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The power of a story

Storytelling is a powerful leadership technique. Here’s how you can use it to teach lessons and inspire action.

August 31, 2020
By Laura Aiken


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To deliver an oral story best, organize your thoughts in bullet points so you can talk naturally. Penticton photographer Mike Biden captured this photo at the Penticton FD to illustrate capturing an attentive crew with a great story. Photo: Mike Biden

We all love a good tale. Storytelling, a cultural practice of global commonality, is as fundamental as the nose on your face. In life, the narrating self loves referring to milestones as the opening and closing of chapters. A relationship come and gone, children born and then moving away. So ends a chapter and a new one begins. It’s the story of life.

In organizations and leadership, storytelling is a powerful tool for imparting a memorable lesson. We are hardwired to engage and immerse with a story. Just hear or read a good one and think of how life tends to fade into background as our imagination parses a world of pictures from the details. A good story captivates attention like a woolly mammoth suddenly in your path.

Storytelling as an art has many teachers, and in the world of leadership and organizational storytelling, Paul Smith is one of the most highly regarded. Smith was one of Inc. magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers of 2018 and he has authored several books, including the Amazon No. 1 bestsellers Lead with a Story, Sell with a Story, and The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.

When asked what defines storytelling, Smith first clarified what storytelling is not.

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“Storytelling is not good advice, a great presentation, a well written memo or a great speech. It’s not three really compelling reasons to buy the product I’m selling. There are a lot of things it’s not that people often mistakenly refer to it as. All those things I’ve just said you’ve heard people refer to as ‘Oh, that was great story.’ No, that was good speech, or a great memo or an effective sales pitch. Story is something special.”

Fundamentally, story is a narrative about something that happened to someone, he said. A good story has an interesting narrative that teaches an important to lesson that will serve you well. Story requires a main character, a goal and something blocking that goal. There are events along the way, a struggle and either success or failure. Sound familiar? Of course. That is the arc of every story as we are wired to recognize it.

“I focus on story first,” said Smith, “because that’s the main place people get into difficulty when trying to craft a better stories. The thing that they’re trying to crack isn’t even a story. So, no matter how much lipstick you put on that pig, it’s never going to be a story. It’s just a pig with lipstick on it.”

Storytelling is not just engaging an audience with a leadership message. To really understand storytelling, you have to start with the definition of a story. Remember, something has to happen to someone or it’s not a story.

■ Who needs to tell stories?
While storytelling is highly effective for the boss, Smith said everyone can benefit from better storytelling, even those that don’t manage anyone. Those people still need to make recommendations and exercise influence over peers. Smith teaches courses in storytelling for CEOs and executives all the way down to new hires because everyone can benefit from storytelling.

And while the stories may be different, the craft is the same — the structure, the techniques that create emotional engagement; the surprise ending, these apply no matter who is telling the story. The difference lies in what the story is about.

■ How do you craft a good story?
Like all things done well, the end result often looks as natural and effortless as rain’s trip from sky to earth. Ask plenty of writers, and they will assure you this is not the case. If your efforts feel like a struggle, that’s natural. Creation is work. Stories are by design. And, to this end, Smith said you need to start with the end in mind. He recommended knowing the answer to these two questions before you craft your story: Who is my audience? What do I want them to think, feel or do after listening to my story that they likely weren’t going to do otherwise?

With these answers known, you can proceed with finding your ‘something that happened to someone’ that will accomplish your goal with your audience. This isn’t fiction, no invention is needed, just a flip through the rolodex of time.

In your own life, and that of your friends, family and colleagues, query for times of success, failure or a moment of clarity that fits with the desired feeling or action you want to happen in your audience. He suggested thinking of a time when you saw someone do something really well, a time you witnessed someone perform poorly, a lightbulb-style realization or a hard-luck lesson learned.

“Whatever taught you that lesson, the first time will teach other people the lesson when you tell it to them in the form of a story,” he said.

In Hollywood, narrative essentials means a hero, a villain and an epic battle. In an organization, that translates to a main character that’s relatable facing a challenge the audience might too might face one day, an ensuing struggle to reach that challenge and an obstacle getting in the way of success. The event your building your story around should contain these elements.

Once you’ve got your event chosen, you’re ready to incorporate story crafting techniques.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s best known experts in organizational storytelling. PHOTO: PAUL SMITH

■ Three key techniques
Once you are ready to design your story, Smith said there are three vital techniques to success: structure, emotion and surprise.

To structure your story well, Smith said your story needs to answer these eight questions:

  • Why should I bother listening to the story?
  • Where and when did to take place?
  • Who’s the main character and what did they want?
  • Who or what is creating an obstacle?
  • What did they do about it?
  • How did it turn out in the end?
  • What did you learn from it? Or what should they learn from it?
  • And what do you think they should go do now? (So that’s your opportunity to make a recommendation of what they should go do now that they’ve heard.)

Once you have your questions answered, create an outline to help organize your fundamentals, but do not, Smith emphasizes, write out the story word for word. To deliver it best orally, stick to bullet points to avoid sounding like you are reading a written story with complex and longer sentences. If the story is to be shared by email or on a website or the like, then of course, write it out. Also, if you write it your oral delivery you may end up memorizing it word for word and it will sound like you are reading it – not a great technique for capturing an audience with a story.

There are multiple techniques you can use to stir up emotional engagement. Emotion is often characterized as the defining element of a story. The use of dialogue helps, says Smith, because you’re relating what the character thinks and feels rather than a third-party re-telling that may come off as a case study. You can also use telling and showing to impart emotion, with showing being the more powerful technique. At minimum name the emotion – he or she was happy or sad — an audience will understand. Even better, show the character in action. An angry person might start yelling or sad person start crying. Use the physical manifestations of the emotion to trigger empathetic emotions in you audience.

“For some reason that I’m not going to pretend to be able to know, human beings find it more a more powerful way to appreciate the emotions is when they figure it out from the clues and what happened, then from you just hitting them over the head with ‘she was sad.’ Better for them to figure that out from the action of what’s going on.”

The third important technique is surprise, and while there are many ways to incorporate surprise, Smith says one way is to create a surprise ending, which you can do with just about any story. For example, a seemingly simple childhood event may turn out to be pivotal when the audience finds out at the end who it is that is being talked about. You can take a vital piece of information that belongs at the beginning and tell it at the end. It could be about the identity or the when or the where. The key is to choose something the audience was expecting to learn earlier, said Smith. A surprise ending helps make the story even more memorable because it activates more connections in the brain.

■ How can storytelling backfire?
There are ways to sink yourself as a storyteller. You can’t walk around telling stories all day, Smith said. Most of your conversations with people will be regular back and forth, explaining or giving directions. You also need to ensure you aren’t always the main character in your stories or you risk coming off as self-centered and arrogant. You should be the ‘villian’ in some of your stories and share your failures fearlessly.

“A caring leader will tell you all of their failures,” said Smith.

A big mistake to watch out for is starting your story out by saying “let me tell you a story.” Right away people will be wary they are about to be manipulated or lied to.

People can have negative associations with the word story in the context of expecting to hear the truth. People think of someone ‘making up stories’. The word story almost never helps you when you’re telling a story, said Smith.

So, don’t say you’re going tell a story. Just jump right in!


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