Ep 94: Leaders - Why And How To Lead With A Story

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Business storyteller, author, and leadership speaker Paul Smith explains the 'art and the science' behind leadership storytelling, a skill all HR Leaders can and should develop to successfully influence others. In this episode,
HR Studio Podcast epsiode 95 with business storyteller, Paul Smith
Paul shares ten important stories that all leaders need to be able to tell, followed by two that HR leaders, in particular, need to have at their disposal. Paul explains the key elements of a successful story and eight questions each story should answer. He concludes with examples. Learn how to tell stories and serve your organization by coaching your leaders to uncover stories for internal stakeholders and external customers.
 
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on organizational storytelling and one of Inc Magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers of 2018 He’s the bestselling author of several books, including Lead with a Story, Sell with a Story and Parenting with a Story and a 20-year former executive at Procter Gamble His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal Time Forbes and Fast Company among others.
 
Listen (above) or watch the video (below) to catch Fred's interview with Paul Smith.
 

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Podcast Transcript

Fred Bunsa:
Welcome everyone to HR Studio Podcast. I'm your host for today's episode, Fred Bunsa, and I'm really excited today to be joined by Paul Smith. Paul Smith is a conference speaker and author. I have read a number of his books personally, and I am just really excited to be able to speak with him today. Very briefly, Paul spent 20 years working at Procter & Gamble and was Director of Consumer and Communications Research. He then began life on his own, working with organizations to help people tell better stories, to help leaders tell better stories.

Fred Bunsa:
He's written a number of books. One is called Lead with a Story and another is Sell with a Story and he's got one called Parenting with a Story. As a father of seven, I was really interested in that one. And now one has just come out, which we're going to talk about today called The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell. So it gives me really a lot of excitement to welcome you, Paul, to the HR Studio Podcast.

Paul Smith:
Fred, thanks for having me on. I'm happy to be here.

Fred Bunsa:
So, storytelling has become really big in corporate America. I'd like to get your thoughts on why, but before we do that, just tell us a little bit about your own story, your journey from a large multinational corporation to being out on your own and helping all of us tell better stories.

Paul Smith:
Well, my first 20 some odd years of my career were fairly normal. I don't want to say boring, but pretty traditional. I spent a couple of years as a consultant for what's now Accenture, and then 20 years at Procter & Gamble in various jobs and levels and locations. But along that way, I just became fascinated with this concept of storytelling and ended up pursuing my own little learning journey to figure out how to do it, because they didn't teach me how to do that in business school. They didn't teach me that when I joined the companies I worked at. And so I started interviewing CEOs and executives and leaders, starting at the companies I worked at, but then eventually outside. At this point, I think I'm up to 300 or so, one-on-one prolonged face to face interviews and just pursuing my own understanding.

Paul Smith:
But eventually, of course, it turned into an idea for a book because I figured other people want to know this as well. And that's what led to that first book that you held up there, Lead with a Story, that came out, I think in 2012. Pretty soon after that, I started getting calls and emails from people wanting me to teach them kind of the 'art and the science' behind that kind of leadership storytelling as well. So after a year or so of that, at about the same time I ended up getting my second book contract, things kind of came to a head, and I needed to make a decision. Was I going to do this for living or was I going to keep my day job? That's when I left, and I've been doing this ever since, and it's really just been a real life-changer. But I really enjoy it.

Fred Bunsa:
That's great. And obviously you've had some success. I mean last year you were named one of Inc Magazine's top 100 leadership speakers. That's pretty rarefied air. So this is obviously hitting home with people. What is it about the topic, or the impact of the topic, that seems to be causing people to have so much interest in storytelling?

Paul Smith:
Well, probably mostly because it works. You know, wagging your finger at people and telling them what to do has really never worked that well, whether it's a leader at work or a parent at home or you know, a salesperson in a sales call. It's got some limited applicability and effect. And telling stories I guess, and I covered dozens of different reasons why it works in the books, but the most important one is that I think human beings make decisions differently than we thought. You know, we think we make rational, logical decisions, but most of the research tells us that we don't.

Paul Smith:
It tells us that we make these subconscious, emotional decisions in one place in our brain, and then we rationalize those decisions a few nanoseconds later in a more conscious thinking part of the brain, a more logical processing part of the brain. So we leave those decisions thinking we've made them very rationally and logically, but the truth is our kind of reptilian brain decided a few nanoseconds earlier for us. And if you want to influence people, you know what they think and feel and do, in other words, leadership or marketing or sales or just parenting, it turns out you need to talk to both parts of the brain and storytelling is just uniquely qualified to reach that other part of the brain that our normal business dialogue doesn't.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay. And do you find, when people are resistant to this, what are some of the reasons they give where they're a little skeptical at first?

Paul Smith:
Some of it is, "Well I don't know how to do it and so I'm afraid, so I don't want to try," and I can get them over that pretty quickly because look, I'm going to teach you how to do it, so you won't have that excuse at the end. One of the others is, "Gosh, I feel like my boss, whoever I'm talking to, doesn't want to hear a story." The analogy I give them there is telling a grownup that you're going to tell them a story, especially at work, is kind of like telling a five-year-old kid, it's time to stop playing and come in and take a bath. In both those cases, they don't want to do it, right? But in both cases, once they're in it, they like it, and they want to stay.

Paul Smith:
The five-year-old kid doesn't want to get out of the bathtub once they're in. And the adult, once they're hearing the story and they're enjoying it and learning from it, they like it and they want to stay. But if you try to tell them that it's time to stop doing what you're doing and start listening to a story, they'll tell you, "I don't want to hear that. Just give me the answer. Give me the five-second answer." Well, I can give you a 45-second story that will tell you far more than I could in a few facts. So you just kind of have to start.

Business storyteller Paul Smith quote  on HR Studio PodcastFred Bunsa:
Got it. And do you actually encourage people to tee up a story by saying, let me tell you a story? Or is that not necessarily the way to go?

Paul Smith:
No. In fact, I counsel people to not do that. And the reason is... not everybody, but there are a number of people, a large percentage of the population I think, that have a negative visceral reaction to hearing those words, especially at work. Right? I mean, if it's Saturday afternoon or something, it might be different, but when you use those words at work, people think you're going to bore them with a 10 or 15-minute irrelevant story.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah.

Paul Smith:
So don't do that to yourself. Just start telling the story. And you should be done within two or three minutes, by the way, but announcing that you're going to tell a story almost never does you any favors.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay, good advice. Good coaching advice. In Lead with a Story, I think you have about 25 different classic stories that leaders should be ready to offer. And then in the book that you've got out now, the shorter version, it is essentially like the how-to. You've boiled those down to 10. So what led to the ones landing in this little gem?

Paul Smith:
Yeah, you're right, there were 25 or so different types in that first book, and I had a similar number in the second book and a similar number in the third book. And so there's probably 70 or 80 types of stories that I've kind of documented and that I traffic in a bit. So I felt some compunction to get it down to 10 because that is an awful lot of different stories that people need to know. I used four criteria to find the most important 10 that I think a leader needs to tell. The first and simplest one is, these are the ones that my clients most frequently ask me for help with. So with my executive training clients, I looked back over the last seven years at what stories they were asking me to help them with. That was my first criteria because I wanted this to be a practical list that I knew executives wanted help with.

Paul Smith:
Secondly, I wanted to pick areas that I knew leaders needed to influence in an organization and that's just from my 20 some odd years in the business world. I know and you probably know, you can tell there are certain areas a leader needs to influence and other areas that it's just not as important. The third criteria was, I wanted to pick stories that I thought all functional leaders would benefit from. So these aren't just stories that the vice president tells, that the general manager or the sales leader tells, or the marketing leader, engineering, IT or HR. I wanted all functions to benefit from these stories.

Paul Smith:
And then the last criteria was, I wanted to pick stories that wouldn't need to change very often so you could invest your time to get the story right. I mean, there are some stories you'll tell once or twice and then you never need to again. But you know, the story about the founding of the company, well that shouldn't ever change right?

Fred Bunsa:
Right.

Paul Smith:
It only happened once. So that's a kind of a story that you can practice over and over again and refine it and get it right and know that you're going to need to use it for a long time. Decades maybe.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay. That's awesome. So can you share with us a couple of approaches or a couple of the stories that you covered in this book? Our audiences is rising HR leaders, but leaders also across all functional areas. So it sounds like the way you've designed this can be very useful for them in an HR role or in any kind of role because these stories transcend the functional area that you happen to be in.

Paul Smith:
Yeah, they do. So I'll tell you what, let me just give you the list of the 10, and then let's talk about the ones I think that HR leaders, in particular, really need to have at their disposal. So out of the 10, the first four kind of go together because they're about setting a direction for the organization. So that's, Where We Came From, the founding story; Why We Can't Stay There, that's a case for change story; Where We're Going, so that's a vision story; and How We're Going to Get There, which is a strategy story because the strategy is all about how you get from where you are now to where you want to be. And I think that any leader in any functional discipline needs to be able to tell those four stories about the organization to help their part of the organization get where you want them to go. Right?

Fred Bunsa:
It's a classic sort of past, present, future. So where we came from... I'm looking at the table of contents right now. Where We Came From, Why We Can't Stay Here, Where We're Going, and How We're Going to Get There.

Paul Smith:
Right.

Fred Bunsa:
That is classic.

Paul Smith:
So those are the first four.

Fred Bunsa:
Communication. That's exactly what's needed.

Paul Smith:
Right. So the next four kind of go together as well, but they're more about who we are as an organization. So that's, What We Believe, so that's a corporate values story; Who We Serve, so that's a customer story, a story about who your customers are; What We Do for Our Customers, so that's maybe a classical sales story; and How We're Different from our Competitors, and I call that a marketing story because marketing's job is typically differentiating you from your competitors.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Paul Smith:
But if you can tell those four stories... I mean, think about it, you can tell a story about who you are, who you serve, what you do for them and how you're different from your competitors. Pretty much any functional leader needs to be able to tell those four stories about who we are.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah. I have a sales background, and that's really, a lot of times, the story you're telling about your organization to other organizations to help differentiate yourself in the marketplace. So those clearly have external capabilities as well, whether you're at a Chamber of Commerce or an industry event or something like that, a recruiting fair.

Paul Smith:
Right. So, that's eight. The last two though kind of go together as well. And that's, Why I Lead the Way I Do, so that's a personal leadership philosophy story, and Why You Should Want to Work Here, 'you' being the person that you're talking to when you tell the story. That's a recruiting story, and I think that every leader, regardless of their function, needs to be able to help bring in talented people to the organization, have them stay, and follow their leadership.

Paul Smith:
Those are the 10, and you could argue that HR leaders need to tell all these stories and you'd be right. If I had to pick two of them that I think HR people really need to own in the organization, they would probably be the values story and the recruiting story. I know a lot of organizations where HR kind of owns the case for change and crafting the vision story as well. And again, you could argue that the HR folks really need to craft all these stories in your organization, but those two, in my experience, the values story and the recruiting story, they really need to develop and lead and own those.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Paul Smith:
If you want, I can share an example of each of those.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah, I'd like to do that. Before we do that, though, just to back up for a second, give our listeners a sense of what are a couple of core components, regardless of which of these 10 or the other 70 or 80 that you've outlined in your other books, what are some common principles across all these stories? Because I think, like you said before, oftentimes you think telling a story is a 10-minute adventure, and what I've noticed in your books is these stories are really succinct. I would call that 'elegant simplicity'. You know, there's everything a story needs to work and nothing else. So what are the other sort of general principles that you would say, regardless of which story you tell, are some of the things that make a story work?

Paul Smith:
Probably the three most important things I think are the right structure, some emotional engagement, and a surprise, believe it or not, somewhere in the story. The structure is probably the most complex, but it's the thing that makes sure the story is, as you noticed, elegant and simple and short, otherwise it becomes this long rambling mess. I used to coach people to think in terms of, well there's got to be a context and a challenge and a conflict and a resolution. But those terms tend to sound rather academic to people. So what I found that works better is to just tell people what are the eight questions that your story needs to answer in order to really flow in this manner.

Paul Smith:
And so here are those eight questions. First of all, Why should I listen to this story? You've got to answer that question first, or otherwise, your audience might not listen. And you've got about 10 or 15 seconds to convince them that this story is worth listening to. So once you answer that one, then the next five are, and it should make some kind of sense to you, Where and when did it happen?

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Paul Smith:
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? And how did it turn out in the end? That should sound like the natural flow of a story, but I think that gets us to six if you're keeping track. So the last two are what did you learn from the story? What was the lesson? And what do you think I should go do now? 'I', the person who you just told the story to. So it's your opportunity to make a recommendation.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay.

Paul Smith:
So those are the eight. If you answer those eight questions in the story, just with two or three sentences each, you'll basically have a story that unfolds in the very natural way that you're expecting and wanting to hear the story but without it running on into that 10-minute long epic that you don't want to have.

Fred Bunsa:
So Paul, even though you're giving ideas for 10 sort of go-to stories that every leader should have, there is a similarity in how they are constructed and what they cover. So the stories are different, but the methodology of crafting that story is similar. And it wouldn't sound repetitive if you were listening to a person tell multiple stories.

Paul Smith:
Right. The exact same eight questions, all of your stories ought to, in general, answer those questions. The topic of the stories will be wildly different, and the characters and plot and the what happens of course, and what lesson you learned will all be different. But this is kind of the pattern that it should follow. And it's the same for the emotion and the surprise. There's a few techniques that you can use in any of these stories to create that emotional engagement and creating a surprise somewhere. So if you use those techniques when you're crafting whichever story you're working on, you've got a better chance of the story of being effective in the workplace.

Fred Bunsa:
Okay. So let's dig into one or two of these, maybe. Story number five, What We Believe, the corporate values story. Can you say a little bit more about that, Paul?

Paul Smith:
Yeah. I think my favorite example of this one comes from Walmart. Imagine you're an employee, a new employee at Walmart, at their corporate offices in Bentonville, and they're trying to teach you what the company values are. If you're like most companies, they just give you a list, right? I mean, they'll give you a piece of paper and say, "These are our company values. Read them, learn them, live by them." Right? That's basically all you get. And by the way, you'll take one look at it, and you'll put it in a file, and you'll probably never pull it out again, so you really don't know what the company values are. But imagine instead, if whoever was onboarding you to the company, probably the HR manager, just tells you a story about Walmart. Imagine it's this one.

Paul Smith:
So back when Sam Walton, the founder of the company, was still running the company back in the mid-1980s in Texas, H-E-B grocery stores were the largest grocery retailer until somewhere in the middle of that decade when Walmart started to become bigger than them. Well, about that time, the CEO of H-E-B, whose name was Charles Butt and was the grandson of the founder of the company, called Sam Walton on the phone in Bentonville and said, "Well, first of all, congratulations. You're now the biggest retailer in Texas, and we have been for 50 years or something. So congrats. But secondly, I have a favor to ask. I'd like to bring my leadership team to your offices in Bentonville and have you teach us what you're doing. Obviously you're doing something right, and we'd just like to know what it is." Now, of course, Sam Walton would have been well within his rights to the tell the guy just No. Those are our secrets. Of course, you're my competitor. Why would I tell you what my secrets are?

Paul Smith:
But that's not what he said. He said, "Well, you know, I don't know if I can help you, but I'll be happy to try." So they literally set a date and a time for all these executives to fly from Texas to Arkansas and meet him in one of his Walmart stores. On the appointed day, they all showed up, and they walk in the store and start walking through the aisles looking for Sam Walton, and he's down at the end of an aisle talking to a shopper. It's a young woman, and he's talking to her about ironing board covers, you know, they're on the ironing board aisle. And they start walking up the aisle, all these people in suits, and they've flown all this way to meet with him, and it's the time.

Paul Smith:
He sees them coming up the aisle, and he stops them and says, "Charles, I'll be with you in just a minute. I'm talking to this young woman, but I'll be with you shortly." And he turns around and finishes this conversation with this shopper, telling about all the different ironing board covers, sizes, and colors and price ranges. And eventually she picks one of them, puts them in her cart and shoves off to the register. And then he turns around to Charles Butt and all the executives and he says, "Charles, do you know how many worn-out ironing board covers there are in this country? We're going to sell a million of them this month." And they did by the way. But anyway, imagine that you heard that story your first day at Walmart. What lessons would you learn about the values of the company and the company's founder? What comes to mind?

Fred Bunsa:
Well, nothing is more important than the customer?

Paul Smith:
Exactly. Customer is always number one.

Fred Bunsa:
Details matter. Know your products, give people the time they need to make a decision.

Paul Smith:
Yeah. So there's four right there that you just rattled off in less than like 10 seconds, I think, right? Now, if you were to spend three or four minutes thinking about this, you'd probably come up with a half dozen more. I tell this story in all my training classes to thousands of people, and so I've literally had almost 10,000 people answer this question for me. And they almost all come to the same conclusion, the same seven, eight, nine, 10 lessons they learn from this, and they're all right. I mean, if you ask Walmart executives today, the customer is number one, a leader needs to know the details of their business, you should have a passion for winning, which Sam Walton clearly did. So the story is so much more effective at teaching what the company values are than giving the list of values, right? Now, your story will be different at your company, and you probably need multiple stories, but most of your best stories will be able to teach multiple values, not just one. So it is important to curate stories like that to help teach the company values.

Fred Bunsa:
Wow. I could see that one of the ways that our listeners can really serve their organizations well by is being one who might be on the lookout for those kinds of stories and helping to pull them out of the leaders who are already there, helping them uncover the stories that are there that they just don't even realize are worthy of telling to either internal stakeholders or external customers.

Paul Smith:
Exactly. Yeah, yeah.

Fred Bunsa:
What was the other one you were going to do? A recruiting story, I think. Right?

Business storyteller Paul Smith quote  on HR Studio PodcastPaul Smith:
Yeah, a recruiting story, another one that I think the HR leaders obviously need to play a major role in. So the trick to these is, you want to ask people that work at your company questions like this, Why did you join this company? Have you ever thought about quitting but decided not to? And if so, tell me about that, tell me about that decision. Anybody that's ever worked at one of your competitors and now works for you, why did you quit there and leave here and what's it like here versus there? You're looking for obviously these reasons why people should work there, but you're looking for stories about those reasons, not just a list of reasons.

Paul Smith:
When you ask questions like that enough, not everybody's going to have a great story, but if you ask enough people, you're going to come across some really interesting ones. For example, when I was just graduating from business school and interviewing with a bunch of companies, Procter & Gamble being one of them, it was in the early '90s and it was a really strong job market. I ended up with several job offers, so I didn't know which one to take. I literally called up an executive recruiting firm, and the first person that would talk to me, I told them my situation. Here are all the companies I have offers from, here are the salaries. Which one do you think I should take? Or more specifically, I said, "If I were to call you five years from now, which of these companies would you find it easiest to place me out of and get me a new job from if I'd say I don't like it?"

Fred Bunsa:
That's an interesting question.

Paul Smith:
He very quickly said, "Oh, Procter & Gamble."

Fred Bunsa:
Okay, nice.

Paul Smith:
I was like, "Well, why? Why would you say that?" And he gave me two reasons. He said, "Well, first of all, out of that list of companies," and they're all blue-chip, Fortune 50 companies, "at all those companies, P&G is the only one that still promotes from within. So they basically only hire new hires, and then they get promoted in the system, so if you ever want to work at P&G, you need to do it now." And he said, "The other reason is because I place people out of companies into other companies all the time, and of the list of companies you just gave me, usually when I place from P&G into one of those companies, and I always call them a year later because I want to know if they're happy because if not, I want to place them somewhere else and get paid again. But I call and ask them, and they almost always tell me, well it's okay, but the people I work with here just aren't quite as capable or smart or savvy as the ones I was used to at P&G."

Paul Smith:
Something about that basically told me that the people were smarter at one of these companies than the others. So a week later I accepted the job at P&G, and it was because of that phone call with that recruiter. Now, everybody's going to tell you the same thing when you ask them, "Well, why is your company better?" "Well, we've got great products and we have great jobs, competitive pay, and opportunities for advancement." But everybody says the same thing. But if you've got an interesting story like that about how you made your decision or somebody made their decision and it resonates with the person you're talking to, you'll have a much better and more unique chance to influence them about where they should come work.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah. And it's more memorable. I mean, somehow, I don't know what it is about the way we're wired as humans, but we remember the stories more so than the learned points. So whether it's a talk or a homily or a leadership message, you tend to remember the story that was embedded in it and maybe not even so much the talking points that were surrounding it.

Paul Smith:
Exactly. Yeah, that list of recruiting points you showed up with is probably not going to be doing you much good the next day. The story will still be in their brain.

Fred Bunsa:
Paul, this stuff is all fascinating. I love this stuff, as you could probably tell. It's time for us to wrap up, unfortunately. But any final thoughts or ideas. When you think about our audience of rising HR leaders or leaders across all kinds of functional areas, any advice for them in terms of how they can use story in their leadership journey?

Paul Smith:
I guess the main thing I would leave them with is that they should think about storytelling as a skillset worthy of being learned just like any other, as opposed to thinking, "Oh well yeah, I'm just not a very good storyteller so I guess I'll never be." You know, think of it more like an art, whether it's dance or painting or music or whatever. There are some people who are naturally gifted storytellers and some people who are not. There are naturally born musicians and artists, and some people who are not. If you're not one of those people in art or music, you could probably learn.

Paul Smith:
And if you wanted to learn to play the guitar, you wouldn't just buy a guitar and go to bed and hope that you've magically learn to play the guitar overnight, right? You'd go take guitar lessons from someone who knew what they were doing. And I would just encourage you to think about storytelling the same way, like any other form of art. If you're not very good at it, it doesn't mean you never will be, but you won't unless you go learn how from somebody who knows. So, read a book on it. Go take a community college class, watch some YouTube videos. Learn it as a skill just like you would any other skill, and you can get good at it.

Fred Bunsa:
Yeah. And like we would coach people in all kinds of scenarios, and this one applies as well. Practice in low-risk situations. Don't roll out your first story at the shareholder's meeting.

Paul Smith:
Right.

Fred Bunsa:
Practice it over a dinner table or practice it in a recruiting interview or practice it in an internal meeting. But I found telling it a few times helps you figure out quickly what's extraneous and what's essential, and you can refine it over time in a low-risk environment.

Paul Smith:
Yeah, yeah. Good advice.

Fred Bunsa:
Excellent. Well, Paul, thank you so much for joining us today. For those of you who are not subscribers already to HR Studio Podcast, you can go to HRstudiopodcast.com and subscribe. And there, you'll be able to find all kinds of information about Paul Smith and his book, The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell. And Paul has also made available to us a storytelling course sheet that we're going to have posted there in the show notes. So you can find out more about Paul and about HR Studio Podcast as well. So Paul, really, we want to thank you so much for sharing your story with us today on HR Studio Podcast.

Paul Smith:
You're welcome. Thanks for having me on.

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Ten Stories & Paul Smith Information
Ten Stories & Paul Smith Information
Date: 
Tuesday, December 10, 2019 - 8:00pm
Industry: 
Consulting
Host: 
Fred Bunsa
Guest: 
Paul Smith
Type: 
HR Studio Podcast