“Long before the first formal business was established…the six most powerful words in any language were Let me tell you a story.”
– Lead with a Story, page 1
I have a confession to make. A couple actually. I love stories. Fiction, non-fiction, historical or current day. Family stories, business stories, love stories, success stories. I love them all. I often think I should have explored ways to make reading stories a profitable career. And while I’m great at reading stories aloud to others, be it children or adults, deep down I question my ability to craft and tell a great story of my own.
As a parent I dreaded the inevitable bedtime question, “Mom, tell us a story.” I much preferred bringing someone else’s story to life. On the few occasions when my sons insisted that I ‘make up a story’ I muddled through yet always felt it wasn’t quite good enough. Perhaps that’s why I am constantly on the look-out for information that will help me become a better storyteller. Imagine my delight when I discovered Paul Smith’s Lead with a Story; a how-to book about corporate storytelling with over 100 stories you can instantly add to your leadership toolkit.
To quote the jacket cover, “Storytelling may be an age old tradition, but in today’s corporate world, it’s also been embraced as a uniquely powerful business practice…As a leader or a manager, if you’re not using storytelling as a method to rally your troops and convince others of your ideas, you’re missing out on one of the most powerful tools at your disposal.” Smith’s book is packed with stories that span the range of business challenges you face daily, like helping people envision success, creating a winning environment, energizing and empowering your team. He provides you with tips to help you choose and adapt a story to meet your specific situation and walks you step-by-step through the process of creating your own story. If you really want to learn how to captivate, engage and inspire the people you interact with – be they employees, vendors, customers or your children – this book is for you.
The Big Idea
Once upon a time…
"Every adult is a natural born storyteller. You’ve been studying the art of storytelling ever since your parents read you bedtime stories. You already know what the structure of a good story is. All you need is to be reminded."
With all due respect to Paul Smith, and with a nod to the Actionable Books philosophy, I would add “and to practice” to the quote above. Like anything in life, one’s competence and confidence comes with doing the desired skill. Repeatedly. None of us learned to tie our shoes or drive a car the first or even tenth time we attempted the task. We perfected our shoe-tying and car-driving abilities over time with determination, repeated practice and feedback from those already skilled at the task.
The same will be true of storytelling. We must have the courage to develop and tell stories repeatedly, in order to become more comfortable using this powerful medium.
One easy way to begin is to reach back into your memory bank and recall a story that you really enjoyed as a child. It probably begins with “Once upon a time…” and involves a cast of characters who get themselves into numerous adventures and challenges. At some point they finally overcome adversity and “live happily ever after”. Once you have your story, find a willing audience to practice on (e.g. your children, spouse, nieces, nephews or 1-2 supportive colleagues who are also interested in developing their storytelling skills).
Remember to ‘paint a picture’ with your words. Use vivid adjectives and action-oriented verbs. Describe the many unexpected surprises and roadblocks your characters face. This builds suspense and keeps your audience wanting to hear more. Once you get comfortable telling familiar stories without reading from a book, you can tackle the next challenge of storytelling: crafting your own story.
KISS - Keep it simple (and) specific!
"We’re often taught in the business world to ‘ladder our ideas up’ to their highest level of generality… But when communicating your idea to other people, that advice can turn it into abstract corporate speak that will numb the minds of your audience."
Consider this example about market segmentation that Smith shares in his book. Proctor and Gamble (P&G) advises retail partners to focus on their ‘high potential shoppers’; the 20-30% of shoppers who generate 70-80% of all purchases. One retailer just didn’t get it, until one day P&G replaced the vague ‘high potential shopper’ label with a photograph and profile of a woman they named Lisa. Immediately the retailer’s management team understood the concept and began using Lisa as their primary design target.
The key take-away here is to apply the KISS principle – keep it simple and specific. When you describe your ideas in specific, concrete terms, you will almost always be more effective. The same holds true for crafting and telling stories. “A story has to be about specific people and events” not a vague idea or generalization.
You can use the acronym STORY to guide your thinking:
- Who is your hero (the Subject)?
- What he/she is searching for (the Treasure e.g. solution to a problem)?
- What Obstacles does he/she encounter? (Creates tension, action.)
- What are the Results and lessons learned?
WhY are you telling the story in the first place?
Draw your audience into your story
"Smart, clinical, sterile leadership doesn’t inspire anybody, no matter how right they are."
So exactly how can we inspire and motivate the people around us? The simplest way is to make sure we create a role for our audience in the stories we tell. “Any time you can actually bring your audience into the story, instead of just telling them a story, it magnifies the effectiveness of your message many times over.”
Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Make your hero someone your audience can relate to, i.e. with a similar job, a similar challenge.
- Involve them in the storytelling such as asking them to supply details at key parts of the story.
- Vividly describe a challenge and ask your audience what they would do in a similar situation.
- End with a compelling call to action.
Just Do It!
As inspiring as the Nike slogan is, it is often easier said than done. Smith knows the same is true for storytelling. Just because we’ve read his book on leveraging storytelling as a leadership tool, it doesn’t mean we’ve mastered the skill. And, we’ve probably got a boatload of reasons why we can’t just do it!
Lucky for us, he knows his audience. The book ends with a chapter outlining the barriers that keep leaders from telling stories and offers lots of suggestions on how to overcome each roadblock. He also provides a detailed story structure template as an appendix to help us develop a memorable story.
Still hesitating? Continue to learn by joining a growing community of organizational storytellers at Smith’s website. And share your storytelling challenges and successes with your fellow AB community members.
Have you used stories in a business setting to inspire others? What happened? What did you learn from that experience?