If “storytelling” is a common buzzword in the business world, it’s for good reason—narratives make for effective communication. But the practice has become a victim of its own success. Suddenly, it’s as though everyone fancies themselves “storytellers” but without really knowing what a story is or how to tell one.
I’ve trained thousands of executives on storytelling, so I’ve seen pretty much every storytelling mistake someone can possibly make. Here are the four most common slip-ups that turn otherwise capable speakers into ineffective storytellers.
If you want to tap into the benefits of storytelling (being memorable, engaging, and appealing to the brain’s subconscious, emotional decision-making centers), you need to actually tell a story. That might sound obvious, but the fact that everyone around you may be calling your speech, memo, mission statement, or corporate sales pitch a “story” doesn’t make it one.
If you start out, “Our vision is to accomplish four things this decade . . .” or, “These six attributes define our brand. . .” or even, “There are three reasons you should invest in my company,” then whatever you’re doing is not storytelling. Those aren’t stories, they’re lists—and hey, it might be a great list. But don’t kid yourself. Those aren’t stories, no matter how smoothly they roll off your tongue.
Stories are narratives about something that happened to someone. Period. If the first words in your speech or memo or email sound like this—”Saturday morning, our biggest customer called our CEO at home in a panic . . . ” or, “The first time Janet tried our brand, she . . . ” or, “I got the idea to start this company when I got fired from my last job, and here’s what happened . . . “—now you’re telling a story. Stories have a time, a place, a main character, and tell something interesting that happened.
Someone interrupts in the middle of a meeting and says, “I’m sorry, can I just tell a quick story? I promise, it’ll just take a minute.”
What do you think that communicates to your listeners? It tells them that you don’t value the story nearly as much as what you would’ve said otherwise. If that’s true, fine—but please don’t tell your story. Just get back to the bullet points on slide No. 62. But if you do think your story is important, just tell it. Leaders don’t ask permission to lead. Never apologize for or ask permission before launching into your narrative. Your audience is lucky you took the time to craft a more impactful and enjoyable way to make your point.
Imagine it’s 9 a.m. on a Monday and the staff meeting is about to begin. The boss walks in and says, “Okay, let’s get started. I thought I’d kick this meeting off by telling you a story . . .” Admit it—you’re already grinding your teeth.
Now imagine instead that the boss walks in and says, “Okay, let’s get started. As some of you know, something really important happened last week and it completely changed how I think about running this department. I thought I’d tell you about that . . . ” Are you more eager to listen now? Of course you are.
In both situations you’ll hear the same story. But in one case you’re dreading it from the get-go, and in the other you’re on the edge of your seat in anticipation (or at least curious enough to tune in). That single sentence at the beginning of the story is the hook that gets your audience’s attention and lets them know something important (to them) is about to be shared. And nowhere should it include the word “story.”
In the early 1980s, Sterling Price worked at a pizza restaurant in Springdale, Arkansas. A lady came in one night and asked if they had meatball sandwiches. When Sterling told her they didn’t, she got upset. Apparently her husband was very sick and had lost his appetite, but thought he might be able to eat a meatball sandwich if she could find one. So Sterling improvised. He took the sandwich rolls, meatballs, tomato sauce, and mozzarella cheese they had in the kitchen, and made her the best version of a meatball sandwich he could. She thanked him and left.
Sterling didn’t think anything more of it until the next day, when she called the restaurant and asked for him by name. She told him that meatball sandwich was the most enjoyable meal her husband had eaten in days, and she was very grateful. Then she explained a bit more. It turns out he’d been diagnosed with stage-four cancer a few months earlier. His loss of appetite was the least of his unpleasant symptoms, but the only one for which she could provide any comfort. So she was very grateful that he’d been so flexible with the menu. Then she told him he passed away quietly during the night. That sandwich was his last meal, and it meant the world to her that he helped her make it a good one.
In the 30-plus years since that event took place, the first time it was ever written down and shared outside the four walls of that restaurant was in 2012, when it was published in my first book, Lead With a Story. In one sense, anyway, that’s a huge missed leadership opportunity. Imagine how much a story like that could have meant to the restaurant chain. It might have helped its employees all over the world to understand what stellar customer service—and empathy itself—looks like. But it didn’t. Why? Because nobody ever wrote it down. Nobody saw the value in it. After all, it was “just a story.” A priceless asset went to waste.
There’s no such thing as “just a story.” Wonderfully poignant moments like this happen all around us every day. They’re the human experiences and interactions that can’t be faked or forgotten. When these incidents occur, take note—a great story is about to be born, or lost forever, and it’s up to you to decide which it will be.
Paul Smith is the author of Sell With a Story (AMACOM, 2016). He is a former director and 20-year veteran of the Procter & Gamble Company, and one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling.