Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on organizational storytelling. He’s one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers and the author of three Amazon #1 Bestsellers: “Lead with a Story” (now in its 11th printing, and published in 7 languages around the world), “Sell with a Story”, and “The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell”; in addition to “Parenting with a Story” and his newest work, “Four Days with Kenny Tedford”. Paul is a former executive at The Procter & Gamble Company and for the last decade+ has trained executives at international giants like Google, HP, Ford, Bayer, and many more.
Paul holds an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a 20-year veteran of P&G, where he worked mostly as the director of consumer and communications research for the company’s $6 billion global paper business where he led a research team across four continents. He also held leadership positions in corporate finance, manufacturing plants, and sales working closely with major global retailers like Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club.
After documenting thousands of stories along the way as research for his books, Paul has become a renowned expert on how to identify and craft an effective and compelling story. He helps companies and their leaders craft their corporate stories and teaches the art and science of storytelling and leadership so leaders and team members can be more effective at communicating and selling.
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Paul Smith: Lead With A Story. Top Storytelling Coach On How To Use Stories To Lead and Sell
Joining us is Paul Smith. One of the world’s leading experts on organizational storytelling. He’s one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers and the author of three Amazon number one bestsellers, including Lead with a Story now in its 11th printing and published in seven languages, as well as Sell with a Story and The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell. In addition to Parenting with a Story and his newest work, Four Days with Kenny Tedford. He’s a former executive at the Procter & Gamble company and for the last decade-plus has trained executives at the biggest companies in the world. Paul holds an MBA from the Wharton School of business and is a twenty-year veteran of P&G where he worked mostly as the Director of Consumer and Communications Research for the company’s $6 billion global paper business, where he led a research team across four continents. He also held leadership positions in corporate finance, manufacturing plants, and sales working closely with major global retailers like Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club. Please join me with the amazing Paul Smith.
Paul Smith, thank you for joining me on the show. How are you doing?
I’m very good, Chris. Thanks for having me on. I’m excited about it. I’ve been watching what you’re doing with the show. I’m appreciating it. It’s good stuff.
Thank you very much. I’ve been looking forward to having you. I’ve known you a very long time and you’re out there in Ohio, I believe. Is that correct?
That’s right, in the Cincinnati area. I just looked at the calendar, and it’s been many years that you and I have been working together.
That is ridiculous.If you observe the best leaders, you’ll notice that they tend to be good storytellers. Click To Tweet
Neither of us looks any older.
You look exactly the same. Maybe there’s some silver age going on here that might not have been as much. That flew by a couple of years. I enjoy hanging out with you whenever we can, whenever you’re here. My clients absolutely love you every time you speak because you go deeply into the specifics of what organization it is, who the audience is, and why storytelling is important to them. It’s so cool to be able to tell everybody that I have a guy who has been spending at least two decades on storytelling. You’ve focused on this topic. It’s great when you can tell people, somebody who’s focused on one area of expertise for that long, and storytelling is just popular now as a topic that people are thinking of. It’s because it was under the radar before, but now it’s a lot more popular as something people are realizing they need to get good at. Is that right?
Yes. If you were to look back many years ago, probably nobody was talking about this. A couple of years ago, it was still fairly new and several years ago, when you and I started, it was taking off a little bit. It continues to grow in importance because people are realizing that it works quite frankly. It works to communicate better with people.
You started focusing on telling stories and storytelling as it were with products at Proctor & Gamble. Tell us a little bit about how you got involved in this topic area.
I spent many odd years of my career at the Procter & Gamble company. That’s a big marketer of products. I’ll tell you honestly, the thing there that got me interested in storytelling was not the storytelling for marketing, for products, but the leaders there who I admire the most. The CEO and chairman of the company, some of the leaders I admired the most, it turns out they were just really good storytellers and that intrigued me because I was an up-and-coming leader. I wanted to continue to grow in the company and be an effective leader. Storytelling is the one skillset that I noticed the leaders had that nobody taught me in school.
I studied economics in undergrad and got an MBA. Nobody taught me that in school. Nobody taught me that at P&G when I got there. I spent a couple of years with Accenture and nobody taught me that there. All the other things, finance, accounting, marketing, operations and sales, somebody taught me along the way. Nobody taught me storytelling and that frustrated me. As you remember, you and I had these conversations early on that frustrated me so much. That’s what led me to write that first book, Lead with a Story. That was my learning journey. I started interviewing CEOs and executives all over the world to figure out how they were doing it because nobody taught a class on it. That’s how I got started in it.
That’s so awesome. It was your passion and you needed to do it yourself. You learned how to do it, and you learn more about it and then you wanted to share that expertise because there was a void for that. Lead with a Story as such a successful book internationally is amazing because you’re talking about leadership and how storytelling can be so important to leaders to use that as a tool to get people to gravitate towards their ideas, buy-in emotionally, and emotionally connect with these things that they’re selling or that they’re trying to teach. There’s that marriage of storytelling and what you did as an executive at P&G too. You were trying to tell the story in a lot of ways of products on the shelf, so that if somebody was watching a commercial or saw a product in the packaging, why would they gravitate towards that packaging? Why would they gravitate towards that product to get people to move to action? Isn’t that also a little bit behind where that came from you as well?
Yes. Certainly, marketing companies like P&G have been doing that for decades. You can watch a television commercial that just has a list of the features and benefits of the product and those aren’t the most effective commercials. Whereas you watch a commercial where a little kid comes running through the kitchen and spills his Kool-Aid all over the kitchen counter, and the mom grabs the bounty and cleans it up. He doesn’t get a spanking because everything was okay. That story is a much more effective selling vehicle. The P&G has been doing that for a long time. It’s that shift into using storytelling for leadership purposes. That was the unique thing that I wanted to explore more. We’ve been doing it well for decades in marketing. I wanted it to tap into some of that same skillset for leadership and in the selling arena.
That was your second book was Sell with a Story, the follow-up to Lead with a Story, another incredible book that anybody in sales or any leader should also definitely read. It has so much great tangible content and takeaways that people can use immediately. Tell us a little bit about some of the teachings in Lead with a Story and how you do marry leadership with storytelling. How does that work? Did storytellers automatically become leaders? Do leaders need to be storytellers and what stories are they telling?
If you observe the best leaders, you’ll notice that they tend to be good storytellers. That’s what got me interested in the topic to begin with. They’re not telling stories all the time. That would be weird. Nobody’s walking around all day long telling stories. In fact, my research suggested around 10% to 15% of the time, they’re telling stories. Eighty-five to ninety percent of the time, they’re just talking like you and I are talking or they might be giving a speech, having a conversation, conducting a meeting, or something. Ten to fifteen percent of the time, 6 to 9 minutes out of an hour, a good leader might be telling a story. These stories are only 2 or 3, 4 minutes long. Out of an hour, you might tell 2 or 3-minute stories. If you ask somebody a month later, “Do you remember that meeting with Paul and Chris on that day back in December? What do you remember from that?” It’s going to be the 1 or 2 stories that one of them told. Storytelling won’t be the most frequent communication vehicle that you use, but it will probably be the most powerful and effective.
As far as what stories they’re telling, there are lots of different topics. We’ve covered 21, 22, or 23 types of stories in that first book, Lead with a Story. We tried to focus a little bit on what the most important ones are. That’s where The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell was the last book that came out. Where are people going to start if I don’t want to start with these 22 stories I have to tell, but what are the most important ones? We can delve into those if you’re interested, but there are areas where storytelling works that are most important for leaders to tell.
If a leader learns storytelling or they read Lead with a Story, they’re probably going to be well equipped with this idea and the knowledge of the why and the when. The how is also something that you go well into, especially in your workshops. Take us through that journey of knowing that this is now a new tool for me to use, and it’s not like I’m sitting here waiting to use it. I’m like, “I can’t wait to tell a story,” but knowing that when you talk about something that you believe in, that you’re selling, that you’re presenting to people, that storytelling is something you probably want to do if you can to get that emotional connection.
The big picture path starts with creating a wish list. What are the stories you wish you had? What are the stories you wish you could tell at a moment’s notice? You make a list of them because then you’re going to find them. Step two is to go out and interview people. Interview yourself, look through your past. You’re looking for these specific stories. When you find them, then you have to craft them. That means put the right structure behind the story. There are eight questions your story needs to answer that I teach people in the keynotes and workshops that I do with you. That gives you a structure.
You are going to add like you said, the emotional component. There are techniques you can use to pull out that emotional connection in a story. You want a surprise ending in a story. Every good story has got to have a surprise ending. There are techniques you can use to create a surprise ending, even if one doesn’t naturally exist in your story. All of these are the how-to that you’re asking about. Once you find out what stories you want to tell, then you need to go through the structure, emotion, surprise, etc., to craft it into a great story before you’re ready to deliver it.Every good story has got to have a surprise ending. Click To Tweet
What’s one of your favorite examples of a moment where a leader used a story? Where was that moment? Why did they need to or decide to use that story? What was the result of the story being used? Let’s see a real-world use of this happening if you will.
I’ll tell you one that happened to me, personally. My wife and I, a few summers ago, were at an art fair at Coney Island in Cincinnati, not the one in New York. She was looking for a picture for our son’s bathroom at home. We were going booth to booth, and we got to this one booth of this guy named Chris Guglielmo. Google this guy. He’s amazing. He takes these mesmerizing underwater pictures of sea anemone, coral reefs, sharks, and everything. She’s flipping through his pictures and she just gets emotionally attached to this one picture that to me looked about as out of place, as a pig in the ocean. It was a picture of a pig in the ocean. It’s ridiculous. Pigs don’t swim. The pigs are not seafaring creatures.
The picture made no sense to me. I just thought it was stupid. Anyway, she loved it. The artist was there himself. I got my chance to ask him a question. I was like, “What’s with the pig in the ocean?” Chris, that’s when the magic started. He said, “Paul, that was the craziest thing. That picture was taken off the coast of this uninhabited island in The Bahamas called Big Major Cay.” He said, “Apparently what happened was a few years earlier, some local entrepreneur decided to raise a pig farm for bacon.” He found out there was this uninhabited island where he could keep the pigs for free. He’s no dummy. He keeps them on the free Island.
He says, “Look in the picture.” It’s like this big picture he points and he says, “Look up there behind the pig, up on the beach, what kind of vegetation do you see growing there?” I looked and I squinted, and I said, “The only thing I recognize up there is cactus.” He said, “Right, that’s a problem. Pigs don’t like cactus.” Chris, there was nothing on the island for these pigs to eat. The entrepreneur, it turns out he wasn’t very smart after all. Fortunately for the entrepreneur, a local restaurant owner on a neighboring island was boating his kitchen refuse every night over the Big Major Cay and dumping it overboard to get rid of it. Pretty soon, these hungry pigs can see and smell this food floating out in the ocean. Even though pigs don’t normally swim, if you get hungry enough, you’ll do anything.
The first one little pig swims out there to get the food, then two little piggies, and three little piggies, and they are dog-paddling or pig paddling on their way out there. Here it is a couple of generations later and all the pigs on Big Major Cay can swim. That’s why. Nobody even calls it Big Major Cay anymore. They just call it Pig Island. At that moment, I’m like, “I’ll take it,” sold for cash. I had to have that picture now. Think about what happened two minutes earlier, that was a stupid picture that I had no interest in having. After hearing that story, I had to have it. I had to have it because it was an interesting story. It was a geography lesson, animal psychology lesson, and a history lesson, all rolled into one.
I love hearing the story and I like telling the story. Chris, if you ever come to my house in Ohio and go to the bathroom upstairs, I’m going to tell you the story again because that picture is up there. That picture turned that stupid picture into something I had to have. How could that guy, that artist have sold me that picture in a normal way? He would’ve said something like, “Paul, there are three reasons why you should buy this picture. First of all, it’s the right size to fit in your bathroom, where your wife says she wants it to go. Second of all, it’s the right color palette to match the decor and the towels in your bathroom. Thirdly, it’s in the right price range that you’ve already said, you’re willing to spend on a picture and that’s why you should buy this picture.” Those would have been very logical, rational reasons but there are probably 100 pictures at that art fair that met all three criteria. There’s only one that had an interesting story attached to it. That’s why that’s the one that’s hanging up in the bathroom here.
That is such a great story about a story. The story itself is great as well. It seems like there are a lot of things that are out of place or a lot of things that are unknown in this world. We drive by, we look at it and we go, “That’s weird. What’s the deal with that? That person’s weird for even doing that,” or “This company, I don’t get this company. Why do I want to do business with this company that doesn’t make sense what they do?” Often then you hear the story of what’s behind that weird thing or that different thing, and then you emotionally connect. Do you find that one of the arts to this is finding the missing piece or getting those stories out there so that people can understand the uniqueness?
It is. Going on a story hunt is part of what I teach people to do. It is how do you hunt for and find these interesting stories. In fact, what you’re talking about, there are some guys who did a fascinating study about a decade ago. They went out to all these garage sales and flea markets. They bought 100 cheap items, like $1 or $2 each. They sold every single one of them on eBay, one at a time. You know how an eBay works, there’s a picture of the thing and then there’s a description of it right next to it. Instead of a description like, “This is a Nutcracker. This is a can opener or whatever,” they wrote a story, a silly fictional, even if they say it’s fictional, a story about it with no description, but just a silly little story. They ended up selling those items that they’d bought for $129 total for over $3,000. The only difference is they had an interesting story and most of them like I said, they made up. Some of them, they did a little digging, went on a story hunt, and found something interesting about it. That demonstrates as that’s the power of story. Having that missing something that you’re talking about. They’re not buying an item, they’re buying a story that has an item with it or an item with a story with it, either way, it’s more valuable now.
These are stories to be used to help sell something. Would you be willing to tell us what all of those eight things are that you mentioned which go into making a great story? Also, would you be willing to share with us one of the ten stories that great leaders tell, which is part of your book? I don’t know if you have time to tell the whole story but maybe tease us a little bit. I feel like there is a difference if a leader is using storytelling with his team, his company, his peers, he’s probably telling a different story because he’s not necessarily selling an item. There’s different storytelling there.
There is. There are dozens of different types of stories. What I just told you was a sales story. Let me give you an example of 1 of the 10 leadership stories, and then I can tell you the eight questions your story needs to answer. Let’s give an example of a real leadership story. This is number nine from the list that I’ll give you.
This is number nine from the book too, from The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell, which is a great book. It is such a cool book.
You’ll probably read it in an hour. It’s designed to be a quick read. This is a leadership philosophy story. This is about a guy named Mike Figliuolo who was a West Point guy. He spent some time in the army. His first leadership opportunity after getting out of West Point was as a tank platoon leader and his real first leadership opportunity was just in a training exercise. He wasn’t an active combat. They went out to California somewhere when I think it was, and they were on a 10-mile long, 5-mile wide practice field. They were going to go into simulated battle, which is real tanks, 400 tanks on one side against 400 tanks on the other side but they weren’t going to shoot each other with real ordinances. They’re using lasers. It was a giant game of laser tag, but with real tanks and Mike happened to be assigned to be the captain of the first tank who was going to go into battle on his side of the field. He is going to have 399 other tanks behind him, and he was commanding the first time. The night before, he sits down with the commanding officer. They look at a map of the terrain and figure out where the high ground is to have the best chance of winning the exercise.
The next morning, the exercise starts. He’s in his tank. They’re racing out onto the field. He gets to the first place where he’s got to make a decision. Do I turn right or left? He doesn’t know what to do. Looking at a battlefield through the crack and a hatch of a tank bouncing up and down at 40 miles an hour, it looks different than it does on a map in a conference room. He’s confused. He’s got a choice to make. He can either stop the tank, turn the light on, get the map out and figure out the right thing to do, which might take 30 seconds or he can make an educated guess. Mike chose option two. He yells out, “Driver, turn left.” The driver turns left and he has no idea if that’s the right decision to make, but he yells out. They turn left. Thirty seconds later, the light inside of his tank starts flashing, which means you just got shot by a laser, you’re dead. They have to stop the tank, pop the hatch, and get out. Those guys are done for the day. A few seconds later, tank number two turns left right behind them because that’s their job, follow the leader. Their lights start flashing. You’re dead. They’re done. Tank number three turns left. Their light starts flashing. They’re done.
The guys in tank number four saw three tanks turn left, get shot, and virtually killed. They realize that was a mistake. Tank number four turns right, and then 396 other tanks turn right. They took the high ground and won the exercise. Mike made a mistake that day. He turned left when he should have turned right. He made a leadership mistake but what he learned from that was that sometimes it’s more important to make the wrong decision quickly than it is to make the right decision slowly. We get stuck in analysis paralysis all the time. Imagine what would have happened if he had stopped the tank and got the map out, there would have been 400 tanks lined up, sitting ducks, getting shot at. The fact that he made the wrong decision, but at least made it quickly, allowed them to monitor and adjust.Sometimes, it's more important to make the wrong decision quickly than it is to make the right decision slowly. Click To Tweet
War, business, and life are all similar. When you make a mistake, it will become obvious pretty quickly. You can monitor and adjust. Now, he’s a much more decisive leader than he would have been if he had not had that experience. He tells that story to people when they start to work for him, when he hires somebody new at his company, when he gets a new client, whatever. He tells them that story to let them know what kind of a leader he is. He’s a decisive leader, but he also is a forgiving leader. If you make a quick decision, but it’s wrong, as long as you learn from it, he’s a forgiving leader. He could just tell people, “I’m a very decisive forgiving leader.” What does that mean? How do I know what that even means?
If he tells you the story, then you know what kind of leadership to expect from him. That’s an example. It also sets the example for the leadership he wants from you that he’s expecting from his people. That’s a leadership philosophy story. It has nothing to do with selling anything. It has to do with leading people. Once you’ve got your wish list filled out, “Here are the stories I want to have. I want a sales story. I want a leadership philosophy story.” I can mention what the other eight stories on our list are if you want. Once you know what stories you are looking for, then you go on the story hunt to find them by interviewing your peers and people then you’ve got to sit down and craft the story. The structure of the story is probably the most important thing. It’s pretty simple. There are eight questions your story needs to answer in a particular order for the story to make sense, be compelling, and lead to a change in behavior or opinion, which is what you’re trying to do with leadership to hear the eight questions. First of all, “Why should I bother listening to your story?” You’ve got to give people a reason to listen to your next 2 to 3-minute story, or they might not.
Once you’ve answered that question, you’ve earned the right to answer the next five questions. “Where and when did it take place? Who’s the main character and what did they want? What was the problem or the opportunity that they ran into? What did they do about it? How did it turn out in the end?” That should sound like the natural flow of a story because it is the natural flow of the story. If you’re keeping track, there are two more questions. Seven and eight are, “What did you learn from the story? What’s the lesson and what do you think I should do now?” I, the person you’re telling the story to. That’s your opportunity to make a recommendation. You need to buy my product. You need to start working harder. You need to, whatever it is you’re trying to get them to do. The first question gets their attention. The next five questions tell the main part of the story, the last two questions, make sure that you accomplish your business objective with the story. That’s the simple flow of a typical business story.
This is so cool. You have mapped out and done the research on every element, the storytelling. I don’t think there’s anybody else who has gone that deep on it.
People do, but it’s typically not for business stories. I’m sure that a lot of folks out there in LA where you are that are experts in storytelling Hollywood style, movies, books, television programs, and things like that. That’s a different storytelling. That’s two-hour-long stories. That’s 250-page stories. Those are big dramatic exercises in storytelling. Business storytelling isn’t that way. It’s much shorter. It’s much more to the point. It doesn’t have enormous emotional swings. You don’t want to tell a business story and have everybody crying. Maybe every once in a while, but you’re not going for the same thing. I’ve tried to focus on developing, doing the research, and developing storytelling as an art specifically for business, which does turn out to be a little different than it is out there in LA.
It’s great that you’ve done that because it’s so helpful to many people. You mentioned also that’s compelling about what stories you need to tell. How does somebody know what kind of stories they need to tell? I want to motivate my salespeople. I want to motivate myself. I want to motivate my customers. Those seem like that’s a sales motivating, that’s a customer motivating. Is that the type of stories you’re talking about? Is that the questions you should be asking yourself?
Yes. Those are a couple of stories you probably need to tell. Most people already know there are 3 or 4 types of stories I have figured I need to be able to tell. What’s typically eye-opening for my clients when I’m in front of them is all the other stories that they had no idea that they needed until I tell them about them. They’re like, “I want that one too.” That’s what the list of ten is supposed to be as a starter kit for what are the most important stories you should probably have? You probably already have 3 or 4 of them. I’m almost certain that you don’t have all ten. I’ll just give you the ten and you can check off in your mind which ones you think you’ve got already.
Here are the ten most important stories that I think every leader ought to be able to tell. The first four go together. They’re about setting the direction for the organization. Where we came from, so that’s a founding story. Why we can’t stay there, that’s a case for change story. Where we’re going, which is a vision story, and how we’re going to get there, which is a strategy story. A strategy is about getting from where you are now to where you want to be. If you, as a leader of CAL Entertainment, if you can articulate those four stories where we came from, why we can’t stay there, where we’re going and how we’re going to get there, you’ve got a better chance of the organization getting where you want them to go.
That’s a story you tell to your internal people, as well as the customer?
Those are stories you would tell internal to the company. Most companies don’t want to tell their strategy story outside because they don’t want to give away their competitive secrets. Everybody knows the founding of Apple story and Microsoft. Every company has got a compelling founding story. They’re just not as famous as those two. Chris, honestly, and you’re an example of this. Somebody who started their own business, nobody ever quit their job, risked everything to start a business for a boring reason. There’s always an exciting story behind it. That’s the one you would tell outside. The strategy, maybe not so much. The next four go together as well, but they’re more about who we are as an organization. That’s what we believe, that’s a corporate values story. Who we serve, that’s a customer story. A story about your customer so everybody in your company can have a human visceral understanding of who you’re ultimately working for. What we do for our customers, that’s a classical sales story. How we’re different from our competitors, which I call a marketing story. Marketing is typically about differentiating yourself from your competitors.
Imagine you can tell those four stories, you can easily articulate who we are, who we work for, what we do, and how we’re different than our competitors. Every leader needs to be able to articulate those four things even if you don’t work in sales, marketing, HR, or whatever. Every good leader needs to be able to do that. We’ve got two more. The last two go together as well, but they’re more personal to you, the leader. That’s why I lead the way I do. That’s a personal leadership philosophy story like the story of the guy in the tank that I told. That was his personal leadership philosophy. Number ten is why you should want to work here, not you, but whoever you’re talking to. That’s a recruiting story. Those two are important because every leader’s job is bringing in and attracting talented people to the organization, getting them to stay and follow your leadership. That’s ten. There are 20, 30, 40, hundreds of stories you probably need, but that’s the starter kit. If you’re going to start with storytelling, it’s hard to go wrong with that list of ten. Would you agree?
Yes, 100%. I love that you’ve done the research. You have the tools, you have the lists. You have the evidence. You have the takeaways. This is real stuff that you can do. Inside of those ten, you said a couple of things that lead to my next question that I know I wanted to ask you, which is about the future. We live in a crazy time where the whole world is affected by one singular event, this pandemic. Are you noticing that a lot of the companies that you’re talking to and working with, and maybe even watching in the world that we live in, you’re seeing companies, maybe all doing something similar? Is everybody starting to tell the story of what 2021 and beyond is going to look like from their point of view or is that something that all companies should be doing?
I haven’t seen a lot of that yet. It’s because people don’t know if we’re done. Are we done with this year? Is this year over yet? It can’t get over fast enough. Is next year going to be any different? Maybe things won’t get better until the summer. One thing I know that people believe, then I believe, and you probably do too is when we’re finally done with this pandemic, there are going to be a lot of interesting stories that we’ve seen. I haven’t run into a lot of people who are willing to tell what that story is yet, because they don’t think that it’s over. I agree. We don’t know how the story ends yet. It’s usually frustrating to tell a story that’s unfinished. The jury is out on what the story will be of 2020.
Can you start thinking about what your marketing is going to be though, as far as everybody’s got to come together? Everybody’s gotten through diversity. Everybody’s got to think about new ways of doing things using new technologies, things that maybe they didn’t use before, other tools to get their customers to engage.Nobody ever quit their job and risked everything to start a business for a boring reason. There's always an exciting story behind it. Click To Tweet
That needs to happen, and that is happening. Chris, you and I are an example of that. A year ago, we wouldn’t be doing this. We’d be on the phone with each other. We’d be doing other stuff. You’d be putting me on airplanes, every week flying somewhere. I hadn’t got on an airplane since March 25th, 2020. All my engagements are like this. You and I had to do it. A lot of people had to do, which is pivot our strategy. The strategy had to change. You didn’t have this fancy camera that you’re looking at right now and that beautiful background. You didn’t have all that back. I didn’t have this. I didn’t have any of this stuff. I had to buy all the stuff. When all this hit and what happens when the market shifts dramatically is that you have to pivot. You pivot your strategy, buy new things, make new investments. You’ve created this new show that you would have had no reason to create had it not been for this. Those things are happening and I’m glad they are.
Would you be willing to share something that you’ve learned or something surprising to you in the last couple of months that relate to storytelling that you’re hearing somebody has decided to do that you’re working with? Would you be willing to share an angle that maybe is new to you that was exciting to you or maybe it’s a new territory that you haven’t thought about as much? I feel like there’s got to be something there. I know I didn’t prep you on this. I’m putting you on the spot, but it seems like you’ve got something.
One big thing and quite frankly, it both terrifies me and excites me at the same time. With all of computer technology course, grows and grows by leaps and bounds, there are people working with artificial intelligence to create stories. It’s not the thing that I would have ever thought that a computer could do. The computer creates the story. Not that you’re writing a story, typing it into a computer. When I first heard about this, it terrified me because it’s like, “I teach people to do that for a living.” If computers are just going to do with them, I’m out of a job. It’s terrifying.
It’s like a drummer finding out that the drum machines are coming in back in the ‘80s.
That’s exactly what I felt like. I thought, “I’ve got two options. I can stick my head in the sand and hope that it never happens or if you can’t beat them, join them.” I was asked to join the board of advisors of a startup company in Tel Aviv, Israel that is creating this kind of artificial technology. I figured, I’m either going to be a victim to this, or I’m going to be part of this wave. I decided to be part of the wave. I don’t know if it will ever come to fruition, but whatever happens, I’m going to be a part of it. I don’t want to get left behind.
You should be a part of it. You’re one of the top few, maybe the top mind in the world on this topic. You have spent every moment, pretty much of the last two decades, thinking about this stuff. That’s awesome.
That’s why they asked me.
It’s great that working with you for all these years to see that there are people all over the world, literally on every continent who are aware of you, who love at least Lead with a Story, your first major book, and who want to hire you. It’s fun to have a global personality like you that I work with. Speaking of these books, there’s another book that we haven’t talked about yet, which is Four Days with Kenny Tedford. This guy is amazing and it’s not a normal storytelling book that you’ve told in the past. It’s really in a lot of ways you’re telling his story, is that right? Tell us a little bit about it. I represent him as well. I love him. He’s such a lovable guy. It makes a lot of sense that you saw him, met him, and wanted to tell his story. Tell everybody a little bit about how that came to be and what the book is all about.
Thanks. Kenny Tedford is an amazing man. Kenny was born deaf in both ears, partially blind in one eye, partially paralyzed on one side of his body, and with a significant learning disability. He cognitively tested about the 3rd or 4th-grade level, even though he’s a full-grown man. I met him at a storytelling festival of all things. When I met him, I realized what an amazing human being he is. If that was me, if I was born with that many challenges, I’d be a pretty unpleasant person and that’s putting it mildly. He’s not. He’s the opposite. He’s the most charming human being that you’ll ever meet. That fascinated me. I’m like, “How can that be?” That’s why I wanted to learn more about him. Fortunately, he wanted to have his story told and he said, “Part of my mental challenges, I can’t write.” He can speak well. You can understand him, even though he’s deaf. He tells wonderful stories on stage as you know, but he can’t write at all. In the middle of me interviewing him for one of my books, I ended up asking him, “Have you ever written down all these stories of your life? It’s fascinating.” I was interviewing for a different book. He said, “No, because I can’t write.” At that moment, I said, “I’ll do it.”
That’s a good origin story right there behind a book. Why did you write the book?
I’ve never written a biography before. That’s essentially what it is. I’m writing his biography but much of the story also takes place in this house, in this room and upstairs. He came here and spent four days with me, for me to interview him for the book, hence the name Four Days with Kenny Tedford. Not only in the book that you get to see his amazing life story, which is just beautiful, tragic, glorious, filled with success and failure, life and death, and everything in between but you get to see my reaction to it. My family, my wife and kids are characters in the book. As we are all hunched over listening to him, telling his stories, you get to see the impact that’s having on our family. It’s two different stories in one.
That’s very well put and probably pretty compelling to people who are reading this, how a guy like that overcame. If you were to go to any company on the planet or you were to meet with any human being on the planet, there’s got to be an amazing story there every single time, is that right? You probably believe in that.
I am convinced to that. As you know, I’ve probably interviewed 300 or 400 executives, CEOs, leaders, and sometimes random people in 25 countries around the world for all of my books. Everybody I’ve interviewed, except for maybe with one exception, has had an interesting story to tell. Some are more interesting than others. Probably 60% of the people that I’ve interviewed, at least one story about them has ended up in my book. For a story to be book-worthy, it’s got to be good. Forty percent of the people had an interesting story but it wasn’t quite good enough that I thought my editor would appreciate it in the book, but they all had interesting stories. I agree. Everybody’s got an interesting story and some of them are worthy of passing along to the next generation in the form of a book, they just don’t know it.
The first time I saw you speak, I was blown away at how inspirational it was. I wasn’t thinking of you as an inspirational speaker. I was thinking of a guy who was a great speaker on leadership, storytelling, the combination of thereof, also sales and how storytelling can help with sales, which what your areas of expertise are. It’s also very inspirational. Those of us who are leaders, or those of us who are worker bees and working hard at whatever job we have, and even people who don’t have a job, who are just taking care of their family or their loved ones, a motivating factor in everybody’s life on a personal level is often to look at your story and say, “Where have I come from? How did I get here?” Be appreciative of everything that’s happened in the past has led me to this point, being willing and able to forgive yourself for the mistakes you made. Also, willing to look at everything that has been a mistake that you’ve learned from. There are many great stories that we can tell ourselves about ourselves.It's not about the slides. It's about the stories. Click To Tweet
Those are some of the best stories to tell. I coach my executives, “Your failure stories, the things that happened to you when you maybe didn’t respond the way you wanted to, or you didn’t have the success that you wanted are some of the best stories you’ll ever tell.” The reason is because if you tell that story, you’re giving your organization the opportunity to learn from your mistakes so that they don’t have to repeat the same mistakes. Everybody wants to work for that boss. A boss who’s willing to share his or her personal failures because they care more about your growth and development than they do protecting their own ego. That’s the hallmark of a great leader.
You can also be motivated by somebody else’s overcoming adversity, but you can also look at your own story and motivate yourself. One of the stories that I loved of yours that I heard early on and that hit me was the story where you were giving a presentation and you were excited about it. It was the CEO of Procter & Gamble, if I’m not mistaken. It was a big moment for you and you were giving your presentation, and the guy wasn’t even looking at you while you were talking. You started to get a little offended during this, am I wrong?
He was looking at me. He was not looking at my slides.
He is not looking at the slides, he was looking at you. You’re like, “All the time I spent on these slides.” Tell us a little bit about that story, what it means and what it’s all about.
That was A.G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter & Gamble at the time. This was probably back in the year 2000. That’s exactly what happened. It was my first time as a junior manager to make a presentation to the CEO and the whole board. I got fifteen minutes into this presentation and he had not looked at my slides once. The part I missed was that when he came into the room, there was a round table that’s very King Arthur. There’s one place where the slides go. He walked around and he chose the seat right underneath the slides. He couldn’t see the slides because it’s behind him. He chose that chair on purpose. It frustrated me because I spent all this time working on this presentation, at least the guy could do is look at it, and he didn’t the whole time. I learned a really valuable lesson from that. That lesson is that especially the CEO, but senior leaders, they don’t want to be presented to.
They don’t want to watch a slide show. They want to have a conversation with somebody. Somebody like me on the front lines of the business to tell them a story about what’s going on and give them the opportunity to help. That’s what they want. He sat there and he looked at me in the eye the whole time. He’s the only one that asked more than one question. He agreed to my recommendation and what flummoxed me was I thought the guy is not even going to understand what I’m talking about because he’s not looking at the slides. That’s when I realized it’s not about the slides. It’s about the stories. That was one of the things that started me on this journey. You’ve got a very good memory. I’m impressed. It’s been a decade.
Thank you. You should always tell that story. That’s one of my favorites that I’ve heard and it impacted me. It has a really good point to it and a good lesson in it, just like everything you do. Every time you get booked, the client says, “He did his homework and he delivered. We all have our work to do and we know exactly where we’re headed as an organization. We know what our story is we’re telling ourselves. We know what our story is we’re telling our customers or potential customers.” It’s an important work. This tool of storytelling within all of the other leadership, sales, and everything is essential and something a lot of people overlook, even though it’s a popular topic for organizations. A lot of people don’t realize it’s a tool that they’re not using and that they should be using to get that emotional connection, that buy-in, and that connection with whoever they’re trying to impact.
It’s a beautiful thing. It’s fun to see all of this happen, all these different clients, how they’re using you. You’re one of those speakers who is more willing than others to deliver that extra piece, that workshop element to it, where it’s the how. You deliver the why and the when in the keynote, and then you can get into the workshop of the how, and that’s helpful too. This has been awesome. I could talk to you and hear your stories and talk about this area of expertise with you for so long because it’s interesting. This has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing all of this with us.
Thanks for having me on. It was fun. I appreciate the decade-long partnership. Here’s to another good decade.
2021 is going to be a good year to start off and leave this 2020 behind. Hopefully, we did learn some things, which is the interesting thing about the 2020 vision, looking back and resetting. That’s what a lot of people are going to do. Storytelling is going to be even more important than ever in 2021 and into the next decade as we define where we’re all headed. You’re going to be busy.
I hope so.
Take care. Thanks again. Bye.
- Lead with a Story
- Sell with a Story
- The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell
- Parenting with a Story
- Four Days with Kenny Tedford
- Paul Smith
About Paul Smith
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on organizational storytelling. He’s one of Inc. Magazine’s Top 100 Leadership Speakers of 2018, a storytelling coach, and the author of three Amazon #1 bestsellers: Lead with a Story (now in its 11th printing, and published in 7 languages around the world), Sell with a Story, and The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell; in addition to Parenting with a Story and his newest work, Four Days with Kenny Tedford. He’s a former executive at The Procter & Gamble Company and a consultant with Accenture prior to that.
As part of his research on the effectiveness of storytelling, Paul has personally interviewed over 300 CEOs and executives in 25 countries, and documented over 3,000 individual business stories. That’s allowed him to reverse engineer what works in storytelling and what doesn’t. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Time, Forbes, and Success Magazine, among others.
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