You’ll never make it to the big time by playing small

by Doug Stevenson




We had a great Story Theater Retreat in Colorado Springs last weekend. There were three men and three women – a nice balance of energies. Interestingly enough, two of the female participants shared a common issue. Having worked with and coached hundreds of women, I am only now beginning to grasp the scope of the problem. Although it is more pervasive in women – it is not purely a women’s issue – many men deal with it in a different way. So listen up men – this applies to you too!

Many women are afraid to spread their wings. Regardless of their culture, body type or ethnicity, this pattern of behavior rears its ugly head time and again. It’s as if their elbows are stitched to their sides and any large gesture involving powerful arms and shoulders immediately labels them as unprofessional. The two women in last week’s retreat, like hundreds that I’ve witnessed before them – were afraid of their physical power.

This issue first came to light during Charllotte’s story. Her issue, ingrained in her since childhood, was the need to be “proper.” It manifested itself with a contained and ladylike posture, graceful movement and elbows that never moved away from her body. The only problem was that her story was about going on a river-rafting trip and falling overboard. She wanted to portray flailing around in the churning white water – hard to do with your elbows velcro’d to your ribs!

Diane’s story was about her experience taking a Taekwondo class. It required her to demonstrate some of the choreographed martial arts movements she learned. In the story, Diane’s obstacle was fear and self-doubt. In order to overcome her fear, she was challenged to break a board with her foot. The only problem was that she was re-enacting the movement without the power required to convince an audience that she actually broke the board. She was holding herself back – even though her story called for a decisive and powerful kick.

From what I understand, it seems that women are programmed from a very early age to be ladylike and contained with their movement. There are spoken and unspoken taboos about being too physical or powerful. Even in our modern culture where female athletes are very much accepted, female speakers seem tentative about exhibiting powerful movement, even when their story calls for it.

In Story Theater, the storyteller is required to re-create the reality of the moment that is being portrayed. The actor/actress/storyteller cannot let their fears and inhibitions detract from the power of the moment. To do so saps the power of the story. If the moment calls for the actress to break a board with her foot – it must be simulated with the same force in performance as it was done in the original moment.

If the storyteller is portraying nearly drowning in churning white water – the thrashing and gasping must be believable regardless of the actress’ inhibitions. In the case with Charllotte and Diane, both storytellers knew instinctively what was needed, but their unfamiliarity with their own physical power held them back.

In the end, Charllotte broke free of her “proper” mental shackles and portrayed flailing around in the white water with such conviction that she left us breathless. With her arms waving over her head and her body twirling around, she re-created the danger inherent in the story. Charllotte spread her magnificent wings and unleashed the power that was there all along.

Diane summoned the power that earned her a brown belt in Taekwondo – to break the imaginary board as powerfully in her story as she broke the real board. As she got out of her own way, Diane began to move her entire body with more conviction during the narrative as well as the acting moments of her story. In the end, she spoke like someone with a Brown Belt in Taekwondo, rather than like an appropriately demure professional speaker.

Many women come to me with clipped wings – but it’s not just a women’s issue. I see it often in men, as well. The challenge is to be powerful, both physically and emotionally, in service of your message, so it can transform your audience. When your power is used freely and without apology, it will cause you to raise your voice, to use a full range of motion with your hands and arms, and to move through space like a tiger rather than like a lamb.

Power is large and it is small, loud and quiet, compassionate and angry. There is no need to contain your power – when it is used appropriately in the context of a moment in a story. The best speakers and trainers don’t hold back – they let their audience have it. They claim their power and share it with others.

Spread your wings. Open your arms wide and feel the power in your shoulders. Use a full range of motion. Expand your reach. Body is language. What language are you speaking?




Misdirection is achieved by combining the wrong vocal delivery to a line – on purpose. It is a vocal juxtaposition, if you will.

For example, let’s say you just got the news that you won the lottery. Your line would be:

“I won. I won. I can’t believe it. I’m so happy. I’m going to Disneyland!

I’m going to kiss Goofy and dance with Mickey Mouse.”

As your coach I would ask you to portray this with exuberant joy, jumping up and down and running around like a person who just won the lottery. Makes sense, right? Go ahead…deliver the line with exuberant joy.

Did you do it?

What was you vocal quality like? Did your voice go up in tone as you smiled and delivered the line? Probably. Can’t help it, can you?

Now consider that you just got some bad news instead. You’ve been informed that your biggest consulting client has just been bought out and your contact inside the company lost her job. There went half your income! On top of that, you just returned from a vacation that cost $8,000 and the charges will be appear on your credit card bill next week. As you’re reeling from the shock, your spouse walks in the room with a shopping bag full of new clothes, plops them down and says. “Hey hon, how you doing?”

You reply with the same vocal tone and delivery as from above, but with this line:

“I’m great. Just great. I can’t believe it. Just lost my biggest client.

Couldn’t be better. Let’s celebrate; let’s go to Disneyland!”

See what I mean? It’s vocal juxtaposition. The effect it has on the audience is to trick their ear. They hear a joyous vocal tone but the context is disaster. The two don’t go together and therefore, the jolt to their brain makes them laugh. When they are surprised, they laugh.

Try it. It works!

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