Interview with Business Storytelling Consultant Paul Smith
Paul SmithPaul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on organizational storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and best-selling author of the books Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire and Parenting with a Story: Real Life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. He is also a former consultant at Accenture and former executive and 20-year veteran of The Procter & Gamble Company.

His current area of research is storytelling in sales, for which he interviewed sales and purchasing professionals at 50 companies around the world to uncover the most effective purposes and methods of storytelling in sales. The result of this research is his new book, Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale, which we will discuss in more detail in this interview. So allow me to introduce today's guest, Paul Smith.

Hi Paul, thank you for stopping by our site – could you introduce yourself to our readers?

Sure. I’m a former corporate executive and 20-year veteran of the Procter & Gamble Company. I have a wife and two kids and I quit my cushy corporate gig mid-career to become an author and speaker and trainer. A little crazy, yes. But the best decision I ever made.

My first book, Lead with a Story, came out in 2012 and launched me into my new career teaching executives how to be more effective leaders through storytelling, as opposed to just bossing people around. My second book, Parenting with a Story, came out in 2014 and provides 101 compelling life lessons from people all over the world that parents can use to help their kids develop a strong character.

Now I spend about 75% of my time working out of my home office researching and writing books, and the remaining 25% on the road with my speaking and training clients. A far cry from my former 9-5 corporate job, and I love it.

As well as being an author, speaker, and trainer, you also describe yourself as a business storytelling consultant – could you explain what you mean by this?

Some people like to learn on their own, and at their own pace. Those people will likely just read my book. Others want to learn more quickly, and in a classroom setting where they’ll go through exercises and case studies to practice using the tools and techniques they learn. Those people will hire me to teach a one-day training class. But some people are interested in one-on-one coaching from me on storytelling, or want my help developing some specific stories they know they need, instead of just training. These last people will hire me as a story coach or consultant.

Your book, Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale, was just released. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Sell With a StorySell with a Story is the third book in the series, designed to bring the power of storytelling to sales. In Part I, I outline the 25 stories all salespeople need to be able to tell. It starts from as early as stories to introduce yourself to the buyer, to building rapport, to making the actual sales pitch, to handling objections, to negotiating price, to closing the sale, to service after the sale. Stories can be useful at every stage in the process.

Then in Part II, I explain how to craft compelling sales stories. This covers things like how to choose the right story to tell, proper story structure, emotion, and the element of surprise. But it also offers guidance on the use of dialog and sensory details, how long should a sales story be, telling stories with data, oral vs. written delivery, the ethics of storytelling, where to find great stories, and how to practice and save your stories.

I understand this book has come from a great deal of research, could you tell us about the journey you took to write this book?

Like its two predecessors, this book draws on four main sources of knowledge and expertise. First, over the last six years I’ve personally conducted more than 250 in-depth, one-on-one interviews with people from 20 countries and all walks of professional and personal life. I’ve documented more than 2,000 personal stories and dissected them to uncover what works and what doesn’t.

For this book in particular, I interviewed sales and procurement professionals from a diverse set of 50 organizations, including Hewlett-Packard, Costco, Abercrombie & Fitch, Microsoft, Huntington Bank, Xerox, Cushman & Wakefield, Bulgari, Amway, Ghirardelli, DataServ, and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. With the salespeople, I obviously asked questions about their selling process and where storytelling fit into it. But I also asked them questions like, “How do you come up with your stories? How do you practice them? And how true do they have to be?” Most importantly, throughout the interview I prompted them to share their most effective (and least effective) stories.

It’s worth pointing out why I also chose to interview procurement managers for a book about sales. My logic was that there are no people better positioned to understand which sales stories work and which don’t than the professional buyers on the receiving end of those stories. These are people who spend their days listening to one sales story after another and deciding which ones compelled them to buy something and which ones did not.

I specifically asked this group to recall the best (and worst) sales stories they ever heard and what made them so effective (or ineffective). I also asked what kind of stories they want to hear (and don’t want to hear) from salespeople, what stories they find themselves telling salespeople and why, and— perhaps most interestingly— what makes a sales pitch sound like a sales pitch.

Second, this book is also informed by a thorough reading of the best academic and trade books on storytelling for business in general and for selling in particular.

Author Paul Smith

Third, as a professional storytelling coach and trainer, I have the privilege of working with a diverse set of dozens of clients from large Fortune 50 companies to small sole-proprietorships. Each engagement gives me the opportunity to see the communication, leadership, and selling struggles my clients are facing and help them craft better stories. Doubtless I learn as much during these sessions as they do, and you’ll see that wisdom reflected in the book as well.

Last, I also drew on my own seven years of experience working on Procter & Gamble’s global sales teams that called on corporate buyers at Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, and BJ’s Wholesale Club.

So this is not a theoretical treatise revealing the results of new academic studies. It’s a practical guide for leveraging the best thinking on storytelling to the business of selling.

Can you summarise the main benefits of using storytelling in sales, and why it engages people so much more than other methods of communication?

Here are the top 10 reasons why storytelling works better than non-story based forms of selling:

  1. Stories help the buyer relax and just listen – instead of looking critically for something to object to.
  2. Stories help build strong relationships. We trust people we know, and stories are the quickest way to get to know someone.
  3. Storytelling speaks to the part of the brain where decisions are actually made – the subconscious, emotional, and sometimes irrational place in the brain. Logic and facts don’t work there.
  4. Stories make it easier for the buyer to remember you, your ideas, and your product
  5. Storytelling actually increases the value of the product you’re selling
  6. Storytelling highlights the main idea by moving it to a new context
  7. Stories are contagious – and travel by word of mouth
  8. Storytelling gives you the opportunity to be original
  9. Your buyers want more stories from you (they told me so)
  10. Storytelling is more fun than delivering a canned speech, for you and the buyer

Can anyone learn to use storytelling, or are some people natural storytellers?

Yes, and yes. Yes, some people are natural born storytellers. But if you’re not one of them, yes, you can learn it. It’s like music or art. If you weren’t a natural born musician, but you wanted to learn to play the piano, would you buy a piano and just wing it? Of course not. You’d take piano lessons from someone who knew what they were doing. It’s the same with storytelling. Buy a book or take a class on storytelling. You’ll do great!

Do you need to have a certain level of charisma and extroversion to use this method?

No more than you need for the communication methods you’re using today. If you can have a hallway conversation with your boss, you can tell a hallway story to your boss. If you can give a presentation to 10 peers in a conference room, you can tell a story to 10 peers in a conference room. If you can give a speech to 500 people in an auditorium, you can tell a story to 500 people in an auditorium. And if you can’t do any of these things, you probably do most of your communication in writing. And guess what? If you can write an email or policy memo, then you can write a story in an email or policy memo.

Do you need to be able to tell engaging stories to be an effective leader?

Absolutely. That’s the entire premise of my first book, Lead with a Story. It covers the 21 leadership challenges where storytelling will be your most effective communication tool. Things like setting a vision, leading change, getting people to collaborate better, or to be more creative and innovative, defining the culture and values of the organization, valuing diversity and inclusion, teach important lessons, and inspiring your team. It also covers all the mechanics of how to craft a compelling leadership story.

It's been great to hear your insights Paul, thank you!

Paul's new book Sell with a Story: How to Capture Attention, Build Trust, and Close the Sale is available on Amazon. Or if you'd like to connect with Paul, you can find him on Twitter at @LeadWithAStory.