When Tony and I were in America we attended a Story Theater Retreat with professional speaker Doug Stevenson. This is a two-and-a-half-day workshop focusing on crafting and refining just one story, but at the same time teaching you a process that you can apply to all of your stories. Each retreat has just four participants so it’s an intensely individualized experience.

Doug has developed the Nine Steps of Story Structure. It’s classic storytelling technique with a protagonist, an obstacle to be overcome, and a resolution at its core. However, Doug adds 3 significant steps to classic story structure so as to brand the learning point of the story. Doug has laid it out in a step-by-step way so that you can take any event in your life and craft it into a valuable story for your audience.

Using Doug’s Nine Steps to structure your story coupled with the acting techniques that he teaches turns your story into a movie.

I chose to work on the story that I tell at the beginning of our courses. It describes my first attempt at the Toastmasters public speaking competition 20 years ago. The Retreat was transformational for me – and my story. I’ve described below some of the elements of my story makeover. I’ve added video clips from my coaching session during the Retreat so that you can see what I was trying to do. The quality’s not great but I still think it’s helpful to see as well as to read!

1. Adding a character

I had many of the elements of Doug’s Story Structure. But I was missing one element. There were no other characters in the story. I was the only character – the story had me battling alone through three levels of Toastmaster competition. That made the story rather one-dimensional. Imagine a movie or a play with only one character!

So Doug suggested that I add another character. It was easy to think of who that should be. At Toastmasters there was a woman that I respected and admired. Her name was Margaret Nixon. Margaret was a mentor to me, giving me useful feedback and encouraging me to set new challenges for myself.

Adding Margaret to the story gave the story much more interest and depth and also allowed me to incorporate some of the acting techniques which Doug teaches.

2. Create memorable characters

So it’s not really a movie. Since the audience can’t see the other characters we have to help the audience visualize the characters by describing them. Here’s how I described Margaret:

She was a government lawyer, just like me. She was petite with blonde, curly hair. Her speeches were models of structure and clarity. But she was never intimidating because she had a warm and sparkly personality.

Later on in the story, I have a short sequence involving our dogs – so I described them too:

Tara is a golden retriever – big brown eyes, always wagging her tail at you (or at anybody). Jodie is an elegant collie (strangers call her Lassie) and somewhat more discerning.

Now I could use photos of Tara and Jodie (you can see a lovely photo of them by scrolling down my about page). But sometimes the images that the audience can conjure up on the screen of their minds is just as powerful, if not more powerful, than actual photos.

For more see: Doug’s post Storytelling in Business – Create Memorable Characters

3. IN moments and OUT moments

Turning your story into a movie means you’re not just telling a story, but showing your audience what happened. Doug was an actor for 20 years before he segued into professional speaking and he’s married his acting expertise with his speaking expertise. He’s developed the Story Theater method to show non-actors a step-by-step system to incorporate acting techniques into a story.

Doug calls showing your audience what happened an IN moment, whereas the times when you’re narrating the story are OUT moments. His guideline is that 30% of your story should be IN moments.

In my pre-makeover story here’s what I used to say:

As I walked up to the stage, my legs felt like they were noodles. I stood up on the stage and looked out and just saw a jumble of shapes and colors. My heart was pounding like it was going to explode out of my chest and I could feel sweat trickling down my sides.

In my post-makeover story all the words above have gone, I act it. Here’s a short clip from my coaching session during the Retreat as I try out acting this moment:

For more on IN moments see Doug’s article: Identify the Moments

4. Humor

Humor is something that I’ve struggled with and at times I’ve just said to myself “I’m not a funny speaker – that’s not me and so I won’t try to be funny”. As I’ve developed experience as a speaker I have realised that I can make people laugh but I still haven’t seen myself as a funny speaker. Doug believes that everyone can be funny and can develop their ability to be funny. So I decided to give humor another go. I already had a line in my story where I mentioned that I rehearsed to the dogs but with Doug’s help I developed it into a funny scene:

5. Two-character Two-step

With another character in my story, I could create some dialogue.  Doug showed me how to do the two-character two-step to act out a dialogue between two people. Here are the basic elements:

– each character stands at a slight diagonal to the audience.

– as you change character you shift to the other diagonal.

It takes some practice to get right! In the clip below I’m just getting the hang of it:

6. Inner monologue

Another acting technique that Doug teaches is the inner monologue. Instead of saying:

To my surprise I won the competition. That was great news for my self-esteem, but bad news for my future. Because it meant that I would be representing my club at the next level of competition – the Area level.

Doug had me pace up and down talking to myself. I found this quite difficult. Whenever I try to walk and talk I end up slowing down – walking fast and talking to myself was tricky! Also my instinct was to look down at the floor as I walked, but that doesn’t work for the audience. I had to look up. You can see my struggle with this technique in this extended clip which includes Doug’s coaching:

Or you can just watch my final attempt:

Using these techniques you can turn your story into a movie too.

I’ve only covered a small percentage of what I learned at Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Retreat. I highly recommend attending a retreat if you’re committed to taking your story-telling to the next level. Doug and his wife Deborah create an incredible welcoming and supportive environment in their Peak View Studio.

If you can’t make it to a retreat buy Doug’s book Story Theater Method, and the audio version – which you can get as CDs or downloadable MP3s (disclosure: these are affiliate links which means that I earn a 15% commission if you buy one of Doug’s books or other products). I recommend getting both the book and the audio version as you’ll get all the details and  hear Doug telling and dissecting his stories. You’ll get an extra level of learning as a result.

Next week I’ll discuss my personal learnings from the Retreat.

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