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Choosing the Right Story to Tell

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

The most important part of storytelling is choosing the RIGHT story to tell. If you tell the wrong story, it doesn’t matter how well you tell it. You won’t accomplish your objective.

So, how do you come up with the right story to tell? Start by asking yourself these two questions: who’s your audience? And what do you want them to think, feel, or do after hearing your story? Until you can clearly articulate the answer to those two questions in your own mind, you’re in no position to look for a story. And that’s a mistake I see way too often. I can’t tell you how many emails I get from people who ask, “Hey, I’ve got a big presentation next week; got any good stories I could use?,” as if I could possibly recommend a good story without having the slightest clue who their audience is and what their presentation is about. It doesn’t work that way. Stories should be like every other set of words that come out of your mouth at work—intentional and productive.

Okay, once you have an answer to those questions, look for a relevant success, failure, or moment of clarity surrounding your objective.

In other words, think of times in the past when you or someone else has done that thing you want them to think, feel, or do really, really well (a success), or really badly (a failure, because we learn just as much from our failures as our successes), or the moment you or someone else learned that lesson the first time yourself—that’s a moment of clarity.

And you’ve seen an example of all three of these already in the previous videos. Sharad Madison’s story of giving the cleaning crew better equipment is a success story. Mike Figliuolo’s story of turning the wrong way in the tank is clearly a failure story. And the story about Sam Walton and the ironing board covers is a moment of clarity story about what Walmart’s values are.

So, those are the kind of stories you’re looking for. Now let’s talk about where to find them. And it all starts with having the wish list you developed earlier in this course. If you don’t know what stories you’re looking for, you won’t know when you come across one. So, once you have that, start by searching your own past and present. Interview yourself. Literally. Go through your story wish list, one at a time, and ask yourself if anything like that has happened to you.

Keep a story journal. Whenever you hear a great story or see one happen, write it down in your journal. You never know when you’ll need it.

Stalk product reviews. Look through the online or offline reviews of your products, wherever they happen to be.

You can also get stories from other people. So, ask around. Interview your peers, subordinates, and your management. Share your wish list with them. You’d be surprised how willing people are to share a story when they know you’re looking for one.

You can also find or create venues for sharing stories. One of the easiest ways is to ask for customer stories on your website. Or try sharing stories at staff meetings. Have storytelling be a standing agenda item in each meeting. And rotate who’s responsible for sharing a story each week.

Some of my more creative clients host weekly story circles. They’ll have small teams get together once a week for an hour. Somebody orders pizza, and they all just share stories for an hour. Some clients even hold contests among their employees for the best stories. When you start giving away some prizes, you’ll be surprised by how many submissions you get.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll talk about the proper structure to use when crafting your stories.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith