Discover more from Pivot to the Podium
Lead Us Into Conflict With Your Stories
Without it, there's no transformation
They tried to boo me off stage
The red velvet curtain I was standing behind hadn’t even opened yet.
But the audience was already booing me, and I had no idea why.
I had been hired by an oilmen's association in northern Canada to entertain at their winter banquet. These were petroleum workers who ran the remote oil fields, rigs, and refineries of northern British Columbia.
Their enthusiastic and resounding voices echoed off the gymnasium walls as I heard them enter the hall and take their seats at their dinner rounds. But then I was introduced.
"And now it's time for this evening's entertainment! Please put your hands together for juggler, Rick Lewis."
That’s when the booing started.
I‘d later learn that the only form of entertainment provided to this group in the last forty years had involved a boom box and a person of the opposite sex trained in the slow and methodical removal of specific pieces of clothing. Hiring me was like passing out bubblegum cigarettes at a cigar convention and expecting the attendees to be pleased.
The curtain was pulled back as I stood there, a grown man who was dressed just a half step short of a clown, and looking ready to bolt. The booing intensified—which was alarming—but I had no idea things were about to get even worse.
One of the audience members picked up their dinner spoon and launched it in my direction from 50 feet away. It landed with a comical ping on the wooden stage in front of me and slid to a stop at my feet. Two seconds later, hundreds more spoons were airborne and headed my way. They hit the stage like shrapnel from an exploding bomb.
The audience now stared at me in aggressive silence, as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?”
My legs were trembling and my upper lip was already starting to tingle and go numb with fear.
I had two options. Win them over somehow—or run.
But I hadn’t flown 700 miles to just walk away from a tough crowd. That meant I needed to take a risk. I had enough adrenaline pumping through me to run through a brick wall at that moment. That’s the only reason I could have attempted what I did next—an acrobatic stunt that required a lot of energy and focus to avoid breaking my neck. I launched myself into the air—pulled back hard—and rotated 360 degrees in a full-standing backflip—landing once again on my feet.
I stared back at the crowd, as if to say, “That’s what I’m going to do about it.”
For two long seconds they were silent again, and then suddenly leapt to their feet, cheering, fist pumping, slapping each other’s backs, and applauding. They gave me the green light to start and finish a successful show.
We pay attention when balance is lost
I shared the above story to illustrate how conflict works in a story to captivate your audience. From the epic battles in the Lord of the Rings to the mischievous delinquency of Calvin and Hobbes, conflict is the glue that fixes our attention upon a narrative.
Writer David Perrell describes the “But and Therefore Rule” recently espoused by the creators of South Park. This strategy, put forth by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, encourages storytellers to use the word “but” as a way of regularly introducing oppositional forces into the storyline.
The word “but” introduces instability into the scene, and the audience can’t help wanting to know what happens next.
Here’s a breakdown of the conflict architecture of my story.
Everything circled in RED is a description of conflict.
The YELLOW circles are instances of the word “but,” which is used to add tension and contrast to the story.
The GREEN highlighted area is the resolution to the story, when harmony is restored and everything is okay.
Notice how much of the story is devoted to the development of conflict and tension.
Why does this formula work to keep the attention of an audience?
The universe operates according to a ledger of balance. It’s Newton’s third law of physics. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
When things get out of balance, it gets the attention of the universe, which is dedicated to the restoration of harmony.
Given that every cell, atom, and sinew of our corporeal selves is part of this dynamic equilibrium,it makes sense that conflict would register a strong signal on our radar. We are hardwired to detect disharmony, and, if necessary, play a part in resolving it.
Storytelling is the device we use to identify conflict in the narrative of our lives, the way a Geiger counter registers how much radiation is in our immediate environment. It’s through stories that we measure how much conflict is in the atmosphere and determine how much corrective action we might need to apply in our world.
But, stories are not only a present-moment measuring tool, they are also a post-mortem educational tool that allows us to learn from others who have experienced novel forms of conflict that we ourselves might one day encounter.
The secret ingredient of storytelling
When you become skilled at dropping us right into the heart of your story with a vivid setting, compelling characters, and an obvious conflict—you set the stage for a resolution to your tale.
But there’s a secret ingredient that will make your story’s resolution most memorable, moving, and satisfying.
A surprising resolution is the crème brulée of storytelling. It’s the back-flip in response to a spoon attack.
And here’s why.
Humans are habitual creatures. Most of us live on relative auto-pilot, with a limited range of responses to the challenges of our lives. We default to things like being smart, physically dominating, or adaptive as ways of handling conflict—even though the world is a dynamic and multifaceted playground, begging for our ingenuity and spontaneity when the pressure is on.
We all want to transcend the limitations of our conditioning and our self-imposed rules to become celebrated servants of universal equilibrium. We want to surprise, even ourselves, with our actions, respond in a way that is wanted and needed, rather than clinging to the safety of our old identity.
Stories of conflict set the stage for a tale of transformation. It’s the story we all want to be living—going beyond our previous limits for the high cause of harmony.
We long to hear these kinds of stories over and over again because we want to keep that potential alive in our hearts.
Share the messy truth so we can transform
Conflict is our ally in our quest for stories that matter and lives that have merit. So take us there. Lead us directly into controversy so we can see where balance is missing and be challenged to restore it with elegance, or learn from characters that have done it before.
We can’t be servants of harmony if we’re only posturing with our peace. So, stop speaking in spreadsheets, platitudes, Hallmark rhyme schemes, and candy shop pleasantries.
Instead, show us your battle scars, take us to the front lines of your assault on complacency, show us where the armor is hanging so we can take up our own fight for what matters most, and start telling stories that invite conflict to be an honored guest in our lives.
Telling the truth about the conflict around us is how we evoke the best that’s within us—and within our audience.
Someone has to go first, and if you consider yourself a storyteller, you’re standing at the front of the line.
Pivot to the Podium is a reader-supported publication. To receive additional support and guidance for speaking and storytelling, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
This Week’s Events
7 Rules You Were Born to Break, On Stage and In Real Life
Thur. Oct 26th, 9 am - 9:45 am PST - Pivot to the Podium MasterClass
This week I’ll introduce you to my book, 7 Rules You Were Born to Break, and show you how to use the professional development model I’m regularly hired to share with leaders to help you become a better speaker and storyteller.
Sat. Oct 28th, 9 am PST - Podium Day
This Saturday we’ll explore the role of conflict in our storytelling. How can you make friends with conflict and use it to provoke transformation for your audience?
In the course of my career I’ve stolen more than 5,000 watches
But one time I tried to steal a wallet and regretted it.
See the full story here.
I post additional stories and speaking tips every week on “X”.
You can follow me there if you want more inspiration and guidance for speaking and storytelling.
Pivot to the Podium is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.