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Storytelling for Leaders: The Hook

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

For a lot of people, the toughest part about telling a story is figuring out how to get started. So, literally, how to transition from not telling a story, to the point that they’re actually telling the story. You know, they get all nervous, and get an awkward smile on their face, and mumble a few things about the lesson, or maybe about why they want to tell the story. Until finally, three minutes later, they actually get around to telling the story.

That’s obviously not the best way to kick off a story. A better way is with a simple phrase I call the hook. That’s a single phrase or sentence that tells the audience, “If you’ll listen to me for the next couple of minutes, I’m going to tell you something that’s important to you. Not to me. But to you.” For them, it answers question 1, “Why should I listen to this story?” and for you, the storyteller, it gives you an easy, comfortable way to transition into telling the story, without all the anxiety and nervousness and mumbling around.

But before I tell you how to craft a good hook, let me share some of the wrong ways to do it that I see people do all the time. Because some of the most common mistakes I see in storytelling happen right upfront.

First, never apologize or ask permission for telling a story.

And, you’ve seen this happen before. You’ll be in the middle of a meeting, and someone raises their hand and says, “I’m sorry to interrupt, can I just tell a quick story? I promise it’ll just take a minute.” What does that kind of language communicate? It communicates that the speaker doesn’t value the story as much as what would have been said otherwise. And if that were true, then by all means, please don’t tell me! Just get back to the bullet points on slide number 72. But if you do think your story is valuable. Then just tell it. Leaders don’t ask permission to lead. They just lead. Right? Never apologize or ask permission to do your job. Just tell the story.

Second, don’t even tell your audience you’re going to tell them a story. And the reason is, a lot of people have a negative visceral reaction to hearing the words, “Let me tell you a story” when they’re at work. And you might be one of them. In fact, I’ll just demonstrate that for you right now. So, imagine this scenario. I’m your boss and I’m standing in front of you to kick off a meeting. And I say, “Okay, everyone. I just wanted to get things going here, and I thought I’d start by telling you a story…” Now, what’s your reaction to that so far?

If you’re honest, most of you are rolling your eyes right now, thinking, “Ugh, do we really have time for this? Can’t you just tell us what you want us to know?”

Now, imagine instead if I kicked off the meeting by saying something like this: “Okay, everyone. I just wanted to get things going here, and as some of you know, something really important happened a couple of weeks ago, and it completely changed how I think about running this department. I thought I’d tell you about that…” Okay, now what’s your reaction? “Well, let’s hear it!” But, in both cases, you’re going to hear the exact same story.

So why such a difference in reaction? And the answer is that most people think the kind of story they hear around the office is a long, boring, 15-minute waste of time because a lot of them probably are. Other people think of the word “story” as a euphemism for lies or fairy tales. And other people get a mental image of a librarian reading children’s books to a group of kids. And none of those are good.

So, introducing your story with the word “story” sets up a resistance you don’t need.

Okay, lastly, don’t introduce the story by giving away too many of the details, or the ending, or even the specific lesson. Imagine how awful the Jury Table story would be if I’d started off by saying, “So, there was this judge in Florida who wanted to speed up the jury process. But the students he brought in to figure out how thought he wanted a more accurate decision. Boy, did they have a rude awakening at the end when they found out?”

You know, it’s just not going to be as exciting now.

Okay, so if we’re not kicking it off with an apology, or asking permission, the lesson, or the word “story”, how do we kick off our stories?

The answer is with a simple phrase or sentence that tells them what’s in it for them if they listen to this story. For example, if someone asks you a question, and you want to answer it with a story, your Hook could be, “I think the best example of that I’ve seen was when…” and then tell your story. This means, move on to question 2.

Or, if you want to give someone advice about a problem, you might say, “That’s a tough problem. Let me tell you what I did when I ran into that same problem last year…” and then tell your story.

Or if you want to share a story as an example of something, you might say, “So, for instance, there was this one time when…” and then start telling your story. It’s that simple. That’s your hook.

Okay, in the next lesson, we’ll move on to the context of the story.

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Written by

Paul Andrew Smith