The following videos, descriptions, and exercises are designed to get people prepared and excited to tell amazing stories and create sustainable change through assemblies, workshops, and other presentations.

Take these videos at your own pace. They build on each other and many of them have To Do’s associated with them to help you process the content AND slowly build out a speech.

Make a copy of the master document, rename it with your name (if you don’t have one already), and use this as a guide to create your speech and make magic!



#1: Non-Negotiables

We do our best to live our Truth and be in alignment across all channels. Students are experts and finding misalignment

  • We work to learn names and thank people who invest in us. Every touchpoint in a building is important. We are not high maintenance - we serve the work.

  • We stand at the door and greet students as they walk in. These casual interactions set the stage for meaningful conversation.

  • We don’t swear unless it is CRITICAL to a story

  • We don’t make the easy joke and we are thoughtful and conscious in making sure we aren’t perpetuating stereotypes.

  • We aren’t hit and run speakers. We make time for those critical moments before and after.

To Do:

Write your own non-negotiable that you believe is in alignment with CharacterStrong’s message and mission.

#2: Types of Speakers

Most speakers fall into one of a few categories or styles of speaking. We think about them like movie genres! See which one you identify with the most and then see if you can spot places in your speech (or in others) where you dip your toe into any or all of these categories.

  • Drama: A personal story so profound or unlikely that they would make a movie about it! A story that makes people think, “If they can do _____, then I can do _____!”

  • Action: A lot of fun with a little plot. High on entertainment, low on message. Action is great for grabbing people’s attention or creating a memorable moment! But, if not done thoughtfully or with restraint, a lot of action can become “gimmicky” or distract from the message. Just because you can do a magic trick, doesn’t mean you should do one.

  • Documentary: The greatest documentaries are well-curated research paired with moving stories. Students don’t always respond to this style - especially in large groups and with not a lot of time to dig deeper. Educators respond to this well if done expertly. Dr. Brene Brown is a great example of this style - she has data with a soul!

  • Romantic Comedy: Students are desperate for meaningful emotional experiences - narratives that give them a full spectrum of feelings from sadness to empathy to motivating guilt to laughter and joy. The greatest love stories have all of them! Steve Allen says, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Romantic comedies rattle between these perspectives throughout. In isolation, romantic comedies can sometimes come across as “fluffy.” With CharacterStrong, they can be the foundation upon which we build everything else! If students feel moved, entertained, and inspired, we can more intentionally and effectively bring them into the practice of character development and consistent, sustainable habit change.

To Do’s:

One story in my life that could be considered “Drama:”

One thing that could be considered ”Action” in my talk:

One piece of research or data that could make it’s way into my talk is:

What moving part of your speech would you be excited for young people to follow up on in their classrooms through CharacterStrong?

#3: Identifying Your Truth

My mentor Tyler Durman has always told me that a great speech is like holding a gemstone up to the audience and showing them every facet of that gemstone. Our natural tendency as passionate people is to try to tell an audience all that we know in a short time about a lot of things - but a moving keynote gets really focused on one thing. Instead of, “here’s 5 things I know about Leadership!” it should be, “here’s the 1 thing I know about Leadership told through 5 different angles.”

“If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” -Albert Einstein

The premise of a great Truth should be simple, but profound. It should be inspirational, reflective, and/or action-oriented. It should be profound - a reframing of something that perhaps people already know, but need to be reminded of or given the gift of seeing it in a new light.

Some great, simple Truths:

  • A commitment to growth is a commitment to pain. -Tyler Durman

  • Fear is a feeling, love is a choice. -Houston Kraft

  • We need to be reminded more than we need to be taught. -John Norlin

To Do’s:

Write your Truth here:

Write five other ways to say that same thing:

Are there any sayings or phrases out there similar to this Truth?

Why is your Truth important to you, personally?

#4: Never Be The Hero

You can talk about your hurt, your humbling...but not your heroism.

As you begin thinking about the stories or jokes or examples of your Truth, it is important to remember that your audience doesn’t care when you’re the hero - they care when you get humbled and what it teaches you. They have people talk down to them often, they want someone that they can relate to.

As a general rule, always frame your story through the self-reflective lens of “how did I learn this?” and not “when was I awesome at this?” Our tendency is to want to prove to people that we are worth listening to by telling them about our accomplishments. In reality, people want your vulnerability way more than they want your victories.

To Do:

Go through some of your biggest accomplishments that you would want to talk about and write up how to dive into them in a way where you’re not the hero. Even if you don’t talk about them in your talk - practice how to frame your “heroic” moments in a way that young people would resonate with.


#5: Emotional Sandwiching

Think about this recipe:

  • Open Frame Story

  • Weird Things

  • When I Screwed Up/What I Learned

  • Someone Else Who Is Really Good

  • Call to Action

  • Close Frame Story

We open and close with the same general story - the “Frame Story” to create containment, natural tension and resolution, and provide a clear frame for everything else to live inside. The contents in the middle have some flexibility, but you never want to stuff the sandwich with too much.

#6: Frame Stories

This is the story that best speaks to why this Truth matters. It is the simplest story and usually the most powerful. I start all talks by beginning a Frame Story to help set the stage with the problem that needs addressing - then I will stop at a place where there is obviously more to the story to create a cliffhanger. Come back to your Frame Story toward the very end of your talk. It should point really simply and powerfully to your Truth. At some moment in the closing, your Truth should be spoken word for word and, without over-explaining, should be the synthesis of what everything else leading up to this moment was trying to point to. Right before or after this moment, there should be a simple, practical, memorable call to action.

#7: Weird Things

Comedy is just Truth, reframed. I usually spend a bit of time thinking about why the Truth and/or the problem I am talking about is weird, silly, or awkward. Simple, relatable comedy here helps create levity and buy-in. I would put your comedy near the start of your speech to build buy-in. Young people are a hard crowd (especially in the morning) and the best comedy that I have found works for young people is when you are having a good time. Think: What makes you laugh when you think about it? The audience mirrors you, so worry less about being funny and more about having fun.

To Do:

Watch this clip on McDonald’s by Jim Gaffigan.

Answer: How many directions did the comedian talk about McDonalds? How many topics did he get to? Can you write out all the different topics he touched on around McDonald’s?

What truth does he talk about when he says “everyone has a McDonald’s?”

Write: Write out 10+ (seriously!) “what’s weird” questions around one of your hobbies? Try to expand the way the comedian does.

#8: When I Screwed Up

This is where I talk about how I have been a part of the problem in the past (or even in the present). I’ll tell a story about where I had an opportunity to _____, but instead _____. I’ll try to walk people through my self-reflection of why I made the “wrong decision” instead of the “right one.” I’ll arrive at a reflection of new learning that came from pain, rejection, failure, etc..

#9: Someone Else Who Is Really Good at the Truth

Depending on how much time I have, I’ll talk about seeing someone else live the Truth really beautifully. Or, someone who showed me that I was capable of the Truth myself and hadn’t seen it yet. The audience is craving examples of what this thing looks like in action - give them a person that proves your message is possible (and beautiful when lived!).


#10: Conversation over Presentation

Take the approach that this is a conversation you are learning in together, not a presentation you are giving to them. I rarely ever write out all my stories or ideas word-for-word. Instead, I take the approach of “tell the story like I see it in my mind.” It should feel natural, with a few key lines that are really well rehearsed to the point where they feel natural too. The lines you should get locked in: First 2 minutes, 2-3 key jokes, transitions between stories, and your closing 2 minutes (including your Truth).

To Do:

Fill in the blanks on your processing document with those key lines. These will be fine-tuned as you continue to build.

#11: Story Theory (Hero’s Journey)

First! Watch this TED Talk on Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is the best framework for storytelling. It’s literally wired into our DNA as humans. Humans are storytelling machines and the hero's journey is the template used in just about every epic story. The Hero’s Journey is not just for epic stories like Star Wars. Understanding the elements and incorporating them into the stories you tell on stage will help them connect with the audience. For example, a deep dive into hero’s journey has the hero “rejecting the call.” In stories we tell, it’s more interesting (and humbling) when we are hesitant to rise up to the occasion.

Reminder: the hero in the hero’s journey does incredible things, but is constantly humbled and has help every step of the way.

To Do:

Read: This non-profit breaks down how they use The Hero’s Journey to connect with donors

#12: Story Theory (Truth vs Subject)

The best talks can go in all sorts of directions but in order to have them be seamless, they are focused on the truth. This is your thesis statement and what everything must relate to. Your first step before writing any part of your keynote is defining your truth. Your talk can be about anything as soon as you know the truth. Truth = freedom.

To Do’s:

Read this blog from Steven Pressfield on how subject is very different than theme. Substitute theme for Truth and it’s exactly how we at CharacterStrong think about things.

Bonus Blog: Help, I can’t find my theme (truth) from the same author

Watch: Examples of how even tiny jokes have truths.

#13: Getting Students Involved

Bonus: Staying in the Moment

Here are some strategies for getting students involved:

  • Ask for agreement

    • Snaps, head nods, rhetorical questions. Check in tools help keep people physically, mentally, and emotionally involved.

  • Ask for consent

    • “Does that sound ok to you?”

    • “We’re going to dive into this big question, is that alright?”

    • “You cool with that? Alright! Let’s dig in!”

  • Callbacks/Place-centric Interactions as detailed in the bonus video!

To Do’s:

What’s your moment for asking for consent?

What is your moment for agreement?

What’s your moment for an organic interaction/callback with the audience?

#14: Dealing With Challenging Situations

While we’d love to hope that students will naturally want to listen to us based on our passion or experience, we will often find ourselves in situations where we have to be reactive. Here are a few key things to remember:

  • In most cases, the audience will mirror you. If you get flustered at the person interrupting, they will also. If you get flustered with tech issues, they will sense your unease. Anything that goes wrong must be looked at as an opportunity to be organic and/or vulnerable in that moment. In fact, the things that “go wrong” are often the most memorable experiences for me and for many students I’ve worked with when we are able to role model how to handle adversity!

  • Talking to students and staff before the show helps build student and staff buy-in. Greeting students when they walk in, trying to remember names, smiling, giving compliments - all those things are seeds planted in building a relationship and rapport with the audience. To be even more proactive, we can also send a letter of gratitude (and empathy) to staff before we ever show up. Here is an example.

  • To get an audience’s attention, don’t use “please stop talking” or “quiet down” or anything commanding or condescending. First, try starting and stopping what you are saying - almost imitating a broken record. Second, try to speed and volume changes. Third, pause and drop the mic and wait. Fourth, try a humble “ask” - share honestly why you are there and why you want to share your story and ask if they’d be willing to stick with you a bit longer.

  • When someone is talking during your presentation, take this multi-step, sequential approach:

    • Proximity: Nothing like seeing a police car to slow you down! Move toward the people making noise as a first step.

    • Silence & Eye Contact: Dramatic pauses give people a moment to wonder why you’ve stopped talking. When/if they look up, you should be making assertive, but kind eye contact with them

    • Rinse and Repeat: Try this routine one more time before you move into the next phase.

    • The Direct Ask: I don’t recommend this technique until you are a bit into your talk and you believe that you have buy-in from the audience as a whole. When/if you feel like you have a rapport with the majority of the room, lower the mic and address the student(s) talking directly with empathy and vulnerability and assertiveness:

      • “I know you may not want to listen here or maybe you feel like this doesn’t relate to you, but I need you to know that I am really passionate about ____ and you may not even realize it, but when you talk it distracts me from this thing I care about and distracts people around you who may want to listen. You can tune in, tune out, listen to tunes...but please don’t talk - is that a okay?”

    • The Last Straw: If necessary, ask if an administrator can pull them aside, but keep them in the room.

  • Many of the above techniques are pulled from our research-backed PROMPT method. PROMPT is a method of systematically responding to problem behavior and preserving the relationship with the student.

    • Proximity Control - Being mobile in the classroom and standing next to or being near the student(s) exhibiting the problem behavior. There is no need to ruin the flow of instruction or verbally reprimand the student. Up to 40% to 50% of classroom problems behaviors are corrected by proximity to the student(s).

    • Redirection Strategy - A correction procedure that involves giving the student an instruction/direction that has a high probability that the student will follow and comply to. Goal is to disrupt and put an end to the problem behavior by gaining compliance. Between Proximity and Redirection, up to 70% to 85% of problem behaviors can be addressed.

    • Ongoing Monitoring - Two-prong process: 1. Capitalize on social learning theory: monitor and reinforce peers who are exhibiting the desired behaviors. 2. Capitalize on the power of shaping behavior: don’t lose sight of the student whose behavior you are trying to correct. The aim is to shape behavior in the desirable direction by praising and positively recognizing the student for getting his or her behavior back on track.

    • Prompt Expected Behavior - A verbal command that communicates precisely what you want the student to do (e.g., “I need you to start working on your essay by writing your introductory sentence.”) This is not a threat or a description of the problem behavior. Prompt needs to be positively stated, one command at a time, and given as a statement and not a question. It is key that this is delivered privately in a kind, fair, firm, and consistent manner.

    • Teaching Interaction - Corrective teaching procedure that attempts to turn instances of ongoing problem behavior into a teachable moment. This has been shown to prevent escalated behavior and preserve the relationship with the student. It is key that this teaching interaction is delivered in a calm, yet firm manner. Steps to Teaching Interaction:

      • Start with an empathy statement - “I understand that class can be boring sometimes and I don’t want you to feel this way because I don’t like to be bored out of my mind either. I can work with you to address the boringness, BUT...”

      • Label the inappropriate behavior - “Right now you are talking out loud and distracting other students from learning.”

      • Describe the appropriate alternative behavior - “Instead of talking out loud, I need you to start working quietly on the assigned work and then we can work together to make the boringness go away.”

      • Provide a rationale for appropriate behavior - “When you work quietly on your work, you and the other students can get your work done, which means you don’t have to take it home and you’ll get a better grade in the class.”

      • Deliver a warning or consequence - “Here’s the deal, I’m going to give you one minute to think about the choice you want to make. You can either start working on the assigned work, take a brief break and then start working, or you can keep distracting other students and I’m going to take some of your time after class.”

      • Deliver feedback or praise - “In my eyes, you definitely made the right choice. It’s okay to take a brief break once in awhile and then get back to work and not distract others. Thank you.”

To Do’s:

Complete your pre-event letter.

Rewrite this in your own words and practice saying it out loud calmly:

“I know you may not want to listen here or maybe you feel like this doesn’t relate to you, but I need you to know that I am really passionate about ____ and you may not even realize it, but when you talk it distracts me from this thing I care about and distracts people around you who may want to listen. You can tune in, tune out, listen to tunes...but please don’t talk - is that okay?”


Can’t wait to see what you create! More to come :)