Paul Smith, one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling, is a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story, Sell with a Story, and Parenting with a Story. We recently spoke with Paul about the impact of effective storytelling on both leadership and the goals that corporate leaders wish to achieve.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you become interested in business storytelling?
I spent two years as a consultant with Accenture and then 20 years in finance and consumer research at Procter & Gamble. Perhaps I’m a slow learner, but after 15 years or so in management, it finally dawned on me that the leaders I admired the most – the ones I wanted to work for and be like when I “grew up” in the company – were great storytellers.
They didn’t teach me that in business school, so I set out to learn it on my own. At some point along the way, my personal learning journey morphed into a book idea, which led to me interview hundreds of CEOs and executives at companies in over 20 countries around the world about their use of storytelling.
How does business storytelling address some of the most common leadership challenges in today’s business climate?
Storytelling is a leadership tool, not a management tool. So, if you’re trying to manage things, processes, and decisions, it’s not your best technique. But if you’re trying to lead people, it’s the best tool you’ve got. That means when you need to set a vision, lead change, make a recommendation that really sticks, get people to collaborate better or be more innovative and creative, deliver tough feedback, or inspire the organization, your best asset is a great story.
It works so well because the human brain makes most decisions subconsciously, emotionally, and sometimes irrationally in one place in the brain; and then justifies that decision rationally, logically, and consciously in another place. So, if you want to influence people’s opinions, decisions, and behavior (in other words, leadership), then facts, logic, and data alone are not enough. It turns out that you need to influence them emotionally. And stories are excellent emotion delivery vehicles.
Give us an example or two about a person or company that effectively utilizes business storytelling today.
Sharad Madison is the CEO of United Building Maintenance, a commercial office cleaning company. When he’s talking to a prospective new client, he doesn’t just tell them that they have the highest quality standards, the most modern equipment, and the best-trained cleaners in the industry. He tells them a story like this:
“When we took over the contract for the Verizon building in New Jersey, we had a 30-day transition period. We took that time to go walk the floors and observe what the current cleaning staff was doing to find out if they were properly trained and have the right tools. It’s a 1.7-million-square-foot property across several buildings.
“We went to see the guy who vacuums the carpet and found him using a regular household vacuum cleaner. Those hallways are 12 feet wide and over half a mile long! Can you imagine trying to clean it with the same machine you use at home? It would take all night, and it still wouldn’t be very clean. We ordered him a triple-wide, industrial-strength cleaner that would do the job in less than half the time and last forever.
“We found someone else shampooing those same carpets with a regular walk-behind shampooer. Again, that could take all night just to shampoo that one corridor. We put him in a high-speed riding shampooer that could do the job in a fraction of the time with much better results. And it gets him off his feet.
“Then we got to the offices and started looking at the tops of the file cabinets. You could see half-moons swiped out on top of otherwise dusty cabinet tops. I know exactly what that means, so we went to find the people who dust those cabinets. When we found them, my suspicion was confirmed. Those cabinets were 5 1/2 feet tall and several of the cleaners were shorter than that. They weren’t lazy; they just couldn’t reach high enough with their handheld rags to clean the whole cabinet top. That’s what leaves the half-moon shape. The truth is, they’d be better off not cleaning it at all, since the contrast between the dusty part and the clean part makes it apparent that it’s dirty. We gave them all extension wands so they could reach all the way to the back.”
If an executive were to say to you, “I know storytelling is important for external purposes like marketing, but not for internal communications. After all, my employees know my ‘story’ already,” how would you respond?
Internal stories aren’t just personal stories about the boss, although that’s a good place to start. They’re stories about where the company came from and where it’s going. Stories about the company’s culture and values in action. Stories about diversity and inclusion. Stories to help people find passion for their work or to illustrate creative problem solving. Stories about the best customer your company ever had and how you made them so happy, and stories about the worst customer you ever had and how you failed them so miserably. Stories about the best employees you ever had and what made them that way, and stories about the worst employees you ever had and why they got fired. Besides, if the only internal stories you ever told were about yourself, you’d come across as the kind of self-centered blowhard nobody would ever want to work for.
What’s the biggest mistake that novice business storytellers tend to make?
Thinking you’re telling a story when you’re not. If you want the unique benefits of storytelling (memorability, engagingness, and appeal to the subconscious emotional decision-making centers in the brain), you need to actually be telling a story.
Despite the fact that everyone around you is calling them “stories,” your speech, memo, mission statement, brand equity statement, or corporate sales pitch probably aren’t really stories. If they start out, “Our vision is to accomplish four things this decade…”, or “These six attributes define our brand…”, or even, “There are three reasons you should invest in my company…” what you’re doing is not storytelling. Those are lists. And they might be great lists. But don’t kid yourself. Those aren’t stories, no matter how smoothly they roll off your tongue.
Stories are narratives about something that happened to someone, period. If the first words in your speech or memo or email sound like this, “Saturday morning our biggest customer called our CEO at home in a panic…” or “The first time Janet tried our brand, she…” or “I got the idea to start this company when I got fired from my last job. Here’s what happened…” now you’re telling a story. Stories have a time, a place, a main character, and they tell about something interesting that happened.
What type or style of story should a business leader use if the goal is to change the culture of a company or organization?
The three types of stories for this (and just about every other) situation are 1) a success, 2) a failure, or 3) a moment of clarity.
A success story is a story about someone who illustrated exactly the kind of culture and values you want the organization to embrace, preferably in a situation where it would have been easy and attractive to make a different decision.
A failure story is a story of someone who did not illustrate the culture and values you wanted which shows the negative consequences (to the employee and the company) that resulted from that behavior.
A moment of clarity story would be about that moment when you first realized what culture you wanted to have. Whatever made you realize that would be a great culture to foster in your organization will probably convince everyone else when they hear it told as a story.
Finish this sentence: “When telling a business story in writing as opposed to verbally, the most important thing to keep in mind is…”
Write the way you’d like to speak. That means write a story in a similar conversational style that you use when speaking, but without all the stutters, stammers, filler words, and mistakes. Stories shouldn’t sound like management-speak or read like a corporate policy manual. They should sound like you were listening to a great storyteller sharing a tale over coffee or lunch.
As companies and executives continue to embrace the concept of business storytelling, what traits or qualities will make good stories stand out from all others in the future?
First, great stories follow the structure of a story, not the structure of a presentation or a speech. In a presentation or speech, you give away the lesson or recommendation at the very beginning. In a story, you don’t. A story follows the structure: Context, Challenge, Conflict, Resolution, Lesson, Action.
Second, a great story taps into the emotions of the audience, usually by uncovering the emotions of the characters in the story. Most corporate attempts at a story are actually case studies where the main character is the whole company. Companies don’t have emotions. Stories are about individual people, and people have emotions.
Third, great stories are full of surprises, especially at the end. If you want your story to be remembered and retold, make sure there is an unexpected ending or surprising plot twist. The adrenaline released in the audience’s system as a result of the surprise will temporarily improve the memory consolidation process, thus making the story more memorable and more effective.