Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire

Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire

by Paul Smith


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Whether you’re trying to communicate a vision, sell an idea, or inspire commitment, storytelling is a powerful business tool that can mean the difference between lackluster enthusiasm and a rallying cry. Addressing a wide variety of business challenges, including specific stories to help you overcome twenty-one difficult situations, Lead with a Story gives you theability to engage an audience the way logic and bullet points alone never could. This how-to guidebook shows readers how powerful stories can help define culture and values, engender creativity and innovation, foster collaboration, build relationships, provide coaching and feedback, and lead change. Whether in a speech or a memo, communicated to one person or a thousand, storytelling is an essential skill for today’s leaders. Many highly successful companies use storytelling as a leadership tool. At Nike, all senior executives are designated “corporate storytellers.” 3M banned bullet points years ago and replaced them with a process of writing “strategic narratives.” Procter & Gamble hired Hollywood directors to teach its executives storytelling techniques. Some forward-thinking business schools have even added storytelling courses to their management curriculum. Complete with examples from these and many other high-profile companies, Lead with a Story gives readers the guidance they need to spin a narrative to stunning effect.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814420300
Publisher: AMACOM
Publication date: 08/10/2012
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 360,573
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

PAUL SMITH is a dedicated father of two and an expert trainer in leadership and storytelling techniques. As the author of the popular Lead with a Story, he has seen his work featured in The Wall Street Journal, Time, Forbes, The Washington Post, Success, and Investor's Business Daily, among others.

Read an Excerpt

Lead with a Story

A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire
By Paul Smith


Copyright © 2012 Paul Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-2030-0

Chapter One

Why tell stories?

"Every great leader is a great storyteller." —Howard Gardner, Harvard psychologist

I'VE HAD THE OPPORTUNITY to deliver a presentation to Procter & Gamble's then-CEO A. G. Lafley four or five times in the decade he held that position. The first time was unforgettable. That day I learned a valuable lesson—the hard way—about how not to present to the CEO.

I'd been given 20 minutes on the agenda of the Executive Global Leadership Council meeting. This group included the CEO and a dozen or so of the top officials in the company. They met weekly in a special room on P&G's executive floor designed just for this group. It's a perfectly round room with modern features, centered on a perfectly round table. Even the doors are curved so as not to stray from the round motif. My presentation was the first item on the agenda that day, so I arrived 30 minutes early to set up my computer and make sure all of the audiovisual equipment worked properly. I was, after all, making my first presentation to the CEO. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly.

The executives began filing into the room at the appointed time and taking up seats around the table. After half of them had arrived, the CEO, Mr. Lafley, entered the room. He walked almost completely around the table, saying hello to each of his team members, and—to my horror—sat down in the seat immediately underneath the projection screen—with his back to it!

This was not good. "He'll be constantly turning around in his seat to see the presentation," I thought, "and probably hurt his neck. Then he'll be in a bad mood, and might not agree to my recommendation." But I wasn't going to tell the boss where to sit, so I started my presentation.

About five minutes in, I realized Mr. Lafley hadn't turned around even once to see the slides. I stopped being worried about his neck and started worrying that he wasn't going to understand my presentation. And if he didn't understand it, he certainly wouldn't agree to my recommendation. But again, I wasn't going to tell the CEO what to do. So I just kept going.

At 10 minutes into the presentation—halfway through my allotted time—I noticed he still hadn't turned around once to look at my slides. At that point, I stopped being worried and just got confused. He was looking right at me and was clearly engaged in the conversation. So why wasn't he looking at my slides?

When 20 minutes had expired, I was done with my presentation, and the CEO hadn't ever bothered to look at my slides. But he did agree to my recommendation. Despite that success, as I was walking back to my office, I couldn't help but feel like I'd failed somehow. I debriefed the whole event in my head, wondering what I had done wrong. Was I boring? Did I not make my points very clear? Was he distracted with some billion-dollar decision far more important than whatever I was talking about?

But then it occurred to me. He wasn't looking at my slides because he knew something that I didn't know until that moment. He knew if I had anything important to say, I would say it. It would come out of my mouth, not from that screen. He knew those slides were there more for my benefit than for his.

As CEO, Mr. Lafley probably spent most of his day reading dry memos and financial reports with detailed charts and graphs. He was probably looking forward to that meeting as a break from that tedium, and as an opportunity to engage someone in dialogue—to have someone tell him what was happening on the front lines of the business, to share a brilliant idea, and to ask for his help. In short, for someone to tell him a story. Someone like me. That was my job during those 20 minutes. I just didn't know it yet.

Looking back, I realize it was probably no accident Mr. Lafley chose the seat he did. There were certainly others he could have chosen. He sat there for a reason. That position kept him from being distracted by the words on the screen and allowed him to focus on the presenter and on the discussion.

Mr. Lafley taught me a valuable lesson that day, and probably didn't even know it. My next such opportunities involved fewer slides, used more stories, and were far more effective.

In fact, storytelling has become so impactful at P&G that for many years we had a person whose job title was "corporate storyteller." The history of that role is a story in itself.

Forty years ago, a young mathematician named Jim Bangel was hired by P&G in the research & development department. Like all R&D employees, Jim wrote a monthly memo to his boss detailing the results of his research over the past 30 days. These memos are usually dry and detailed and filled with the kind of language only a fellow chemist or engineer would appreciate or even understand.

After many years of writing the same type of memo as all of his colleagues, Jim decided to do something different. He decided to write a story. He named his main character Earnest Engineer. In the story, readers got to see and follow along as Earnest learned something. It included dialogue between Earnest and his boss and peers. And it always concluded with the lesson learned. The lesson was the same as the conclusion Jim would have written about in the more traditional memo. But the story was much more compelling—and certainly more readable. As a result, other people started asking to read his memo—even people working outside his department.

After several such monthly memos, Jim's cast of characters began to grow. Each had an admittedly cheeky, but telling, name. Characters like Ed Zecutive the president; Max Profit the CFO; and Sella Case the sales director. With the growing cast of characters, the circulation grew wider as people in other functions began to see themselves in the story and learn something relevant to their work.

After five years of storytelling, Jim was appointed the company's official corporate storyteller. He continued to write one memo a month. But he spent much of his time searching the entire company for the most impactful idea he could find and then writing a story around it—a story that would captivate an audience and effect a change in the organization. Until his retirement in September 2010, his memos were eagerly read each month by between 5,000 and 10,000 people, including just about every senior executive in the company. Sometimes the CEO would even ask Jim to write a story on a certain topic because he knew people would read Jim's stories. This statistician had arguably become the single most influential person at P&G. All because one day Jim decided not to write a research report, and instead, wrote a story.

* * *

So what is the answer to the question posed in this chapter's title, "Why Tell Stories?" The simple answer illustrated by the two stories in this chapter is this—because it works! But why is that? Why is storytelling so effective? Here are 10 of the most compelling reasons I've encountered:

1. Storytelling is simple. Anyone can do it. You don't need a degree in English, or even an MBA.

2. Storytelling is timeless. Unlike fads in other areas of management such as total quality management, reengineering, Six Sigma, or 5S, storytelling has always worked for leadership, and it always will.

3. Stories are demographic-proof. Everybody—regardless of age, race, or gender—likes to listen to stories.

4. Stories are contagious. They can spread like wildfire without any additional effort on the part of the storyteller.

5. Stories are easier to remember. According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. Organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser found similar results in her work with corporations. She found that learning derived from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for far longer than the learning derived from facts or figures.

6. Stories inspire. Slides don't. Have you ever heard someone say, "Wow! You'll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw!" Probably not. But you have heard people say that about stories.

7. Stories appeal to all types of learners. In any group, roughly 40 percent will be predominantly visual learners who learn best from videos, diagrams, or illustrations. Another 40 percent will be auditory, learning best through lectures and discussions. The remaining 20 percent are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, experiencing, or feeling. Storytelling has aspects that work for all three types. Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes. Auditory learners focus on the words and the storyteller's voice. Kinesthetic learners remember the emotional connections and feelings from the story.

8. Stories fit better where most of the learning happens in the workplace. According to communications expert Evelyn Clark, "Up to 70 percent of the new skills, information and competence in the workplace is acquired through informal learning" such as what happens in team settings, mentoring, and peer-to-peer communication. And the bedrock of informal learning is storytelling.

9. Stories put the listener in a mental learning mode. Listeners who are in a critical or evaluative mode are more likely to reject what's being said. According to training coach and bestselling author Margaret Parkin, storytelling "re-creates in us that emotional state of curiosity which is ever present in children, but which as adults we tend to lose. Once in this childlike state, we tend to be more receptive and interested in the information we are given." Or as author and organizational narrative expert David Hutchens points out, storytelling puts listeners in a different orientation. They put their pens and pencils down, open up their posture, and just listen.

10. Telling stories shows respect for the audience. Stories get your message across without arrogantly telling listeners what to think or do. Regarding what to think, storytelling author Annette Simmons observed, "Stories give people freedom to come to their own conclusions. People who reject predigested conclusions might just agree with your interpretations if you get out of their face long enough for them to see what you have seen." As for what to do, corporate storyteller David Armstrong suggests, "If there was ever a time when you could just order people to do something, it has long since passed. Telling a story, where you underline the moral, is a great way of explaining to people what needs to be done, without saying, 'do this.'"

That answers the question, why? Next we begin our journey through stories for 21 leadership challenges, and the art of crafting compelling stories of your own.

Chapter Two

Set a vision for the future

"While problems can be summarized in a formula or an algorithm, it takes a story to understand a dilemma. The future will be loaded with dilemmas, so it will take a lot of stories to help make sense out of them."Bob Johansen, former CEO, The Institute for the Future

OUT FOR A WALK ONE MORNING, a woman came across a construction site where three men were working. Curious, she approached one of them and asked what he was doing. Clearly annoyed she had bothered him, he barked, "Can't you see? I'm laying bricks!"

Not easily put off, she asked the next man what he was doing. He responded matter-of-factly, "I'm building a brick wall 30 feet tall, 100 feet wide, and 18 inches thick." Then, turning his attention to the first man, he said, "Hey, you just passed the end of the wall. You need to take off that last brick."

Still not satisfied, the woman asked the third man what he was doing. Despite the fact that he appeared to be doing exactly the same thing as the other two men, he looked up with excitement and said, "Oh, let me tell you! I am building the greatest cathedral the world has ever known!" She could tell he was eager to tell her more. But before he had a chance, he was distracted by loud bickering between the first two men over what to do about the one errant brick. Turning to the two of them, he said, "Hey, guys, don't worry about it. This will be an inside corner. The whole thing will get plastered over and nobody will ever see that extra brick. Just move on to the next layer."

The moral of the story is that if you understand the overall objectives of your organization and how your work fits into it, it not only helps you do your job better, it enables you to help others do their job better, too. In other words, it helps you be a good leader. But most important, it might actually help you enjoy what you do.

Unlike the stories in the introduction and chapter 1, this story is based on an old folktale. And it won't be the last time you come across such a fanciful tale in this book. Most of the stories you'll use in a business context will be true stories of actual events. But there is a role for myths and folklore as well. They're flexible enough to be relevant in any company and can be altered to fit your purposes without offending the truth.

This particular story is most effectively used just before new company goals or strategies are deployed. It helps the audience appreciate why it's important for them to listen, understand, and adopt the new vision and plans. It can turn what may seem to some as a boring, mandatory-attendance event into something they're eager to learn from. Like the first man in the story, at the beginning of the meeting your audience will likely feel like the job is laying bricks. By the end of the event, listeners should be building a cathedral.

It's also a good example of taking an existing story and adapting it to your own purposes. The version of the story I first heard said nothing of the second man correcting the first one for his errant brick, or their argument that ensued, or the third man correcting them both. I added those parts to deliver the conclusion that understanding how your work fits into the big corporate picture can help you lead others, not just feel good about your job.

* * *

Getting your audience to pay attention, of course, is just the first step. Now that your audience is receptive, it's time to actually describe your vision. This is where storytelling really shines! After all, a vision is a picture of the future so inspiring it drives people to action—in other words, a story. But the story must be well crafted. A story about "being number one!" isn't good enough. As organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser noted almost two decades ago, "Beating the competition is not an inspiring enough vision to stand the test of time and trigger enthusiasm and commitment from large numbers of people." It needs to be personal. Your audience needs to see itself in the future you describe. The next two examples provide a good illustration.

In early 2002, I was appointed to lead a group of over 100 market researchers at Procter & Gamble whose job was predicting the future sales of new products. Theirs was an impossible task. No matter what they predicted, the only thing they could be certain of was that they would be wrong. The only question was, would they be too high or too low, and by how far? This was exacerbated by the fact that they were typically undertrained and had forecasting models that were too complicated, poorly documented, and based on outmoded data.

My job was to lead this group through several changes that would hopefully improve the way they did their jobs and the tools they had at their disposal, and to help them have a more meaningful impact on the business. But these changes wouldn't be easy. They would take effort on their part to develop and implement. I needed them to understand and appreciate how much better their future could be so they would be motivated to help create that future. So I wrote them a letter that included a story. I started out like this:

"I'd like to share the details of my plan and give you the opportunity to influence them. But since reviewing someone else's work detail is pretty boring stuff, I'm sending what I hope is a more interesting and vivid picture of the future I'd like to help you create. Below is one man's vision (mine) of what a day in the life of a sales forecaster could be in the near future. Some of you may feel you're already pretty close to this, and some may feel infinitely far away. Either way, I want to make this a vision we all share—either by adding your ideas to it or embracing it as is. All the major components of my work plan are represented in this vision in one way or another. So if you don't like what you see here, let me know. And if you do like what you see, let me know that, too."


Excerpted from Lead with a Story by Paul Smith Copyright © 2012 by Paul Smith. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 Why Tell Stories? 8

Envision Success

2 Set a Vision for the Future 14

3 Set Goals and Build Commitment 20

4 Lead Change 27

5 Make Recommendations Stick 36

6 Define Customer Service Success and Failure 45

[How-To]7 Structure of a Story 54

Create an Environment for Winning

8 Define the Culture 66

9 Establish Values 74

10 Encourage Collaboration and Build Relationships 82

11 Value Diversity and Inclusion 91

12 Set Policy Without Rules 100

[How-To]13 Keep It Real 108

[How-To]14 Stylistic Elements 118

Energize the Team

15 Inspire and Motivate 131

16 Build Courage 140

17 Help Others Find Passion for Their Work 148

[How-To]18 Appeal to Emotion 154

[How-To]19 The Element of Surprise 167

Educate People

20 Teach Important Lessons 176

21 Provide Coaching and Feedback 187

22 Demonstrate Problem Solving 196

23 Help Everyone Understand the Customer 204

[How-To]24 Metaphors and Analogies 210

Empower Others

25 Delegate Authority and Give Permission 217

26 Encourage Innovation and Creativity 224

27 Sales Is Everyone's Job 230

28 Earn Respect on Day One 237

[How-To]29 Recast Your Audience into the Story 243

30 Getting Started 251

Appendix 268

Index 276

Customer Reviews

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