Lead with a Story: A book review by Bob Morris

Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire
Paul Smith
AMACOM (2012)

“Experience is the best teacher. A compelling story is a close second.”  

This book is among the best that discuss one or more aspects of storytelling, notably those written by Doug Lipman, Annette Simmons, and Stephen Denning. Paul Smith duly acknowledges them and others as well as their substantial contributions. What he provides in this volume is indicated by its subtitle: “A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire.” Smith agrees with Howard Gardner: “Every great leader is a great story teller.”  However, as he explains in his book, almost anyone can master the storyteller’s skills when preparing and then making a variety of informal as well as formal presentations. Shrewdly, Smith focuses on what he characterizes as “powerful stories” that can help to strengthen a response to any of the 21 toughest challenges that businesspeople face. His book extends the usefulness of storytelling to a much wider range of leadership challenges.” “There are more than 100 stories in total. A matrix in the appendix will help you locate exactly the right story at the right time.

Moreover, his book “offers more thorough and practical advice for how to craft your own stories for any leadership challenge. That starts with a simple structure for a good business story. But it also offers advice on six other key elements you’ll need to turn that good story into a great one: metaphors [George Lakoff and Mark Johnson: ‘If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures’], emotion, realism, surprise, style, and how to put [engage] your audience into your story.” I agree with Smith that experience tends to be the best teacher. However, those who experience a formal or informal presentation will learn far more if it is “compelling.” Smith provides dozens of examples throughout his book that demonstrate the truth of this observation by Annette Williams: “’We value integrity,’ means nothing. But tell a story about a former employee who hid his mistake and cost the company thousands, or a story about a salesperson who owned up to a mistake and earned so much trust her company doubled his order, and you begin to teach an employee what integrity means.”

Smith suggests ten reasons why storytelling can be so uniquely effective. It is simple, stories told are timeless, demographic proof, contagious, easier to understand, inspiring, appeal to all types of learners, fit better where most learning occurs anyway (the workplace), put the listener in a mental learning mode, and finally, telling stories also shows respect for the audience because it suggests rather than insists what to think and feel. Of course, the ultimate objective of the given business narrative and the given audience should determine the tone and length as well as the form and content of the story or stories told. Exposition explains with information, Description makes vivid with compelling details, Narration tells a story or explains a sequence, and Argumentation convinces with logic and/or evidence. Many (if not most) formal presentations use two or more of these four levels of discourse.

Readers will appreciate Smith’s masterful presentation of provision material in a sequence most suitable for a learning process that begins with his response to “Why tell a story?” in the first chapter and concludes with an explanation of  “Getting Started” in the final chapter, Chapter 30. Readers will also appreciate his provision of a “Summary and Exercises” section at the conclusion of all but one chapter (Chapter 1), “How-To” segments in Chapters 7, 13, 14, 18, 19, 24, and 29. The Appendix consists of three valuable items: “Story Structure Template,” “Story Elements Checklist (Makers),” and the aforementioned “Story Matrix.” If someone else has created a single source that offers more and better information about storytelling in general, and about business narratives in particular, than Paul Smith has with Lead with a Story, I would certainly like to know about it. Bravo!

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