CONFLICT #3: Follow the Pain

This is the third in my series of articles on how to captivate your audiences and readers with the use of conflict – your most powerful tool for eliciting emotion with your stories.

Speakers, marketers and entrepreneurs need their own “signature” stories to present to audiences, followers, clients and customers. These are the compelling, autobiographical stories that establish a writer or presenter’s likability, understanding, expertise, principles and beliefs, and that convince their prospects that this is the person they need to solve their problems.

But business leaders are often at a loss to know exactly what story to tell – or how to tell it. How, among all the things that have happened in a lifetime, do they choose which events will connect with everyone who experiences their story? How can the even know if that story is interesting, or what theme or message it will convey?

My answer to this dilemma is almost always the same: follow the pain.

Whether in business, drama or fiction, your #1 goal in telling a story is always to take your audiences on an emotional journey by finding the conflict in every story you write.

I recently watched a video I had first seen decades ago, of Tony Robbins telling a signature story of his own. He describes what happened when he was eleven years old, living in poverty with parents who were constantly fighting, and a younger brother and sister he tried his best to protect from the anger and ever-present hunger that consumed their lives.

He goes on to tell about a knock on the door, and the event that changed his life forever.

I won’t reveal any more about his brilliantly told story; I want you to watch and experience it for yourself: TONY ROBBINS’ BASKET BRIGADE STORY.

Pay attention to how much pain he reveals from the moment the story begins, and how vividly he describes the situation and characters and action. Listen to how desperately he wanted what was on the other side of the door, and all the obstacles that stood between him and everything he longed for. Notice how the conflict in the story builds, how the pain increases, and how the lessons he took away from this event transformed those around him years later.

Watch also how emotionally involved you (and his audience) become, and how the transformation he experienced is ultimately transferred to all of us who are hearing his story.

And finally, notice how all that pain, conflict and emotion grow out of a simple story with no big action or spectacle, and no impossible-to-imagine resolution. This is about an outcome any of us could experience and grow from.

In developing your own stories, look for those events in your own life that brought you pain, struggle and fear. Find the times where you desperately wanted something that felt impossibly out of reach – where you had to give more skill or perseverance than you thought you could.

Look for situations where you were stuck in some way, at the mercy of circumstance, or where your fears held you back from pursuing your desires. Think of times where you needed to stand up for yourself, or struggled to do what was right, or had to risk failure, rejection or heartbreak in order to help – or depend on – someone else.

If, in the face of these personal conflicts, you found a way to succeed, then tell us how we, too, can acquire the skill you mastered, the courage you found, and the lesson you learned.

And if there were times in your life that you failed, that you fell on your face, chickened out, took a wrong path, or suffered the consequences of your thoughtless actions, go deeper into the pain of those experiences. Readers and audiences will identify with your faults and weaknesses, and will connect with your vulnerability.

When you share what you learned from the conflict you faced, your prospects can grow and change as well, and you’ll become someone they want to work with or buy from.

Follow the pain as well if, instead of a signature story, you want to create a successful movie or a novel.

Your original idea may come from a character, situation, desire or event you want to explore. But before committing to the project, look for the conflict. If it’s not there, then find a better story to tell.

From the page or the stage, take your hero on a painful journey filled with ever-increasing, seemingly insurmountable obstacles. These are the characters audiences root for, and these are the stories that audiences love.

– Michael


[Click below to read the previous articles in this series.]

CONFLICT #1: Tiger
CONFLICT #2: Combat vs. Conflict
CONFLICT #4: The Nemesis