|Tell ‘em a story, or watch ‘em snore|
Bullet points don’t grab like a tale that makes a point
Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. By Paul Smith. Amacom, 272 pp.
We’ve all been in this situation. Maybe you’re giving a presentation at a board meeting or delivering a speech at a conference. You might be introducing your team to a new procedure or addressing a problem with a single employee. No matter the circumstance, at one time or another we’ve all lost the attention and interest of our audience.
With glazed looks, your listeners start fidgeting, drop eye contact, or take out their smartphones. However they express it, it’s clear you’re being tuned out.
But my topic is important! you think.
And you’re doing everything right--you’re presenting your message clearly and backing up your reasoning with data and examples. So what’s the problem?
Failure to fully engage your audience, Paul Smith would argue.
In Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, Smith, who is an executive at Procter & Gamble Co., advises all professionals to introduce storytelling into their daily lives. Not the “once upon a time” variety followed by naptime, but tales that relate directly to your business objectives.
Leading with a story can sell your idea, motivate your staff, inspire commitment to an ideal, and effectively communicate a complex vision. And although the concept may seem counterintuitive, Smith argues that in many cases a well-crafted story can be more effective and efficient than detailed descriptions, analyses, and explanations.
At the very least, a story can get your audience in the right frame of mind to receive your point of view.
A method … and a bounty of material
“Stories have the ability to engage an audience the way logic and bullet points alone never could,” Smith insists.
Facts and lessons also translate more easily and are more memorable when presented in narrative form. Stories are valuable because they allow the listener to form his own opinion. It is natural to criticize and be skeptical of someone else’s assertions—we are all taught to beware the snake oil salesman. However, when presented as a story, a complex line of reasoning can be communicated simply and allow the audience to arrive at the same conclusion without feeling as if they have been told what to think.
Beyond convincing the reader of the importance of storytelling in the corporate world, Smith provides over 100 stories that the reader can begin to use immediately.
He clearly establishes the appropriate context for each story within 21 specific leadership situations. For easy reference, a matrix at the back of the book lists each story and which situations it suits. Smith even provides the tools and techniques his readers need to edit or create their own stories for any purpose. He includes questions to consider in a self-interview as well as ways to collect stories from other sources for your personal arsenal so you’ll be prepared for any situation.
In the introduction and first chapter, Smith does an excellent job of broaching his topic, stating his main argument, and outlining the structure of the book. But I did find myself challenging some of the pseudo-scientific assertions he makes to justify the place of storytelling as an effective method of learning.
For instance, Smith claims that, “for most of man’s history on the earth, storytelling was a natural part of leadership.” There is a great deal of speculation among scientists as to the capacity for language among early modern humans, with the prevailing opinion today being that speech may have been possible for the most recent fourth of modern man’s existence. Even then, human language would have developed very gradually over thousands of years along with our ability to express complex ideas as the earliest societal structures formed. For much of man’s history, so these experts believe, storytelling and what we think of as language did not exist at all.
I believe Smith should have instead made the observation that cultural groups around the world and at all times in recorded history have used storytelling for monumentally important functions. For one example, members of certain groups of Australian Aborigines can describe landscapes hundreds of miles away in rich detail without ever having seen the place, thanks to stories circulated between geographically isolated groups.
There is a wealth of information that Smith could have used to give weight to his argument. However, he provides such a variety of compelling examples for each of his points that the book could have done without any attempt at scientific justification and still been entirely convincing.
Smith shows that storytelling works, which is all the proof the reader needs.
Besides his main point, Smith teaches his readers how to make a mundane story compelling. He advocates the use of such tactics as involving a mystery; leading the audience through a journey of discovery; using a metaphor; adding emotion; and including a surprise.
Smith also favors “two roads” stories, which illustrate the lesson by presenting both a success and a failure. To be an effective communicator, he contends, you must learn how to create or find a story that illustrates your idea and craft a way to tell it that includes several of these elements. He further argues that if a story is presented as truth then it must be the truth, as the trust between the storyteller and the listener is of crucial importance.
Smith even delves into the minutiae of what makes a story great by dishing out practical writing advice. He instructs readers to write in shorter sentences, use smaller words, prefer the active voice, and get to the verb quickly. He believes that business communication should be written at a complexity level of about 8 to 10 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. Smith advises us not to clog our writing with industry jargon and “ten-dollar words,” which may alienate readers. The logic behind Smith’s instructions is simple--if you want your business writing to convey an idea effectively, make it easy and enjoyable to read.
Preparing to lead with a story
Throughout Lead with a Story, Smith provides tips for how narratives can help managers excel in a variety of situations that they commonly face. While everyone in a corporate setting would benefit from his teachings, they are geared primarily toward those in a managerial or leadership role.
Smith’s lessons are easily applied to the banking industry, as bankers face common leadership situations like motivating a team, bringing others around to a point of view, and communicating a vision.
While reading Lead With A Story, I began to notice storytelling in my workplace, and I recognized a need for more of it. I wondered, if Dale Carnegie had not illustrated his points with stories in his seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People, would I remember its teachings so well? Possibly not.
And when I learned that in a few weeks I will be delivering a presentation to propose a new project to our board of directors, my first thought was, “I need a story for this.”
By taking Smith’s instructions to heart and becoming master storytellers, we may all avoid fidgeting, glassy-eyed audiences in the future.
Like this? You can also read other ABA BJ book reviews here.
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