Q&A With Best Selling Author And Expert Storyteller, Paul Smith

Paul Smith

Paul Smith's book, Lead with a Story, is one of the top 10 books I recommend every leader should read. In his book, Paul demonstrates how storytelling is a powerful business tool that can mean the difference between mediocre results and phenomenal success. 

Since the book was published about three years ago, my admiration for Paul's passion for storytelling and helping to teach people how to effectively tell stories has only but grown.

Today, Paul was kind enough to share his thoughts about:
  • that best-selling book
  • how storytelling is growing in the business world
  • his latest book
  • how to use stories during job interviews
  • how Lead with a Story totally changed his carreer

1.  How would you summarize the overall reaction to your Lead with a Story book? Any surprises?

Paul:  Everything is a surprise with your first book. Being a new author, you don’t really know what to expect in terms of book sales, marketing efforts, media exposure, translation rights, etc. It’s all new territory. 

Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised in most of these cases. I believe the book is in it’s 7th printing now, been translated into six languages, and selling in dozens of countries around the world. And I now have the opportunity to speak to audiences all over the world about the power of storytelling as a leadership tool — all very humbling for a book that started out as a weekend writing project. So, I couldn’t be much more happy with that.

2.  It seems that a lot more people nowadays are professing the power of storytelling. I feel you started that trend. Why are so many others jumping in?

Paul: I wish I could take credit for this trend, but I can’t. It’s one that started in the early 1990s with authors like David Armstrong and Peg Neuhauser, and continued in the 2000s by authors like Annette Simmons, Evelyn Clark, Lori Silverman, and Stephen Denning among many others. 

But I do hope that I’ve contributed to it in a meaningful way and grown the interest in the genre and in the practice of storytelling in business. And since there have been more books on the topic published since mine, I have at least some indication it’s working. So, while I didn’t start the trend, I do hope I’m in on the early part of a much larger and longer lasting movement. 

3.  Now that it's been about three years since the book came out, are you considering a second edition? When and why?

Paul: I don’t have any plans for a second edition of  Lead with a Story. But I have continued to write in the storytelling space.

Last November my second book came out:  Parenting with a Story: Real-life Lessons in Character for Parents and Children to Share. It’s a collection of 101 original short stories from an incredibly diverse group of people from 20 countries around the world. Each story reflects an unexpected moment of clarity in someone’s life when they learned a life-changing lesson. Each one provides insight into an important character trait like integrity, curiosity, creativity, grit, kindness, patience, gratitude — 23 traits in all. 

My current area of research is the use of storytelling in sales. It should be complete and on bookshelves in the Fall of 2016.  

4.  When it comes to storytelling, what's the biggest mistake you see people making?

Paul: One of the most common mistakes I see is asking permission or apologizing for telling a story. You’ve heard this many times. Someone interrupts in the middle of a meeting and says, “I’m sorry, can I just tell a quick story? It’ll just take a minute, I promise.” That signals to the listener that you don't value the story as much as what you would have said otherwise. If that were true, you should skip the story and get back to the bullet points on slide number 72. Leaders don’t ask permission to lead. They just do it. Never apologize for or ask permission to tell a story. Your audience is lucky you took the time to craft a more impactful and enjoyable way to make your point. 

5.  What's the best way to use stories during a job interview? Recommendations for the interviewer? Recommendations for the interviewee?

Paul: A job interview should be nothing but a series of short stories. The person interviewing you already has your resume. They know your former employers, the titles and dates of your past jobs, where you went to school, your degrees, etc. They already have all the relevant facts. What they need now are the stories that go with them. 

What you want to avoid is just giving them a list of actions — what you did: “I led a strategy development team . . . I started my own company. . . I invented a new type of plastic.” What the interviewer needs to know is 1) why did you do those things, and 2) were you successful? A story is perfectly suited to deliver that in its basic format: Context, Action, Result. 

For example, “(Context) The last company I worked for almost went bankrupt because the plastics we used in our products were too weak and fell apart after a few months’ use. (Action) I was so frustrated that I developed a stronger plastic that was just as inexpensive. (Result) Now that plastic is used in every product we make and the patent is considered best in class in our industry.”

And if you’re the interviewer, you should ask questions until you get the context, action, and result of each important accomplishment. In fact, that  format is so relevant to interviews that one of my clients actually trains their leaders to look for each part while interviewing job candidates. Their standard interview questionnaire forms actually have the words ‘Context:' ‘Action:' ‘Result:' printed on them along with space next to each to describe accomplishments using that structure. 

6.  What has Lead with A Story done for your career?

Paul: It’s completely changed it. When I wrote the book I had a full time job as Director of Consumer Research at the Procter & Gamble Company. Today I’m a full-time author and speaker and get to pursue this passion wherever it takes me. Making that jump from corporate life to the life of an author and speaker was the best decision I’ve ever made. But it wasn’t easy to find that courage. It took a very personal letter from an 80-year-old man to get me to make that jump. But that’s another story you can read about here: http://inspiyr.com/the-letter/.


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