Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Report: What I learned from Lead with a Story

Lead with a Story: a guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince and inspire
by Paul Smith 
2012, AMACOM

I sat down to read Lead with a Story early last week, armed with a pad of blue sticky notes. When I finished it a few days later, the book was stuffed with blue -- quotes, key points, book recommendations and ideas for my own stories that were prompted while I read. Although this book is geared toward communicators and leaders in the business world, I believe it is broadly useful to communicators of all sorts, on at least three levels.

First, Lead with a Story is organized around different types of business situations that can be helped by storytelling.  Smith explains why ‘corporate storytelling’ can bring bolster achievement, motivation, teamwork, and personal development. At this level, the book will be very helpful for leaders and others involved in organizational development (I thought of my sister, the human resources exec) in almost any aspect of ‘people management’ -- ranging from setting a vision, to valuing diversity, to providing coaching and feedback. In the chapter “Set policy without rules,” for example, Smith advises: 
“The main way people learn the rules is through the stories they hear about other people – those who broke the rules and suffered the consequences, and those who didn’t and got rewarded. So in addition to your legally required policy manual, what you need are some good stories.”

Second, Smith builds his case for the usefulness of stories by incorporating into each chapter a number of specific stories that have been used successfully by others in working through business challenges. In the chapter on rules, there are four different stories: how monkeys learn behavior and keep following it, employees who posed as trainees to get free lunches, how a new CFO handled long-term financial misstatements and what happens when expense approvals get out of hand. There’s a helpful index in the back to make it easy for readers to use these same stories in their own work right away.

Finally, the ‘how-to’ chapters in this book are very good. They help the reader to understand what makes a story a story, the important elements, why a story should usually be told in a particular order, and stylistic recommendations to help stories be as powerful as they can be. The final chapter includes excellent questions to prompt discovery of stories from my own experience and those around me.

My favorite of the “how-to” chapters is the one about appealing to emotion. A lot of my work is with scientists of one sort or another, people who are very data-oriented and find it difficult to bring this into their presentations and interactions with people.  So I loved hearing that emotion is a defining element of story. As Smith says:
"If you don’t generate an emotional reaction in your audience, you haven't told a story. It might be a good memo, or perhaps a case study. But it's not a story. "

I also liked the discussion of engaging the audience into the story through ‘teachable moments’ or demonstrations. My personal favorite example of this (not in the book) comes from the first 5 minutes of Bill Gates’ 2009 TED talk on malaria. I’m not going to give it away – go watch it for yourself!

I was pleased to see references to other storytelling teachers that I admire and whose books I've been recommending for years, including Chip & Dan Heath, Annette Simmons, and Stephen Denning. I made a list of others to seek out based on the wisdom that Paul pulled from them for this book, including Language of Success by Tom Sant and Elements of Persuasion by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman. 

So stay tuned for more book reports!

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