The Leader as Storyteller: 10 Reasons It Makes a Better Business Connection

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Sep 12, 2012

By Paul Smith

“Every great leader is a great storyteller.” Howard Gardner, Harvard psychologist

I’ve had the opportunity to deliver a presentation to Procter & Gamble’s then-CEO A. G. Lafley four or five times in the decade he held that position. The first time was unforgettable. That day I learned a valuable lesson — the hard way — about how not to present to the CEO.

I’d been given 20 minutes on the agenda of the Executive Global Leadership Council meeting. This group included the CEO and a dozen or so of the top officials in the company. They met weekly in a special room on P&G’s executive floor designed just for this group. It’s a perfectly round room with modern features, centered on a perfectly round table. Even the doors are curved so as not to stray from the round motif.

My presentation was the first item on the agenda that day, so I arrived 30 minutes early to set up my computer and make sure all of the audiovisual equipment worked properly. I was, after all, making my first presentation to the CEO. I wanted to make sure everything went smoothly.

It’s all about what you have to say

The executives began filing into the room at the appointed time and taking up seats around the table. After half of them had arrived, the CEO, Mr. Lafley, entered the room. He walked almost completely around the table, saying hello to each of his team members, and — to my horror— sat down in the seat immediately underneath the projection screen — with his back to it!

This was not good. “He’ll be constantly turning around in his seat to see the presentation,” I thought, “and probably hurt his neck. Then he’ll be in a bad mood, and might not agree to my recommendation.” But I wasn’t going to tell the boss where to sit, so I started my presentation.

About five minutes in, I realized Mr. Lafley hadn’t turned around even once to see the slides. I stopped being worried about his neck and started worrying that he wasn’t going to understand my presentation. And if he didn’t understand it, he certainly wouldn’t agree to my recommendation. But again, I wasn’t going to tell the CEO what to do. So I just kept going.

At 10 minutes into the presentation — halfway through my allotted time — I noticed he still hadn’t turned around once to look at my slides. At that point, I stopped being worried and just got confused. He was looking right at me and was clearly engaged in the conversation. So why wasn’t he looking at my slides?

When 20 minutes had expired, I was done with my presentation, and the CEO hadn’t ever bothered to look at my slides. But he did agree to my recommendation. Despite that success, as I was walking back to my office, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d failed somehow.

I debriefed the whole event in my head, wondering what I had done wrong. Was I boring? Did I not make my points very clear? Was he distracted with some billion-dollar decision far more important than whatever I was talking about?

But then it occurred to me. He wasn’t looking at my slides because he knew something that I didn’t know until that moment. He knew if I had anything important to say, I would say it. It would come out of my mouth, not from that screen. He knew those slides were there more for my benefit than for his.

As CEO, Mr. Lafley probably spent most of his day reading dry memos and financial reports with detailed charts and graphs. He was probably looking forward to that meeting as a break from that tedium, and as an opportunity to engage someone in dialogue — to have someone tell him what was happening on the front lines of the business, to share a brilliant idea, and to ask for his help. In short, for someone to tell him a story. Someone like me. That was my job during those 20 minutes. I just didn’t know it yet.

The power of storytelling

Looking back, I realize it was probably no accident Mr. Lafley chose the seat he did. There were certainly others he could have chosen. He sat there for a reason. That position kept him from being distracted by the words on the screen and allowed him to focus on the presenter and on the discussion.

Mr. Lafley taught me a valuable lesson that day, and probably didn’t even know it. My next such opportunities involved fewer slides, used more stories, and were far more effective.

In fact, storytelling has become so impactful at P&G that for many years we had a person whose job title was “corporate storyteller.” The history of that role is a story in itself.

Forty years ago, a young mathematician named Jim Bangel was hired by P&G in the research & development department. Like all R&D employees, Jim wrote a monthly memo to his boss detailing the results of his research over the past 30 days. These memos are usually dry and detailed and filled with the kind of language only a fellow chemist or engineer would appreciate or even understand.

After many years of writing the same type of memo as all of his colleagues, Jim decided to do something different. He decided to write a story. He named his main character Earnest Engineer. In the story, readers got to see and follow along as Earnest learned something. It included dialogue between Earnest and his boss and peers. And it always concluded with the lesson learned. The lesson was the same as the conclusion Jim would have written about in the more traditional memo. But the story was much more compelling — and certainly more readable. As a result, other people started asking to read his memo — even people working outside his department.

After several such monthly memos, Jim’s cast of characters began to grow. Each had an admittedly cheeky, but telling, name. Characters like Ed Zecutive the president; Max Profit the CFO; and Sella Case the sales director. With the growing cast of characters, the circulation grew wider as people in other functions began to see themselves in the story and learn something relevant to their work.

After five years of storytelling, Jim was appointed the company’s official corporate storyteller. He continued to write one memo a month. But he spent much of his time searching the entire company for the most impactful idea he could find and then writing a story around it — a story that would captivate an audience and effect a change in the organization.

Until his retirement in September 2010, his memos were eagerly read each month by between 5,000 and 10,000 people, including just about every senior executive in the company. Sometimes the CEO would even ask Jim to write a story on a certain topic because he knew people would read Jim’s stories. This statistician had arguably become the single most

influential person at P&G. All because one day Jim decided not to write a research report, and instead, wrote a story.

10 reasons storytelling is effective

So what is the answer to the question posed in this chapter’s title, “Why Tell Stories?” The simple answer illustrated by the two stories in this chapter is this —because it works! But why is that? Why is storytelling so effective? Here are 10 of the most compelling reasons I’ve encountered:

  1. Storytelling is simple. Anyone can do it. You don’t need a degree in English, or even an MBA.
  2. Storytelling is timeless. Unlike fads in other areas of management such as total quality management, reengineering, Six Sigma, or 5S, storytelling has always worked for leadership, and it always will.
  3. Stories are demographic-proof. Everybody — regardless of age, race, or gender — likes to listen to stories.
  4. Stories are contagious. They can spread like wildfire without any additional effort on the part of the storyteller.
  5. Stories are easier to remember. According to psychologist Jerome Bruner, facts are 20 times more likely to be remembered if they are part of a story. Organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser found similar results in her work with corporations. She found that learning derived from a well-told story is remembered more accurately, and for far longer than the learning derived from facts or figures.
  6. Stories inspire. Slides don’t. Have you ever heard someone say, “Wow! You’ll never believe the PowerPoint presentation I just saw!” Probably not. But you have heard people say that about stories.
  7. Stories appeal to all types of learners. In any group, roughly 40 percent will be predominantly visual learners who learn best from videos, diagrams, or illustrations. Another 40 percent will be auditory, learning best through lectures and discussions. The remaining 20 percent are kinesthetic learners, who learn best by doing, experiencing, or feeling. Storytelling has aspects that work for all three types. Visual learners appreciate the mental pictures storytelling evokes. Auditory learners focus on the words and the storyteller’s voice. Kinesthetic learners remember the emotional connections and feelings from the story.
  8. Stories fit better where most of the learning happens in the workplace. According to communications expert Evelyn Clark, “Up to 70 percent of the new skills, information and competence in the workplace is acquired through informal learning” such as what happens in team settings, mentoring, and peer-to-peer communication. And the bedrock of informal learning is storytelling.
  9. Stories put the listener in a mental learning mode. Listeners who are in a critical or evaluative mode are more likely to reject what’s being said. According to training coach and bestselling author Margaret Parkin, storytelling “re-creates in us that emotional state of curiosity which is ever present in children, but which as adults we tend to lose. Once in this childlike state, we tend to be more receptive and interested in the information we are given.” Or as author and organizational narrative expert David Hutchens points out, storytelling puts listeners in a different orientation. They put their pens and pencils down, open up their posture, and just listen.
  10. Telling stories shows respect for the audience. Stories get your message across without arrogantly telling listeners what to think or do. Regarding what to think, storytelling author Annette Simmons observed, “Stories give people freedom to come to their own conclusions. People who reject predigested conclusions might just agree with your interpretations if you get out of their face long enough for them to see what you have seen.” As for what to do, corporate storyteller David Armstrong suggests, “If there was ever a time when you could just order people to do something, it has long since passed. Telling a story, where you underline the moral, is a great way of explaining to people what needs to be done, without saying, ‘do this.’”

That answers the question, why? Next we begin our journey through stories for 21 leadership challenges, and the art of crafting compelling stories of your own.

Reprinted with permission from Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith © 2012 Paul Smith. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books, a division of American Management Association, 1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

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