Not a great recommendation for celebrating the holidays, I know. But if you want to find great stories to tell, this is the key.

I first came up with the phrase “follow the pain” during a presentation to public speakers trying to find autobiographical stories for their presentations. But I soon realized that it represents a powerful tool for all entrepreneurs and business leaders (as well as film and fiction writers, as I’ll reveal momentarily).

If you’re struggling to find stories that will inspire, educate and persuade readers and audiences, having to sift through all your life experiences to discover one that will captivate your followers can seem overwhelming. But if you focus on your most painful experiences, you’ll find the stories that will have the greatest emotional impact.

In the introduction to his outstanding autobiography Will, Will Smith’s very first words lead us immediately into a story from his childhood.

When I was eleven years old, my father decided he needed a new wall on the front of his shop.

He goes on to tell us how his father gave him and his brother the monumental task of building that twelve feet high, twenty feet long wall, brick by brick. This seemingly endless, very painful experience resulted in one of the primary lessons of Will Smith’s entire life.

(To read the entire Introduction, and see how brilliantly it incorporates all the essential principles of a great story, just go to the Amazon link to the book Will. You can see it for free if you click on the “Look inside” arrow. But I recommend you buy and read the entire book. It is insightful, inspiring, and filled – no surprise – with lots of other terrific stories. Plus, as you know, I owe Will Smith a lot.)

The times in your past when you faced your greatest challenges will provide you with the stories that will create the most empathy and emotion, and will most likely be those where you found your greatest strength, courage, success, transformation and insight – the very qualities your followers want to learn about and emulate.

Those painful moments of loss, embarrassment, heartbreak, fear and failure – the experiences we thought we’d never get over at the time – are often the ones that led us to greater knowledge, wisdom and courage. These are the stories that will touch people most deeply by making them laugh out loud, sit in rapt silence, tear up with emotion, or lean in with excitement and anticipation. And those feelings will tap into their own needs and desires – their own humanity – and will move them to action.

The same holds true if your stories reveal how you or your process helped your clients, customers or followers overcome their pain and achieve their goals. These success stories will captivate your prospects and give them the emotional experience of overcoming their own pain by working with you, or by following your prescription for changing their lives.

And if you’re creating narrative stories for film or fiction, following your pain from the past will strengthen your own scripts and manuscripts as well. Even if you’re writing bigger than life fantasies about characters whose situations are far removed from your own, you must ask yourself if the emotion your hero is experiencing matches your own pain from the past or present.

Putting those often hidden parts of yourself into your stories is your path to truly connecting with, and transforming, your audiences and readers.

So please have a wonderful, generous, safe and loving Christmas. And limit any pain to just your stories.

– Michael