The Art of Storytelling: Q&A With Storytelling Expert Paul Smith

By Robert Half on October 9, 2013 at 7:00am

Looking to convey a message simply and powerfully? Tell a story.

Whether you're a creative or marketing leader who needs to communicate a vision to employees, an employee trying to sell management on a bold idea or a freelancer pitching a prospective client, using the age-old tradition of narrative storytelling can energize, inspire and convince.

I spoke with business storytelling expert, noted leadership consultant and Lead With a Story author Paul Smith about how creative professionals can use storytelling to aid their careers.

What first attracted you to the subject of storytelling?

It occurred to me one day that the best leaders I'd worked with – the ones I wanted to work for and be like – were great storytellers. That wasn't a skill I was taught in business school. If I wanted to be good at it, I figured I was going to have to learn on my own. That led me on a two-year journey of research and interviews with more than 100 CEOs and executives all over the world. I decided other people might be interested in what I'd learned about storytelling. That's when I decided to share those lessons in Lead With a Story.

What are the key components of a good story?

The most important components are a relatable hero who is facing a relevant challenge that will evoke an emotional reaction.

Can you break that down for us?

A relatable hero means your audience can see themselves in your hero. When you're trying to motivate someone, for example, a story about Superman might be entertaining, but won't make for a good business story. Most people can't fly or bend steel bars with their hands so the fact that Superman saved the day won't help them do the same thing.

A relevant challenge means your story deals with a situation that your audience – whether it's a boss, colleague, client or employee ­­– will likely face in the near future.

Evoking an emotion means your story has to make them feel something. Without that, you don't have a story; you have a case study. Sympathy for the hero, anger at the villain or the passion to succeed like your hero all work. Leaving listeners thoughtful, critical or analytical doesn't count. That's not enough.

An example that has all three components would be a story you tell your direct report about when you had his job and faced the same challenge he's facing right now – managing a complex rebranding project, perhaps. If you tell him what a miserable failure it initially was and how you overcame the problem, he's guaranteed to be highly engaged listening to your story so he can avoid the same train wreck you experienced.

Compelling storytelling can help creative professionals sell their ideas. But what kind of story should they share? An anecdote spotlighting a previous success? Or a forward-looking story that paints a picture of what could be if only the client or boss were to say yes to the proposed concept?

Both can be very effective. And during a 30-minute pitch meeting I'd recommend you use both. But of the two, I'm a bigger fan of the future vision story. Any time you can get someone focused on the future instead of the past, you're ahead of the game. You can paint that picture of the future for them with you squarely in the middle of it, helping them along the way.

Until recently, you were a director of market research at Procter & Gamble. I imagine you interviewed your fair share of people during your 20 years in management with the company. How valuable are storytelling skills for job candidates in interviews?

That's a bit like asking how valuable swimming skills are if you want to swim the English Channel. It's not just valuable; it's the only skill that matters. Unless you plan to read your resume to your interviewer – boring! ­­­– every question should be answered with a story. Tell me about your greatest success and how you achieved it? What was your biggest career mistake and what did you learn from it? What do you see yourself doing five years from now? Story. Story. Story.

Not everyone is a naturally gifted orator. What steps can people take to boost their verbal communication abilities and persuasiveness?

I'm not a naturally gifted musician. But I bet if I took guitar lessons I could learn to strum out a few songs. The same is true of storytelling. It's OK if it's not your gift. You can still learn it. But you have to study it like any other skill. Read a book on storytelling. Or take a class on it. And then practice, just like those guitar lessons. That's exactly why I wrote Lead With a Story and teach the storytelling training courses I do: so people can learn how. Just wishing you were a better storyteller isn't likely to help any more than me wishing I could play the guitar.

You just left a great job at one of the most successful companies in the world. You've written that it took you several months of "agonizing" to finally take the leap and go out on your own. Now that you've done it, how does it feel? What advice would you give to creative professionals who are contemplating a full-time freelancing career?

I'm indescribably thrilled to be on my own, doing what I love. I hope everyone can someday know the satisfaction I feel having made this decision.

My only advice is this observation: There is an astonishingly high correlation between the things we're good at and the things we enjoy. The more you like something, the more you do it, and therefore the better you get at it. And the better you are at something, the more accolades and rewards you get for it, so the more you enjoy doing it. The feedback loop is powerful. Once you jump in it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. But you have to have the courage to jump in first. 

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