches me deeply. I feel like I’m talking to “us” rather than “them”.

Here is my revelation. Although I talk about speaking from the heart alot, I realized that I was doing it with a deeper conviction at NSA chapters than when I do a corporate or association keynote. I was

treating my professional commitments differently than my freebie… from my heart…chapter presentations. This realization caught me off guard. It made me determined to bring the same sense of “us” to all of my programs to see if I’d have a different result.

So I did what I always do, I analyzed what I do at chapters that I don’t do elsewhere. Here’s what I discovered. #1 I do more cheerleading at chapters. #2 I’m more intimate…more from the heart.

My next keynote gig was for AAA of Nebraska. I went there with one intention…to do in Nebraska for full fee what I did in Philly for free. And I did. I did more cheerleading and I spoke more intimately

from my heart. I was very brave in Nebraska, very open and vulnerable. And I got a standing ovation. That doesn’t happen to me very often. Even on days when I think I deserve a standing ovation, I don’t usually get one. This time I deserved one…and I got it.

So I figured, let’s do this again next time. Once again, a standing ovation. Makes you wanna go…hmmmmmmmmmmmm!

So…don’t forget to connect with your audiences at a deeper level of intimacy. Speak from your heart. Don’t do it for the standing ovation though. Do it because it’s real…it’s honest…and it’s you.



Let’s talk about different types of stories, how they differ and where you may or may not want to place them in a speech.

Crucible Stories

There is a genre of stories that I call Crucible Stories. A crucible is defined as a severe test. They are stories of great loss, hardship or pain. Olympic athletes, cancer survivors, and people who have overcome incredible odds to find success in life tell Crucible stories. They are survivor stories. They tell the tale of near misses, of risking death and coming out alive. It takes courage, honesty and vulnerability to share these stories. They are very powerful stories, because they are real. There can be no artifice, no insincerity in Crucible stories. That does not mean that there is less craft involved. It is however, very different. Because these stories are so serious and have the potential for taking an audience to a deep level of emotion and vulnerability, the responsibility for conscious craft is even greater.

Crucible stories reveal our human frailty and our incredible strength. They are testaments to the human spirit and can take an audience on a rollercoaster ride of emotion from depression to joy. Sharing these stories is like walking a tightrope. From the audience point of view, it is as if they are sitting on your shoulders as you walk the tightrope. They are there with you. If you fall, you take them with you. Take care. Know what you’re doing.

I believe that each of us have crucible stories. We have each felt pain and loss. We have experienced defeat and overcome adversity. A single mother of three who goes on to complete her masters degree need not feel humbled by someone who has climbed Mt. Everest. Anyone who has suffered the abrupt loss of a child or spouse in a highway accident knows as much pain as a cancer survivor. There is no formula, no qualification, no litmus test for what will make a powerful crucible story. There is however a vital requirement before you can step to the front of the room to share it. The crucible storyteller must have enough emotional distance from the event to share the story without reliving

it. You don’t get to do therapy in front of an audience. Assuming that you have healed sufficiently, you must plumb the depths of the story for it’s profound and personal truth and glean the lesson that it taught you.

What is a profound and personal truth? Once again I return to the concept of universal truth. It must be broad enough for everyone to relate to, regardless of whether they have experienced your pain or not. Many who survive a traumatic event seem to find a depth of faith and understanding, a peace that comes from release. Olympians challenge us to believe in ourselves and to hold onto our dreams. They teach us to work hard every day and never give up. Cancer survivors remind us to live for today, to count our blessings. These are profound truths. And the reason they are powerful rather than trite is because the story is true and the storyteller is credible.

Do you have a crucible story? If so, you have an immense 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 each individual. 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 play an integral part in the process.

In performance, crucible stories call for two specific ingredients; humor and silence. Because crucible stories can be somber and serious, the need for humor is even greater. Placement of humor is essential. Find three or four places during the heavier moments of the story to add levity, perspective. In everything there is humor. You must find it. I was reminded of this recently when a good friend of mine died of cancer. At the end, when it was clear that she needed hospice care for her last days, an ambulance arrived to transport her. As she was wheeled out of the house and loaded into the van, her sense of humor put everyone else at ease. She joked with the drivers about her bald head, told them not to hit any potholes or she’d clobber em and so on. In the midst or her pain, there was humor, in the midst of sorrow, there was joy. Give your audience three or four laughs along the way to relieve the pressure. Find the humor for their sake.

Silence is a powerful tool in crucible stories. Use it during the most powerful moments, the moments where you are up against your mortality, where your mind is filled with thoughts. Show those moments rather than telling them. It allows the audience to be there with you and to process their own emotions. Slow down and fill the silences with emotion.

The placement of a crucible story in speech is critical. In a 60 minute keynote, give the audience at least 10 minutes to get to know you, perhaps longer. Find something to open with that is light. Perhaps you can start with a quote that will frame your message. Another option is to begin with a short vignette. Also, don’t close with a crucible story. You don’t want to end your speech on a somber note. You must carefully craft the last thee to five minutes of your story to end on an inspiring note of hope.

Imbroglio stories

An imbroglio is defined as an acutely painful or embarrassing misunderstanding. Some of the funniest stories you will ever craft will come from your most embarrassing moments. My streaking story, my Penn

Station story, and catastrophies yet to be experienced are all imbroglio stories. Audiences love them because they relate to the pain and the embarrassment. They recognize themselves in these stories and enjoy our vulnerability as we reveal our screw ups. You probably don’t have to look too deep into your past to find a moment in time where you make a wrong turn, got in over your head or made a stupid decision that backfired in your face. You’re probably thinking of one right now.

Imbroglio stories lend themselves to comedy and exaggeration. Don’t be afraid to fudge the facts or, as I tell my students, rewrite history. What literally happened may be funny, but a little embellishment will take it to the absurd. Decide right up front what lesson you learned and what business categories the story will fit into. Then get to work crafting it.

Have you ever had a vacation turn into a fiasco? Did you ever try to impress a date and have it turn ugly on you? Did a project at work ever turn into a comedy of errors? How about a home repair project that turned into a money pit? Imbroglio stories are a part of everyone’s experience. If you can’t think of one, it may be that your perspective needs a tweak. But by and large, when you need humor in a program, turn to your most embarrassing moments and get to work crafting your most ridiculous imbroglio.

Imbroglio stories require tight structure and lots of rehearsal to be great because they are inherently funny. Comedy relies so much on what happens in-between the lines, on facial expressions, on timing and vocal inflection, that if you don’t rehearse, you’ll miss lots of laughs. Unlike crucible stories that may not require much movement or physicalization, imbroglio stories are very physical. The audience really needs to see them so the SHOW part of show and tell is essential. Schedule time to rehearse on your feet if you want to nail an imbroglio story.

Since imbroglio stories are funny, you want to place them somewhere after the first ten minutes or so of your speech. Audiences need a few minutes to warm up to a speaker and using your funniest material

right up front may not work. I learned this the hard way by opening with my streaking story. It never worked there. So I moved it into the middle of the speech where it always works. If you want to leave them laughing, you can close with an imbroglio, but make sure that it makes the point that you want to leave them with.


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 www.storytheater.net or 800.573.6196