Can a simple story advance your career?
You might not remember the list of to-do’s you left at home, but you’re probably still laughing at the story you heard in the break room. That’s because stories are more memorable to us, since they connect directly to our emotions. Is there a way to utilize storytelling in order to lead more effectively?
Paul Smith is a former Procter & Gamble executive who now speaks and trains on how to use storytelling in leadership and sales. His book is Lead With A Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire. I interviewed Paul on the LEADx podcast to get a better sense of how storytelling can enhance our careers. (The interview below has been edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: Can you share a time when you failed? And what was the lesson that you learned from it?
Paul Smith: I think that's a great question. In fact, we'll loop back to that later. But yes, I've made many mistakes in my career and I've made something of a career out of talking about them. One that I would share with you is probably eight or nine years ago, so that’s maybe somewhere in the middle but I think it's instructive. I'd just taken a new assignment at P&G and I was in charge of this department of about 25 people or so and it was about six weeks before the end of the fiscal year and my boss, who is the president of the business unit, came to me and said, “Hey, look. We're having a great fiscal year. Sales and profits are great but next year really looks tough, so could you… hurry up on some of the research you're planning on doing next year and get it done this year so that the expenses will all hit? Just because we're looking at a really tough year next year?”
Of course, I'm brand new on the job. Got this brand new boss here that I really wanted to impress, so my answer was yes. I went back to my team and I explained the situation. I said, “How much of our work from next year can we pull into this year in the next six weeks?” Everybody went and thought about it, came back to me the next day and said, “About a million dollars worth,” so I said, “Oh, great. That's a nice big round number,” so I went back and told my boss, “A million bucks. I'm going to bring you a million bucks.”
We set off to try to do that and the next six weeks were just a disaster. I mean, my team was working around the clock trying to get all this research done that they wouldn't have gotten done otherwise. Mistakes crept in. The morale in the department was awful. We literally had to do some of the research all over again next year because we didn't do it right in the six weeks we had to do it this year, so it's just mistake after mistake and it was just a disaster and of course, it was all my fault. I went back to my boss and had to explain what happened and she actually had asked me the following year to do it again. That's when I had to remind her, and I took her into more detail about the year before. Just to show her how much of a disaster that had been, and what I learned from that. I realized over time why that happened, because I thought of myself as a pretty decent manager. But why would I have made such a monumental mistake?
The reason, I figured, was because I had this brand new boss that I wanted to impress, so I was thinking more about me looking good to my new boss. But what didn't occur to me was that I wasn't the only one that had a new boss that they wanted to impress. The 25 people in my organization had a new boss they wanted to impress too and that was me, so they were telling me they could do things that they weren't sure they could do just because they wanted to impress me. I was too busy worrying about me and what I looked like in front of my boss, to think that there might be other people doing that as well. In other words, I had my own best interest in mind at that moment, instead of their best interest in mind, which as the boss, I should've had. That taught me a lesson that stuck with me ever since then. I really need to be thinking about the best interest of the people that report to me and count on me, as opposed to try and make myself look good in front of the boss.
Kevin Kruse: Why do you think we should care about storytelling so much at work?
Paul Smith: I think there are probably a lot of reasons because it's certainly an incredibly effective leadership and influence tool. I'll give you my top four reasons out of 100 that I can give you, but the first one is storytelling, which speaks to the part of our brain where decisions are actually made.
It turns out, we think we're these rational, logical thinking creatures but the truth is, what the cognitive scientists tell us is that we generally make subconscious, emotional decisions, sometimes even irrational ones, in one place in our brain and then a few nanoseconds later, we justify those decisions rationally and logically in some other place in our brain.
The normal kind of business speak that we engage in, only speaks to that rational, logical thinking part of the brain. If you want really to influence people’s decisions and behavior and attitudes, in other words, leadership, it turns out you need to influence them in that other part of the brain where decisions are actually made and stories are just well-suited to communicating to that emotional processing part of the brain, whereas logic and telling people what to do and lists of things just aren't.
The second one is stories are contagious. You tell a great story and it'll spread by word of mouth all over your world however big your world is and your policy memo's probably want to do that. But a great story will.
The third reason I'd give you is that stories make facts easier to remember, and there’ve been lots of studies that show this. That fact is between six and 22 times more likely to be remembered if they're embedded in a story than if they're just given to people in a list. And you don't have to believe those studies because I can prove it to you right now and that is that. Anybody listening this right now knows that by tomorrow, none of you are going to remember this list of four things I'm giving you. None of you, and that's okay. I'm not going to be insulted, right? Most of you will remember the story of my million-dollar mistake. A week from now and a month from now, you'll probably remember most of the details of that story but won't remember this list of four things. So that's the power of a good story.
I guess the fourth and last one I'm going to give you is that stories inspire. Slides don't. I mean, when's the last time you heard somebody say, “Wow! You'll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw.” Nobody says that, but they do say that about a good story and I think that's what you want people to come away with after the communication that you give. I think you want them feeling that way.
Kruse: What are some things we should do or not do when telling a story?
Smith: I'll give you three that I can do here quickly. The first one is recognize that storytelling is a skill, one that you should and could learn. If you wanted to learn to play the piano, you wouldn't just buy a piano and wing it, right? You'd hire somebody–a piano teacher and you'd take lessons. So the first thing is to recognize that storytelling is like that. It's a skill that you can get better at and you probably should but you have to study it and that means learning from people who know. It means you should read a book, or take a class. Don't just think, “Well, I'll just tell more stories and I'll get better at it.” If you tried that with a piano, you wouldn't get very far. You could get a little bit but you wouldn't get very far, so take it seriously like any other leadership or marketing or sales skills that you have.
Secondly, stories have a structure. In fact, what I lay out on my most recent book are the eight questions that your story needs to answer and the order in which it needs to answer them to really be effective. So I give you those eight questions. Why should I listen to this story? That's question number one. If you don't answer that, they might not listen to your story. Then, where and when did the story take place? Who's the main character, and what did they want? What was the problem or opportunity they ran into? What did they do about it? How did it turn out in the end?
All right, so that's six. The last two, after you're done with the story is what did you learn from it, and what do you think I should do now? That's where you get to make a recommendation, you know, what they should do. If your story answers those eight questions, you'll be in a pretty good position to have a decent story. If you answer a bunch of questions that aren't in there, you're going to have a longer, more boring story that's kind of off track. And if you skip some of those questions and don't answer them, or don't answer them in the right order, it's going to be more difficult for people to follow your story, so that'd be the second thing.
The last one is ‘surprise.’ Having a surprise ending is so powerful, whether it's a movie or a book or a sales pitch, but orchestrating your story to have that is really powerful and it makes people remember your story better because literally, that little bit of adrenaline that gets released into your system when you get surprised, actually affects the memory processing part of your brain, that memory consolidation period. It enhances it so that literally, everything in your story, especially the lesson and the recommendation at the end, gets remembered more if you've got a surprise ending.
Kruse: Can you just share one of your own favorite stories, whether it's a story from your own life or maybe a favorite story you heard someone else tell?
Smith: Yeah, so you'd mentioned teaching people lessons. That's one of the purposes of sharing stories at work. One of my favorite stories about teaching a lesson comes from a colleague of mine named Jason Zoller who used to work with me, and he's a head of research now at a big consumer products company. He would tell his new hires every year a story that one of his professors in college told him 20-some-odd years earlier.
Apparently, what happened was that the professor broke the students up into groups of five or six students and they each had a research project for the semester. But one of them had a more interesting project than all the others: They had to work with the local judge to figure out how to improve the jury deliberation process, so they did all the kinds of things you probably would've done.
They interviewed the other judges in the jurisdiction and prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys but mostly, they interviewed former jurists–people who'd actually served on juries themselves. They asked them all the kinds of questions you probably would have asked them. “How long did the trial last?” “What was the trial about?” “What kind of information were you allowed to have in the jury room?” They even asked them questions that they thought were silly like, “What kind of food did they feed you?” “How late did they make you work in the evening?”
What they concluded at the end of the research was that none of those things I just said mattered. The only thing, it turned out, that mattered was the shape of the table in the jury room. The jury rooms that had rectangular tables, whoever sat at the head of the table, even if they weren't the jury foreman, tended to dominate the conversation and they felt like a less than robust debate of the facts ensued and therefore, maybe a less than fair verdict was rendered. But in jury rooms that had round tables, they felt like a more fair discussion ensued and perhaps a more fair verdict was rendered, so they're very excited and they make their big pitch at the end of the semester to the head judge about getting these round tables. And he's super excited of their finding as well.
He immediately issues a decree. He said, “Anywhere in my jurisdiction that we've got any of those round tables, get rid of them. Put in rectangular tables.” Of course, you read some of the books so you probably know the punch line here. But the reason why he did that was because his goal–his objective–wasn't to have a fairer or more accurate verdict in the jury deliberation process. His goal was a faster one, right? He wanted to reduce the backlog on his court docket.
You can imagine the students were just mortified at that. Here they thought they were taking on this project to get a good grade on their report card, make the world a better place, and improve the jury deliberation process. But they thought ‘improve’ meant ‘more accurate.’ What he meant about ‘improve’ is to make it faster, so they just felt awful about this.
Anyway, so Jason tells that story today to help these new hires understand this lesson, which is very important for you to be clear on your objectives before you start your research project–not after. If you wait till after, you may be sorely disappointed in the result just like these students were. Now, he tells them that story and it's incredibly effective as opposed to just telling them, “Well, you know, if you want to be successful in this business, you should get really clear on your objectives before you start your project.”
That's just not memorable. It's not impactful. Nobody's going to act on that later but once you've heard that story, it's almost impossible to not be thinking about that every time you start a project because you don't want that to happen to you.
Kruse: I always like to challenge our listeners to get just 1% better every single day, so is there something you can challenge them to do today?
Smith: I would have them do exactly what you did to me at the beginning of this podcast: to share a story about one of their biggest failures and what other people can learn from it. I think that's one of the best ways to get started storytelling. It gets you comfortable telling stories, especially self-deprecating ones that people can learn from. And who doesn't want to work with or for somebody who tells you their biggest failure story so that you can avoid those same situations? So it's a win for everybody. That's a great place to start.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.