Top 10 mistakes

by Doug Stevenson 2001

STORY THEATER Tip of the Month: React!


We all do it all the time. Someone says something and we react. We react facially, physically and vocally. It’s as natural as breathing. It happens between the words like an emotional exclamation point. Some people react more than others, but we all do it. The question is: do you do it when you tell your stories? If I could wave a magic wand and make all of my students react in their stories, it would make them all funnier, more dramatic and more real.

When we get good news, we smile and pump our fists. We jump for joy or squeal with delight. Reactions. When we get bad news, we slump in our chairs, stomp our feet or pound the table. Reactions. When we’re surprised, we freeze, step back or giggle.

Reactions are organic, verbal or non-verbal, communications. Remember to react facially, physically and vocally to moments in your story. Scan your script for places to react in-between the words. Do this one thing and you will appear more natural and believable on the platform…and…you’ll get more laughs.




1. Not using enough movement

Stories are inherently visual. Natural movement is built into the narrative. Yet many speakers stand still and tell their stories without serving the story. One student recently shared a story about riding in a charity bike race. She talked about how she started out with a lot of enthusiasm and energy, then slowly ran out of gas as the race progressed. I asked her to talk less and show more. So, she got on the imaginary bike, began peddling and before you know it, she was huffing and puffing and we were all laughing. Her comment afterwards revealed her amazing discovery: “I didn’t know I was that funny.” The next time you tell a story, move your body. Don’t just tell me about it…SHOW ME!

(More HOW-TO information on TAPE ONE of the Story Theater Six-pack)

2. Relying too heavily on content and skimping on connection

If you spend all of your time researching more content, you’re probably spending less time perfecting the presentation of the content that you researched the last time. Enough already! Don’t you have enough content to speak for a week on any subject? What about the presentation? Audiences remember speakers who connect with them emotionally, as well as intellectually. They want a human being who speaks the truth. They want to know what you KNOW, not what you’ve researched. Do you reveal your private truths or do you play it safe with content? I’ll tell you this… the deeper I go with my audiences, the more they like it. That depth comes from a combination of what I say and HOW I present it. If you don’t understand the mechanics of performance and presentation, your content may be falling on deaf ears.

3. Improper placement of a story in a keynote

On tape two of the Story Theater Six-pack learning system, I discuss seven different types of stories and when and where to use them. Certain stories work well in the beginning of a keynote and others do not. Crucible stories work best in the middle. Instructional stories work well after Imbroglio stories. Pattern stories are a great way to begin a keynote. Credibility stories work well up-front. If you don’t understand which stories go where, you may be sabotaging your own effectiveness. You may think the story isn’t working when in fact it’s a problem with placement.

(More HOW-TO information on types of stories and when to use them on TAPE TWO of the Story Theater Six-pack)

4. Giving away the power of the story up-front

I teach an eight step process for developing your stories. The sequencing of the story is crucial to maximizing the power of the message. A typical problem is giving away the power of the story up-front. If you begin by telling me…”I’d like to tell you a story about a turning point in my life where I learned the value of perseverance in relation to achieving your goals,” you’ve basically told me the point of the story. You’ve robbed me of the opportunity to discover it for myself as the story unfolds. Don’t tell me what the story is about – let me figure it out for myself. Start with step one in the eight steps: Set the Scene.

(More HOW-TO information on the Eight Steps and sequencing on TAPE THREE of the Story Theater Six-pack)

5. Not knowing how to write the way you talk

Most people write the way they were taught in elementary school by Miss Kreplack. That’s all well and good, but if you script your stories like that you’ll sound like a fourth grade English teacher. Fortunately for you, the way you speak is much more conversational and interesting. My suggestion: talk onto paper. At first, it’s hard to stomach the realization that you speak in incomplete sentences and half-thoughts, but you’ll get over it. Try this: tape record one of your speeches, then transcribe it EXACTLY the way it came out of your mouth. Don’t fix it. Study it. Now learn how to talk onto paper the way you really talk, and you’ll have the foundation for a natural style of writing your stories that is congruent with who you really are.

6. Changing the story every time you tell it

If you don’t script your stories, you may never discover their true potential. Scripting forces you to make sure your story flows logically forward. It challenges you to choose your words and get creative. Having scripted your story, you’ll be more consistent from one speech to the next. Professionalism is about consistent excellence, not luck. As a keynote speaker, I can’t afford to have bad days when the story goes haywire on me. I have to replicate my stories so I can count on them. Most veteran speakers will tell you that, over time, their stories become pretty set. They learn what works and what doesn’t through repetition over a period of many years. Want to cut the learning curve by 85%? Script your stories first. Then memorize them and perform them with consistency.

(More HOW-TO information on scripting, memorization and consistency on TAPE FOUR of the Story Theater Six-pack)

7. Rehearsing in your head – not on your feet

I’m guilty of this one, how about you? There are only 24 hours in a day and too many things to do. When I have a new story, it’s easier to just think about what I’m going to say, run the lines in my head, then get up there and give it my best shot. That always seems like a good plan until I’m face-to-face with an audience and I don’t know what I’m doing. When I compare that experience to the experience of telling stories that I have rehearsed ON MY FEET, it’s a no brainer. I’ve got to rehearse on my feet to be my best and to know exactly what I’m doing.

Here’s why you should rehearse on your feet: The audience is watching your whole body, not just your head. Strategically placed movement and gesture support what you’re saying. If you don’t rehearse movement and gesture, you may be missing some powerful moments that you’ll only find by rehearsing on your feet.

(More HOW-TO information on rehearsal and acting techniques on TAPE FOUR of the Story Theater Six-pack)

8. Getting lucky with humor rather than planning for it

Comedy is structure combined with delivery. Delivery alone is not enough. Structure alone delivery is not enough. If you understand comedic structure, you can get laughs by design when you want them. Comedians don’t count on luck. Why should you? On tape five of the six-pack I dissect the structure of a funny story. I take it sentence-by-sentence, pattern-by-pattern and analyze how and why I made the choices that I did. If you want to be funnier, some techniques you can learn are: callbacks, triples, weaving and the use of themes. Add these techniques to your natural humor style and you’ll get more laughs when you want them, immediately.

(More HOW-TO information on humor on TAPE FIVE of the Story Theater Six-pack)

9. Talking when silence is more powerful

Silence is powerful. In the silence, you show rather than tell. In the silence, audience members feel rather than think. In the silence, a slow, deep breath communicates more than any words can. In the silence, stories become movies rather than lectures. Silence is your ally. Give the audience a chance to hear their own thoughts. Let silence speak.

(More HOW-TO information on dramatic tension and silence on TAPE SIX of the Story Theater Six-pack)

10. Worrying too much about the audience

If you are interpreting audience reactions while you are speaking, you are disconnecting with your message. Rather than being passionately congruent with who you are and what you want to communicate, you may be distracted by your misinterpretation of what you’re seeing in the audience. The person who looks like they’re bored may actually be thinking about what you just said. The person who is smiling at you may actually be daydreaming about scuba diving in Cozumel. Forget about what they’re doing and focus on what YOU’RE doing. Serve the message.

(More HOW-TO information on performance theory and application on TAPE SIX of the Story Theater Six-pack)

(click here to order the Story Theater Six-Pack learning system)




July 8, 2001 was a big day for me. One of my graduates, Marcia Steele of Atlanta, Georgia, gave a main stage keynote at the NSA Convention in Dallas. She was fabulous. That’s not just my opinion. She had one of the longest standing ovations that I have ever heard at NSA. Her audio and video tapes were immediate best sellers. She was the talk of the hallways at the NSA convention.

Prior to the convention, I had the honor of coaching Marcia on her speech. We worked together via email on many drafts of her script. She was relentless in her pursuit of perfection. Draft after draft came flying through my computer as she probed and polished, constantly challenging herself to go deeper with her message. In May we spent two days in Atlanta putting the speech on its feet. By the time I arrived to coach her, hundreds of hours had already gone into rehearsal. As we worked each moment, each emotional beat, each transition and choice, the masterpiece began to take shape. When I left Marcia, she vowed to keep working.

On July 8th I sat in the audience with eager anticipation. Fellow graduates June Cline and Shirley Garrett were in the front row for morale support. Glenna Salsbury and Naomi Rhode were praying for her. Marilynn Mobley and everyone from the Georgia Speakers Association was sending her positive vibes. Then the curtain came up on her moment in the spotlight.

She walked out with poise and grace, took her time, then began. Her confidence was clearly evident. She owned that stage. Everything that we had worked on was there…and more. She had gone beyond memorization and rehearsal into performance. Like Ginger Rogers, she knew her steps backwards and forwards and now…she was dancing. It was breathtaking to watch. She made it look so easy. All of the preparation, all of the work, became completely transparent. As far as the audience knew, she was just an incredibly gifted speaker. Marcia went beyond content to connection.

As the room cleared, many sat in silence or in tears. Some were touched by her message about “flying deep” with cancer or about “flying high” as a Jamaican immigrant on Wall Street. Many more were simply amazed that a mere 40 minutes worth of material could be so transformational. They had just witnessed mastery – something that doesn’t happen every day. Mastery is not luck. It comes from practice. Marcia deposited hundreds of hours into her mastery account and it paid off for her. Mastery is an investment in self. Marcia showed us the way. Her richness is her gift to herself and on July 8 she gave her gift to us, as well.

Thank you Marcia…and congratulations.


(click here for more details about private coaching)


Each story has its own message, its own purpose. Your job is to work as smart as you can to reveal that message not only through language, but through all of the tools at your disposal. To discover new ways to breathe excitement into your presentations by using theater techniques, comedy formulas, advanced scripting techniques and more, consider attending a Story Theater Retreat. Challenge yourself to move up to the next level of personal and professional growth. Participate in the next evolution in business storytelling by learning and practicing Story Theater: the science of the art of storytelling and humor


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