There I stood on the burning deck

burning deck

“There I stood on the burning deck”. Imagine someone starting a story with those words, would it get your attention?

Stories are so powerful, I encourage all of us to continually develop our story-telling skills. In leadership, the ability to connect to people with stories is one of the most powerful tools and skills we can have.

Today I share learnings from my friend Bob Keiller through reposting a recent article he wrote on story structure, as well as then a nuance to that from my late mentor and guide Ed Percival.

So first to my thoughts on Bob, then a repost of his article, then a nuance to his thoughts that I learned from Ed Percival, and finally a poem, a moment of beauty.


I first met Bob Keiller three years ago. He was about to “retire” from his corporate leadership role and was ready for his next phase. Bob embodies the virtues of people I love to work with (see my #BeMoreYou page on this site). Bob has achieved so much already in his career, yet the man I met three years ago exemplified being hungry (to learn, to contribute, to share), being humble (Bob is a totally down to earth and modest person), being brave (he left his first career and has leapt into wholly new fields), and finally being open (always learning, from a growth mindset).

Through all of this, when I first met Bob he told several really powerful stories, yet at that point he did not know that one of the core areas he would come to focus on is teaching others to tell stories, through countless workshops, individual conversations, TEDx talks, and articles.

So, this article was published on LinkedIn recently:

Stories in presentations – it’s not Shakespeare

More and more people are realising that stories in business presentations are a fantastic way to convey key messages.

So, how do you craft a short story that fits easily into a short business presentation?

There are many great books on stories and story-writing but I haven’t found many that cover the 1 or 2 minute story very effectively. They will tell you that you need a protagonist (hero) with a desire, and a villain standing in the hero’s way. The villain has to be a worthy adversary and the hero needs undergo a transformation as he/she struggles to overcome their nemesis and achieve their goal. Books will tell you about character-webs, plot points, story-beats, scenes and narrative arcs – all making it sound quite complicated!

But it doesn’t have to be.

A simple format for a brief story in a business presentation:

Setting: Explain where and when the story happened and who was involved.

Turning Point: What happened to kick the story off?

Overcoming Struggle: What challenges and obstacles did the person or people in the story have to face and how did they tackle them?

Resolution: What happened after that? Did they succeed or fail?

Implications: What is the takeaway lesson from the story in the context of your presentation?

Emotional Connection: Does the story sound true? If not, make it “3D” by adding Detail, Dialogue and Description. Would the audience care about the person in the story? If not, help us to empathise more by adding the Wow Factor (Why they are doing what they are – do they have a relatable motive? Obstacles – have they overcome hardships or challenges? Weakness – do they have any flaws, failings or vulnerabilities?)

Sticky (Memorable): Does the start capture our interest, does the middle hold it and is there any twist or surprise near the end that makes it more memorable?
The first letter of each step spells out the word “STORIES”

You don’t need to worry about character development (there isn’t time for it). You don’t need to worry about complex subplots and you don’t even need a real villain providing you have a challenge that needs to be overcome – that’s where the drama comes from that makes the story interesting. If there is a twist or unusual element to the story it will make it even more memorable.

I developed this template from years of telling stories in presentations that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t – I didn’t understand why, so I studied everything I could find on storytelling – from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces through to books by Steve Denning, Carmine Gallo and many others.

I have used the template to capture stories and create a library that I can use in various presentations – stories are not only easier for the audience, they are easier for the presenter to remember too.

I like to think of the template like the scales on a musical instrument – once you are comfortable you can play different tunes and create your own templates that are even better and more useful! Let me know if you have any ideas on how I could improve the STORIES template.

A nuance from Ed Percival

As I have written of numerous times on this site, Ed Percival was my greatest mentor. One area he specialised in was story-telling, both telling stories himself and teaching others. This is something his son Simon continues through teaching the two day “Enjoy Making and Impact” courses that Ed pioneered, some of the most powerful courses I’ve ever been part of (as participant and as a support to Ed).

Ed distilled down his story-telling structure in a similar way to how Bob noted above. One nuance, however, is that Ed encouraged us not to start with Bob’s “S” but with his “T”, to start with the Turning Point rather than the Setting.

He explained this by having you imagine a moment of crisis on a ship in the ocean where it looked like all would be lost. The “setting” would be in talking about such things as how the journey was planned, when the ship set sail, who was the crew, how long it sailed through calm seas in an uneventful fashion etc. No, instead the idea he gave was to start right at the turning point, to catch the attention of the audience instantly.

He captured this with the line “there I stood on the burning bridge”. Imagine a speech with that as the first line! It would get my attention. I vividly remember when Ed first demonstrated this. He had us as his audience in rapt attention through both his words and style of delivery.

Now, to combine the two, here is Bob’s TEDx talk on “Doing core values”. Note that he does his “S” (setting) within seconds, then effortlessly blends that to his “T” (turning point) and within less than a minute of his 12-minute talk, he has his audience totally connected to his story.

Finally, the line “there I stood on the burning bridge” reminds me of an exquisite and powerful poem that tells a story that is powerfully engaging and tragically beautiful. Let us always learn from wide sources, be hungry, humble, brave and open to new ways to learn, to grow, to share our gifts as we learn more and more.

Casabianca by Felicia Hemans

The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck,
Shone round him o’er the dead.

Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though childlike form.

The flames rolled on – he would not go,
Without his father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.

He called aloud – ‘Say, father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
– And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.

Upon his brow he felt their breath
And in his waving hair;
And look’d from that lone post of death,
In still yet brave despair.

And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.

They wrapped the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.

There came a burst of thunder sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!

With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part,
But the noblest thing which perished there,
Was that young faithful heart.