The script shall set you free

by Doug Stevenson 2002



“Stories are the window through which the audience sees their own truth” – Doug Stevenson


STORY THEATER Tip of the Month – Brand Your Message


In every two-day retreat and Story Theater presentation, I hear the same question: Do you need a Phrase That Pays for every story? The answer is NO.

First, let me re-define a Phrase That Pays. It is a short phrase that brands the point or message of a story. It is like an advertising jingle in that it is short and sweet, musical and rhythmic, and immediately memorable. It’s a call to action. It’s a command to do something positive, rather than a command not to do something. Rather than use, “Don’t Just Sit There”, a positive Phrase That Pays would be, “Get Up and Go.”

Nike is a good example of a company that has branded itself well. It actually has two brands. One is the little swoosh that you see on all of their products. That’s their visual brand. The other is their Phrase That Pays – “Just Do It”. That’s their verbal brand.

In Story Theater, I teach my students to brand their MAIN stories with a Phrase That Pays. Stories need a verbal brand. Your audiences are bombarded with so many messages during the course of their day that your message may get lost if you don’t do something to make it stick. A well-chosen Phrase That Pays will make your message stick. But not all of your stories, especially short vignettes, need a Phrase That Pays.

Here is the rule: only brand the stories that make your main points with a Phrase That Pays. I suggest no more than three PTP for a 60-minute speech. Choose one Phrase That Pays from your stories for the PTP for your speech. Put that one on a tent card, bookmark or mini-poster that your audience takes home. Be sure to include all of your contact information on the take home PTP item.

While sitting on a plane writing this article, I opened the United Airlines Hemispheres magazine and saw three PTP.

Candlewood Suites Our Place. Your Space.

Panasonic Toughbook Computers Get Out and Stay Out

Fellowes Cell Phone Accessories Get More Done Today




The following is a story script from my upcoming book on storytelling. The book is tentatively titled: What’s Your Story? The story illustrates the scripting principles that I teach for business storytelling. It is just under 1200 words. After you read it, I will show you where I made critical decisions that can only be made when you work with a script.

The fictitious character, Peter, is telling the story. He is a very reserved 6′ 4″ bank president. He is enrolled in a retreat with four other students to learn corporate storytelling techniques from a teacher named Jerry. He is telling this story to the three other students in the retreat. I have added the notations of the eight steps of story structure for you.

The Eight Steps of Story Structure

Step One – Set the Scene

I grew up pretty fast. I can never remember a time when I wasn’t the tallest kid in my class. In high school my legs grew so fast they hurt. Up until then, being tall was kind of fun. In elementary school, when we played baseball, I could hit the ball further than anybody else. It was really neat watching the outfielders back up when I came to bat. But what I liked best about being tall was being able to protect the smaller kids who got picked on by bullies. I’ve always hated bullies. We had one in elementary school, Mike Stazek. He was a real jerk, mad at the world, always picking on kids for no reason. Whenever I saw him picking on someone, I knocked him on his butt. To a lot of kids in school, I was a kind of hero. And then I got to high school.

Step Two – Begin the Journey

When you’re tall, everybody assumes you’re going to play basketball. Not only that, they assume you’re going to be naturally coordinated. They tried to get me to play on the junior varsity. There was only one problem – my legs were like wobbly stilts so I couldn’t run the floor very fast. And I couldn’t shoot – okay that’s two problems. Or rebound – that’s three problems. I guess you could say I lacked hand, eye coordination – and foot, leg coordination. Ah hell, I was a clumsy lummox on stilts. At least that’s what they called me – what the bullies in high school called me – lummox. You see, in high school there were lots of big guys – football players and basketball players and baseball players. And while they were pumping iron and putting on weight, I was in the ROTC – the Reserve Officers Training Core. I liked the uniforms and the discipline and the predictability of it all. So I wasn’t the tallest or the biggest kid anymore – and I got picked on. I got knocked on my butt – more than once.

Violence was not something I was familiar with growing up. My dad was a peaceful guy, an insurance agent – and my mom was real laid back, so I had no frame of reference for fighting. And I never had to learn how to fight because nobody picked on me. So when these Neanderthal jocks started picking fights, I’d try and walk away. That usually didn’t work and I’d end up humiliated and on my butt in some alley. I never fought back. I told everybody that I didn’t believe in fighting; that only morons got in fights. But the truth is, I was petrified to take a punch.

I’ve always liked math: algebra, geometry, trig, calculus. I liked it all, but I had to work hard at it. As a matter of fact, I fought harder for the A’s that I got in math than in any other subject. And I loved science class. Physics was my favorite. For a while I wanted to be a nuclear physicist and work in a lab somewhere, but I enrolled in college ROTC and when I graduated, I went into the Navy to fulfill my military commitment.

The Navy took one look at my background in math and science and made me a communications officer. They put me in a dark room below decks on an aircraft carrier with all of the computers and radar and ship to shore communication. I was down there with all of the other brainiacs – that’s what they called us. I went all over the world with the Navy: Africa, Asia, Australia, the South China seas. Shore leave in some of those ports of call was pretty hairy. The Navy uniform was like a neon sign that read ‘sucker with cash’ and a lot of the young guys got taken for a ride.

On one trip we were going to be at sea for four months so I decided to bulk up a little – develop some muscles other than my brain. There was a workout room on the ship with free weights. I gained 54 pounds on that trip. I went from being a 190 pound, 6′ 4″ lummox, to a 244 pound 6′ 4″ man. If you’re doing the math, that’s a 28% increase in mass.

Step Three – Encounter the Obstacle

Step Four – Introduce the Characters

One night while we were on shore leave in Brisbane, Australia, a few of the other officers and I were having a nice dinner at a hotel restaurant. There was a bar next to the restaurant and a bunch of our guys were in there drinking. We found out later that a soccer team from Sweden was also in the bar and they were pretty heavy drinkers. After dinner, we walked into the bar to see how things were going because it was getting pretty loud. Just then a fight broke out between one of our guys and one of the soccer players. It didn’t last long before the bouncer broke it up, but both guys were thrown out.

Step Five – Overcome the Obstacle

Out on the street they started fighting again and the soccer guy pulled a knife and stabbed our guy in the chest. As our guy fell to the ground, the soccer guy went down after him like he was going to keep stabbing him. I ran forward, caught the guy’s hand as it was coming down with the knife and pulled him up and off of our guy. Before I knew it, he punched me in the face so hard that it spun me half around – but it didn’t knock me down. So I came back around with all of my force and threw a punch that landed in his ribs and knocked the wind out of him. While he was keeled over from my punch, I grabbed the hand with the knife and lifted it over his head and with my free hand I gave him a right cross to the jaw that knocked him on his butt. The knife fell out of his hand when he hit the ground and three guys held him down until the police came.

Step Six – Resolve the Story

Our guy, a kid from Spokane named Gus Cotton, was okay. He needed surgery, but he was okay. And so was I. After my second tour of duty with the Navy, I became a civilian – a banker. I settled down in San Diego, got married and had a son – and here I am.

Step Seven – Make the Point

So what’s the point? A story’s got to have a point doesn’t it – the lesson learned, as Jerry puts it? That night, I learned that I can take a punch and fight my way back. That’s been a powerful lesson for me – a lesson that has come in handy many times since then. Every time life throws me a punch – I look at myself in the mirror and say: Peter – fight your way back. In the last six years, I’ve fought my way back from the loss of a job, the loss of a marriage and most recently, the loss of my self-confidence.

Step Eight – Ask the Question

How about you? Has life thrown you a punch that’s knocked you on your butt? It’s time to get up and – fight your way back.

Analysis: If you read the story a number of times, as you would whenever you write the script of a story, you begin to see the possibilities for various layers of metaphor. I had a blast making Peter a hero, then a wimp, then a hero again. I was also able to find a way to weave the fighting theme into the classroom wherehe fought for A’s in math. That wasn’t there in the first draft. At first he got A’s in math without even trying. Did you notice how I flipped certain story elements a number of times? First he knocked people on their butt, then he got knocked on his butt, then he knocked the bad guy on his butt and then he challenges us to get up off our butt and fight back. That kind of symmetry only appears to me during scripting.

To make the Phrase That Pays work, I had to re-do one crucial sentence. Here’s how it was in the first draft: “Every time life throws me a punch, I have to remember to fight my way back.” Now look at the second draft: “Every time life throws me a punch – I look at myself in the mirror and say: Peter – fight your way back.” The phrase that I want isn’t fight MY way back – it’s fight YOUR way back. The call to action for the audience is FIGHT YOUR WAY BACK.

The themes evolved during the writing. As I looked at what I’d written, I could see them: good guys and bad guys – jocks and nerds. Because of the math theme, I worked in the bit about a 28% increase in mass. It’s a small laugh, a smirk. But I earned it.

It’s the mythic hero’s journey – childhood innocence is lost and then regained. The child has pure values that win out in the end, but in order for the hero to save the day, he has to be transformed. He has to push through his own limitations and overcome his deepest fear. It’s a story of good over evil, of perseverance in the face of adversity. I didn’t start out with any of this in mind. I discovered it along the way.

For me personally, I can find the themes much quicker and with greater clarity by scripting than I can by working them out over time. Try it and you’ll also find that – the script shall set you free.


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