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When to Tell Leadership Stories?

This lesson is a part of an audio course Storytelling for Leaders by Paul Andrew Smith

Ok, now you know why you should be telling stories. So, now let’s talk about when you should be telling them. And the first, and most important answer to that question, is that it’s not all the time. In fact, I recommend only 10-15% of the words coming out of your mouth should be in the form of a story. Most of the time you’re talking to someone at work, whether that’s face to face, or on the phone, or through an email or website, you should just be communicating the way you normally do. Stories shouldn’t be the most frequent communication tool you use. But it probably will be the most powerful.

So, that 10-15% works out to be about six to nine minutes out of an hour. So, if you had a 1-hour presentation to give or a meeting to conduct, you might tell two or three three-minute stories sometime during the meeting. That’s it. That’s all you need. Those six to nine minutes will be some of the most memorable, effective minutes you spend that hour.

Okay, what kind of stories are the most helpful to tell at work?

Now, to answer that question, I looked back through the 300 or so interviews I’ve conducted with CEOs, executives, and leaders in 25 countries around the world. Each leader probably told me somewhere between eight and twelve stories. So, if you do the math, I’ve literally documented around 3,000 individual business stories. And what that’s allowed me to do is reverse engineer my way into what works and what doesn’t with storytelling. Which is exactly what you’re going to learn in the rest of this class. But what I also learned from that was the incredible diversity of situations leaders find themselves in at work when they decide to share a story.

Some of them I expected, like inspiring and motivating the organization, or getting people to collaborate better, or being more creative and innovative. But I was pleasantly surprised to find others, like helping people find the courage to tackle a particularly hard project, or reignite the passion for their work again, drive commitment to goals, or deliver feedback in a way that would be viewed as a gift. In all, there are dozens of types of stories leaders typically need to tell around the office. But I want to cover the top ten with you here in this lesson. And then I’ll give you some examples in the next three lessons.

But before I give you the list, let me tell you briefly how I chose these ten. I used these four criteria: first, I picked stories that my executive clients most frequently ask me for help with. So, I know they’re stories leaders are interested in telling well. Second, I looked for stories that covered the most important territory where a leader should have an opinion and exert some influence in the organization. Third, I picked stories that would be useful to leaders across all functional disciplines. So, not just stories that would be helpful to sales or marketing leaders, or HR, or Engineering. Everyone. And last, I picked stories that wouldn’t need to change very often. So, it would make sense to invest some time to get these stories right, because you can probably use them for years if not decades.

Okay, let’s get to the list. So, the first four go together, because they’re about setting a direction for the organization. Starting with number 1, those are: Where we came from (a founding story), why we can’t stay there (a case for change story), where we’re going (a vision story), and how we’re going to get there (which is a strategy story). Because strategy is about how you’re going to get from where you are now to where you want to go.

Okay, the next four go together as well, but they’re more about who we are as an organization, starting with number 5 those are: what we believe (a corporate values story), who we serve (a customer story), what we do for our customers (that’s a classical sales story), and how we’re different from our competitors (and I call that a marketing story because marketing is typically about differentiating you from your competitors).

Alright, the last two go together as well, but they’re more personal to you, the leader.

Number 9 is why I lead the way I do (that’s a personal leadership philosophy story), and number 10 is why you should want to work here (you, the person you’re talking to). And that’s a recruiting story. Because every leader’s job is to bring in talented people to the organization and have them follow the leadership.

Now, in the next three lessons, you’ll hear examples of some of these stories. But, if you want to see examples of all of them, refer to my book, The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.

And as you’re considering each story, make a list of the ones you think you need the most. That’s your wish list of stories to go find and develop first.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith