Why tell stories?
"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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
* * *
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
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
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.
Set a vision for the future
"While problems can be summarized in a formula or an algorithm, it
takes a story to understand a dilemma. The future will be loaded with
dilemmas, so it will take a lot of stories to help make sense out of
them." —Bob Johansen, former CEO, The Institute for the
OUT FOR A WALK ONE MORNING, a woman came across a construction site
where three men were working. Curious, she approached one of them and
asked what he was doing. Clearly annoyed she had bothered him, he
barked, "Can't you see? I'm laying bricks!"
Not easily put off, she asked the next man what he was doing. He
responded matter-of-factly, "I'm building a brick wall 30 feet tall, 100
feet wide, and 18 inches thick." Then, turning his attention to the
first man, he said, "Hey, you just passed the end of the wall. You need
to take off that last brick."
Still not satisfied, the woman asked the third man what he was doing.
Despite the fact that he appeared to be doing exactly the same thing as
the other two men, he looked up with excitement and said, "Oh, let me
tell you! I am building the greatest cathedral the world has ever
known!" She could tell he was eager to tell her more. But before he had
a chance, he was distracted by loud bickering between the first two men
over what to do about the one errant brick. Turning to the two of them,
he said, "Hey, guys, don't worry about it. This will be an inside
corner. The whole thing will get plastered over and nobody will ever see
that extra brick. Just move on to the next layer."
The moral of the story is that if you understand the overall objectives
of your organization and how your work fits into it, it not only helps
you do your job better, it enables you to help others do their job
better, too. In other words, it helps you be a good leader. But most
important, it might actually help you enjoy what you do.
Unlike the stories in the introduction and chapter 1, this story is
based on an old folktale. And it won't be the last time you come across
such a fanciful tale in this book. Most of the stories you'll use in a
business context will be true stories of actual events. But there is a
role for myths and folklore as well. They're flexible enough to be
relevant in any company and can be altered to fit your purposes without
offending the truth.
This particular story is most effectively used just before new company
goals or strategies are deployed. It helps the audience appreciate why
it's important for them to listen, understand, and adopt the new vision
and plans. It can turn what may seem to some as a boring,
mandatory-attendance event into something they're eager to learn from.
Like the first man in the story, at the beginning of the meeting your
audience will likely feel like the job is laying bricks. By the end of
the event, listeners should be building a cathedral.
It's also a good example of taking an existing story and adapting it to
your own purposes. The version of the story I first heard said nothing
of the second man correcting the first one for his errant brick, or
their argument that ensued, or the third man correcting them both. I
added those parts to deliver the conclusion that understanding how your
work fits into the big corporate picture can help you lead others, not
just feel good about your job.
* * *
Getting your audience to pay attention, of course, is just the first
step. Now that your audience is receptive, it's time to actually
describe your vision. This is where storytelling really shines! After
all, a vision is a picture of the future so inspiring it drives people
to action—in other words, a story. But the story must be well
crafted. A story about "being number one!" isn't good enough. As
organizational psychologist Peg Neuhauser noted almost two decades ago,
"Beating the competition is not an inspiring enough vision to stand the
test of time and trigger enthusiasm and commitment from large numbers of
people." It needs to be personal. Your audience needs to see itself in
the future you describe. The next two examples provide a good
In early 2002, I was appointed to lead a group of over 100 market
researchers at Procter & Gamble whose job was predicting the future
sales of new products. Theirs was an impossible task. No matter what
they predicted, the only thing they could be certain of was that they
would be wrong. The only question was, would they be too high or too
low, and by how far? This was exacerbated by the fact that they were
typically undertrained and had forecasting models that were too
complicated, poorly documented, and based on outmoded data.
My job was to lead this group through several changes that would
hopefully improve the way they did their jobs and the tools they had at
their disposal, and to help them have a more meaningful impact on the
business. But these changes wouldn't be easy. They would take effort on
their part to develop and implement. I needed them to understand and
appreciate how much better their future could be so they would be
motivated to help create that future. So I wrote them a letter that
included a story. I started out like this:
"I'd like to share the details of my plan and give you the opportunity
to influence them. But since reviewing someone else's work detail is
pretty boring stuff, I'm sending what I hope is a more interesting and
vivid picture of the future I'd like to help you create. Below is one
man's vision (mine) of what a day in the life of a sales forecaster
could be in the near future. Some of you may feel you're already pretty
close to this, and some may feel infinitely far away. Either way, I want
to make this a vision we all share—either by adding your ideas to
it or embracing it as is. All the major components of my work plan are
represented in this vision in one way or another. So if you don't like
what you see here, let me know. And if you do like what you see, let me
know that, too."
Excerpted from "Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives That Captivate, Convince, and Inspire" by Paul Smith. Copyright © 0 by Paul Smith. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.