Note: This is the transcription of an interview with Paul Smith from Lead with a Story. The interview has been edited for clarity and ease of reading. For the audio of the interview, check out Corporate Storytelling, An Interview with Paul Smith.
You’ve written a book called Lead with a Story that talks about the benefits of storytelling in the workplace. What’s the idea behind lead with a story?
The title is Lead with a Story, and we’re here talking about storytelling, but first and foremost it’s a book on leadership. Storytelling is just the vehicle for leadership. Admittedly it’s an unlikely vehicle, but the book is about how to make you a better leader.
I can probably help you understand what the book is about better by telling you what it’s not. It’s been confused by some folks just based on a title. They think that the book will tell them “if I have a big sales presentation, I should lead off with a story or a joke, or something to break the ice.”
That’s not at all what I’m talking about. I’m talking about using storytelling to actually deliver your leadership message and affect the change that you want. Not as some kind of lead in or icebreaker. I’m talking about using storytelling to replace the normal management speak that we would normally engage in in the office.
That’s incredibly powerful. You’re talking about that next level of storytelling that directly ties into your message. How did you come to find this power of story? What compelled you to write the book?
I guess I’m a slow learner because it took me 15 years at P&G to realize that storytelling was an important skill to have. But I finally realized that the leaders that I admired and wanted to work for had something in common: the ability to tell a compelling story.
And it dawned on me that they didn’t teach me that in business school.
I wasn’t really prepared for that skillset so I bought and read everything I could about the subject and I left with an even stronger conviction that I needed to know how to do this well, but I still didn’t know how to do it.
That’s when I realized that if I want to know this, then other people probably do as well. And if I can’t find the book I’m looking for, I’m just going to have to write it because somebody needs to.
So I included the two things I couldn’t find in any other books. The first addition was how to tell a good business story, because that’s very different than a Hollywood screenplay or romance novel. I tried to write a book that would teach people actually how to do it.
The second addition was just including a bunch of stories. I interviewed people and learned why people aren’t using stories and one reason is that most people don’t know they should be using stories. But the main reason they don’t tell more stories is that they just don’t have stories to tell.
So that’s why in the book there are 100 stories that you can actually use. I wanted to give people 5-6 stories for each of the 21 leadership challenges I present in the book.
It is a way to jump start people’s collections of stories, that they should add upon, but it gives them a place to start.
What are some of the direct benefits of using story in the workplace? How does it help?
It helps because you can’t just order someone to “be more creative” or “start loving your job” or “get more inspired.” You can’t just tell people to do those things because the human brain doesn’t work that way.
You have to show them and a story is the best way to show that. You tell a story about how someone else was more creative, or help them appreciate their job more, or tell an inspiring story.
You can’t tell people to just do stuff that involves the creative part of the brain. Humans don’t respond to that. Stories can do that.
What are the elements of a good corporate story?
There are a handful of things that important, but the most important two:
The first is the structure of a story. Stories have a structure and I hear people tell stories with the wrong structure or wrong order all the time, and it makes for a poor story. There really is a beginning middle and end, and that’s what I take the reader through. What’s the context, what’s the action, and what’s the result? If you tell it in the wrong order, the story doesn’t have the same impact.
The second thing is emotion. I don’t mean it has to be a tear-jerker leaving your coworkers in tears, because it doesn’t have to be a sad emotion. It could be happiness, greed, or empathy. Empathy is probably the best emotion for a corporate story.
But if you don’t have some element of emotion in it, then it’s probably not a story. It’s probably a case study or an example. It’s something else but it’s not a story.
Those are the two most important elements. There are some other ones as well that you can use to make a good story a great story, things like like the element of surprise, analogies and, of course, humor.
How has the idea of story been received?
It’s been received well and has exceeded my expectations. I really wrote the book for me but I’m finding that a lot of other people are appreciating it as well. And I think I’m in the middle of a revival of appreciation and practice of storytelling.
The book is in it’s third printing already and it’s been published in Korea and will be published in Japanese next month. It’s not just a local phenomenon.
Do you have a favorite story to tell?
I do, and it’s not even in the book. It’s a personal story. [Editors Note: It is a great story, but rather than transcribe it here, it’s better to hear Paul tell it in the interview.]
I tell that story when I see my boys being influenced by their peers to do something they don’t want to do. I tell them that story to remind them that a real man doesn’t succumb to peer pressure, that they do what they think is right.
It’s not a business story but the stories I tell at work are really no different. They are stories about something that happened to someone who learned a lesson and that others can learn from that lesson as well.
Where can people pick up the book?
Besides the writing, do you also speak or train on storytelling?
I do. Actually as soon as we get off the phone I’m headed to Dallas, TX to do a keynote speech. I do corporate training and speaking on storytelling to teach executives or others how to use storytelling at work. You can find out that information and videos on leadwithastory.com.
Any final thoughts?
I just started my second book. If the first book is about using story to make you a better leader at work, the next one is about using story to make you a better leader at home. It’s a collection of stories for parents to help teach their kids wisdom as opposed to just telling them what to do.