“Be honest.” ~Paul Smith
For Paul, storytelling is “telling a story about something that happened to someone.” A story is thus not a speech, a presentation or a memo with bullet points, but a narrative that has a time, place, a main character that has a goal, an obstacle in the way of getting to that goal, events that take place along the way and an ending with a resolution. Paul notes that there are eight questions that a good story must answer, and these are:
- Why should I listen to the story? (The answer to this must be given by the storyteller, so the audience has a reason to listen to the story.)
- Where and when did it take place?
- Who’s the main character, and what did they want?
- What was the problem or opportunity that they ran into?
- What did they do about it?
- How did it turn out in the end?
- What did you learn from the story?
- What do you think I should go and do, now? (This question is something that the audience needs to answer.)
Paul remarks that all stories share the same common traits; that said, in business stories, the audience is the one who needs to summarize what is learned and figure out the next steps to be taken. Storytelling is becoming popular as a means of communication within businesses because it works at getting people to think and feel what it is that needs to be done, according to him, and this is because stories communicate with both the logical/rational and the emotional parts of the brain. A list of reasons, on the other hand, only communicates with the logical/rational part of the brain, which makes this method fall short, as Paul notes that human decisions are made in the subconscious, emotional part of the brain, after which these decisions are rationalized. He also notes that facts and data are between six and 22 times more likely to be remembered if these are told within a story compared to if these were merely given as a list, which makes these facts more likely to be acted upon.
Paul mentioned that, in the three books he wrote prior to The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell, he covered some 70 different types of stories and 250 examples of these types of stories. He was thus often asked: “What are the most important ones?” and he would give different answers each time. He decided to narrow his focus on a particular type of story when a publisher contacted him to write a book which could be read in an hour’s time, and he chose the field of leadership because several of his clients, who are leaders in their respective fields, ask him how to tell stories which could help them with their work.
The ten kinds of stories great leaders tell, according to Paul, are:
- Where we came from. (This is a founding story.)
- Why we can’t stay there. (This is a case for change story.)
- Where we’re going. (This is a vision story.)
- How we’re going to get there. (This is a strategy story.)
- What we believe. (This is a corporate values story.)
- Who we serve. (This is a story about the customer.)
- What we do for our customers. (This is a classic sales or customer success story.)
- How we’re different from our competitors. (This is a marketing story.)
- Why I lead the way I do. (This is a personal leadership philosophy story.)
- Why you should want to work here. (This is a recruiting story.)
Paul gave, as an example, a personal leadership philosophy story of Mike Figliuolo, who was a West Point graduate who was assigned to lead a platoon of tanks. In one of his first training exercises, despite the planning that had been done beforehand, he found himself in a situation where he was leading a force of 400 tanks against an opposing force of 400 tanks and had to pick a direction at a time where he was somewhat confused. Mike could have spent thirty seconds stopping where he was and studying his map to figure out what to do - which is a long time, given that the opposing force was likewise looking for him so they could “kill” him and the tanks he was leading. Mike made a decision on the fly to head in one direction, and within seconds of doing so, he and his entire platoon were taken out. The tanks behind him, however, saw what happened and turned in the other, correct direction, subsequently took the high ground and, in the end, won the exercise. The lesson Mike learned was that it is sometimes better to make the wrong decision quickly than the right decision slowly; and since life gives quick feedback on whether the decision taken is right or wrong, provided one doesn’t get killed by it, one can adjust and figure out what to do next, rather than get stuck in analysis paralysis. This explains why Mike is a quick, decisive leader who forgives his people for making mistakes, so long as they learn from it.
Paul notes that leaders have a difficult time telling strategy and vision stories because they don’t know the difference between a strategy document or a vision statement from a strategy or vision story. He remarks that a story for these would run along the likes of what it would be like for someone to work in a company once the latter has achieved the vision, and that, if the story is attractive enough, people will want to pitch in to achieve that vision. The founding story of the company, on the other hand, is the kind of story that leaders find the easiest to tell, because they know it by heart, because it is the most often told and is most obviously a story.
Paul points out that storytelling is just one tool in one’s communication kit, and that, in general, people should be honest whenever they communicate. He also notes the popular impression is that those who tell stories effectively are natural-born storytellers, and that one is either a storyteller or not. This isn’t the case, Paul remarks, and adds that, if people want to tell stories, they should take lessons on how to do so from people who know how to do so, as storytelling is a skill on its own.
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The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell by Paul Smith