Story Leader: The Paul Smith interview

Midway through his 40’s, Paul Smith left a plum job at Procter & Gamble to chase the unlikely dream of spending one hundred percent of his time doing what he loves. Today, he is one of the world’s leading speakers and trainers on business storytelling, as well as a bestselling author. In this exclusive interview, he reflects on his unique journey, and what it’s brought him.

You left an executive job at Procter & Gamble to strike out on your own as a consultant. What were you thinking?

About a decade ago, probably fifteen years into my career at P&G, I asked myself, what do I really love about my job and what do I not love? My hypothesis is that most of us love ten percent of our job. That’s the part we can't wait to do when we get up in the morning. And then there's ten percent that we just hate. But the vast majority, the eighty percent in the middle, is good work – it’s fine, but it's not something we’d do if we didn't get paid. And I thought: Wouldn't it be cool if I could find a job where I'm only doing the ten percent that I absolutely love?

And when I thought about what I loved best, I saw that it was the handful of days that I got to teach at P&G’s new hire college, or give the keynote address at the annual company meeting, or teach communication skills to the newly promoted general managers. And that was literally about seven or eight days a year. There's not a single person at P&G who gets to do that full time. That's just nobody's job.

So you decided you’d go out and make it your job, full-time, as a new career?

You know, I'd love to tell you a romantic story about how I woke up one morning and said, “I'm going to go follow my dream!,” and walked into my boss's office and quit by nine o'clock and then just figured it all out. But that's not how it went. I'm more risk averse than that. I had a wife who was a stay-at-home mom and two kids to put through college. I was the sole breadwinner.

I realized that the only people that get to do full-time what I wanted to do are people who've written a bestselling book and basically go around the world and teach the topic of that book to all kinds of companies. And so I thought, okay, if I want that career, I need to go write a book.

I wrote my first book, Lead with a Story, on nights and weekends, and after it was published in 2012, I still waited to see if it would do well. And fortunately, it did, and eventually the phone started ringing and I started getting the opportunity to go do exactly what I wanted to do. I still wasn't convinced, by the way – I was still working at P&G. I used up all of my vacation time, much to my wife’s chagrin, and then I took an extended, reduced work schedule from the company. And about the same time I got my second book contract and that gave me some more confidence. And only then did I quit. But it was a year after my first book came out.

What is your answer when people ask what it is that you do now?

If I were to define myself by what I spend most of my time doing, I guess I’d say I’m an author. I’ve written three books about storytelling, and I've got two more books coming out this year. I spend about seventy percent of my time researching and writing the next book that I'm working on. But I earn over ninety percent of my income from the speaking and training I do in the remaining thirty percent of my time.

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Then why do you write books? Why not just do the speaking and training?

Well, it's a unique business model. The main reason people hire me is because they've read one of my books and they want to go deeper. The research that goes into my book also goes into the content that I speak about on stage and in my training classes. I don’t do what a lot of people in the speaking or training business do, which is to spend time marketing, advertising, and pitching themselves. I'd rather have people come to me and say, “Hey, I read your book and I'd love it if you’d come work with my company.”

Nobody would hire me to do any of the things I do if I didn't have a bestselling book out there. But it’s more than just that. I’ve fallen in love with the whole process of writing. It’s my creative outlet. They say a writer is somebody who was born to write – who can write about anything and be great – but an author is somebody who was born to do something else and has now written a book about it. That would make me an author, at least to start. But I’m currently working on a different kind of book – a biography about a cognitively impaired, deaf, partially blind, 65-year-old man, and the fascinating life that he's led. So I guess I fancy myself a writer a little bit.

Why do clients give you money?

Well, I teach them how to use the art and science of storytelling to be more effective at their jobs. Since I started out, many of the people I worked with have leadership responsibilities, whether they’re in general management or marketing or finance or HR or engineering or whatever. They hire me to teach them to tell stories better to become more inspiring, effective, engaging leaders. And with the publication of my third book, Sell with a Story, the mix is shifting a bit more towards sales and marketing folks. I've had clients in every conceivable job function that I can think of. People in every functional discipline need to tell stories to be more effective.

I’ve been able to show my two sons that I was willing to take a chance and make it work, when it wasn’t certain that it would be sustainable.

How do you define the value do you provide?

First, I don't try and quantify the value of storytelling, just because I don't think it's quantifiable. There have been some studies that have tried to show how storytelling delivers to the bottom line, and none have seemed believable to me. I've never seen a company say, “We're now going to start telling stories, but we're not going to change anything else about our business model. And, oh look, our sales doubled!” That's just never happened.

Instead of trying to convince my clients of the financial or scientific value of storytelling, what I do is demonstrate it to them. I simply tell them a compelling story. And then I say, “Here’s how a leader would communicate that same message if they weren't using storytelling.” Then I let my audience decide. And it's obvious every time that the story is a far more effective way for a leader to get their people to do what they want. And if the leader can be more effective, I don't think it's a stretch for anyone to believe that that's a benefit to a company.

How do you then actually impart the skill?

That's of course the main reason they're hiring me – to teach them how.

Storytelling is an art, just like music or dance or painting. So, what I try and do – and I should probably come up with a better term here – is to make it as “paint-by-numbers” as possible. I try and simplify it, make it as formulaic as I can, so that non-artists, non-storytellers, non-writers can develop stories that are effective.

A lot of people that do what I do talk about the structure of a story with the context and the challenge, the conflict and the resolution, and the narrative arc. But I tell them there are eight questions your story needs to answer, and here are the eight questions. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight – answer those questions and a story will emerge. I give them a process that businesspeople can easily follow and wrap their minds around.

Now, if they answer those eight questions, it no should be no surprise that what they'll end up with is a context, challenge, conflict and resolution, and a narrative arc, right? But I'm not teaching it that way because that just makes people's eyes glaze over, unless they're in a creative writing class or they’re a screenwriter or a director.

What have you personally gained from this journey that you're on?

I get to make a living now doing something I absolutely love all the time. In my line of work, there are typically two types of people: those who love to write but are terrified to death of being on stage, and those who love being on stage but hate to write. In this business model, you have to be able to do both. And I love them both. I've gotten out of this exactly what I wanted.

You’re, like, the luckiest guy in the world.

Yeah, I am! And there's something else that I didn’t realize I was going to get out of it. And that is that I’ve been able to show my children – my two sons – that I was willing to take a chance in my mid-forties, and make it work, when it wasn't certain that it would be sustainable long term. And, hey, it still may not be – it could all come crashing down tomorrow and then, you know, I'd have to go back and get a real job again. But I have been able to demonstrate to my kids what it means to follow a dream.

And how has that affected them?

It’s been great. There’s only one downside. My oldest likes to think he’ll get a job where he doesn't have to go into an office and he can wear pajamas all day, like I do. I have to keep reminding him, “You probably still have to go somewhere and put on real clothes, and shave, and take a shower.” So I may have set an unrealistic expectation.

Check out Paul’s website here, and buy his books here.