Book Review: Lead With a Story by Paul Smith

20 Jan 2015

Lead with a Story by Paul SmithWe tell ourselves stories in order to live
– Joan Didion

Book review by Tara Rivkin
Joan Didion’s words reflect the sheer centrality of stories to the human condition: storytelling is innate to human beings and the foundation of human history. We tell stories to entertain, to jolt into action, to pass on a message, to spread an idea, to persuade others to our cause, to note down the events of history, to communicate with the masses, to pass the time, to explain ourselves, to empathise with others.

According to Paul Smith, the author of Lead With a Story, with the advent of the printing press, along with writing and organized business practices, came the commencement of a gradual decline in storytelling in business communication; “storytelling slowly gave way to formal reports, memos and policy manuals. The professionalization of business in the early 1900s accelerated this trend.” Prior to the 15th century, Smith explains, “storytelling was a natural part of leadership.”

The dry, technical style of business communication that prevailed has been replaced in the last few decades by a keen understanding of the importance of storytelling as a leadership tool. Smith writes about the many companies that use storytelling consciously and centrally and the forward-thinking business schools that have begun teaching it as a part of their curriculum. The reasons for this are in the research and in common sense: people are entertained by stories and tend to remember facts more often when they are communicated as a part of a story. Indeed, Smith discusses his transformation as a business presenter from one who used excessive PowerPoint slides to one who used few, or none, and truly engaged with his audience using a narrative structure.

Smith makes an excellent point: we remember some stories for the rest of our lives and experiences, which make up stories, become a part of us. Dry facts and figures do not. As a teacher, I understand this keenly. Talk at my students and read off slides and they go to sleep; engage them in a story and involve them in the process of learning and they become animated.

Smith firmly places his examination of storytelling into a business context. There are chapters about making recommendations stick, defining business culture, and the use of metaphors and analogies, amongst other useful advice. It is also an engaging read that uses myriad stories to draw its reader in.