The Story Rules Podcast E18: Paul Smith – Bestselling author of books on storytelling (Transcript)

Paul Smith
5. General

The Story Rules Podcast E18: Paul Smith – Bestselling author of books on storytelling (Transcript)

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Intro hook

“And then something amazing happened – what I heard from the audience was, “Ohh!” and then right after that, all of my conclusions started coming out of their mouths. And after that, all my recommendations started coming out of their mouths. I never drew my conclusions, or made any recommendations, but every one of my recommendations got implemented. It was the most effective presentation (that) I (had) made in the whole 20 years at Procter and Gamble”

Welcome to the Story Rules podcast with me, Ravishankar Iyer, where we learn from some of the best storytellers in the world, find their story and unearth the secrets of their craft.

Today we speak with Paul Smith, bestselling author of books such as ‘Lead with a Story’, ‘Sell with a Story’ and ‘The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell’.

Paul specialises in what I call as ‘human stories’ – which is narrating specific incidents from work and life that contain valuable lessons or insights. 

Through his books Paul teaches us how to use such incident stories to lead better and to sell better.

Now, you might think that the ability to narrate incident stories is a God-given one – you either have it or you don’t. But reading Paul’s books gives you the clarity and confidence that this is very much a learnable skill. 

Sure, as a skill storytelling may seem esoteric, mysterious and difficult to break down into component parts. 

But it is possible to do that… and of all the books I’ve read on the topic, Paul’s books are perhaps the best at achieving a neat, structured breakdown of this craft.

In this short but insight-filled conversation:

  • Paul talks about his life journey and how he used a mix of thinking clarity, determination and sheer hard-work to pivot his career from the corporate world to the world of storytelling
  • He also shares some great story examples that you can use immediately at your work. For instance:
    • He narrates a story of when he made a presentation to P&G’s senior leadership, where instead of telling his findings upfront, he took the audience on a discovery journey and tapped into their curiosity
    • He offers ideas on how to elicit stories from your clients and other counterparts
  • Paul also mentions when should you use elaborate storytelling techniques vs just share the information requested
  • Finally he surprised me with what is he currently upto (you will find it hard to believe) and how he plans to go for the stars in his latest innings.

It has been a privilege  for me to have such an accomplished author and storyteller on the podcast. I hope you find the conversation as insightful as I did.

Lets dive in.

Ravi (0:00)
Welcome to the Story Rules Podcast, Paul!

Paul (0:02)
Very good! Thanks for having me on!

Ravi (0:05)
Paul, I was very intrigued (when I was) reading about your background. Currently, you’re a leading Business Storytelling Coach, and an author – you’ve got 3 Amazon best-selling books including Lead with a Story, Sell with a Story, and 10 Stories that Great Leaders Tell.
Your background is very interesting. You’ve got a Bachelor’s (degree) in Economics; you’ve done MBA from Wharton; (you spent) 2 years in Arthur Andersen, which is now Accenture; 20 years with the Procter & Gamble company, and you left that with your last role being the Director of Consumer and Communications Research, for a 6 billion global paper business. Impressive credentials!
I’m curious to know, Paul, when (did) the storytelling bug bite you. When did you realize that, “Hey, this is an area that I find very interesting, and I must explore deeper”?

Paul (0:53)
It was probably when I was 15 years into the 20 spent at Procter & Gamble when I finally realized that storytelling was a legitimate, important leadership skill to have. That frustrated me, because they didn’t teach me that in business school, they didn’t teach me that at Accenture; they didn’t even teach me that at Procter & Gamble! So, I kind of set out on my own personal learning journey to figure it out. I read all the books I could find on it, but I still didn’t know how to do it. I ended up having to start interviewing leaders myself, whom I thought were particularly good at it. That’s what led to the research that ended up in these books.

Ravi (1:37)
May I ask what the trigger was, Paul, for you to realize that storytelling is a critical skill?

Paul (1:42)
There were probably two things – one, at that point I started to have just enough access to the senior management of the company. I was mid-way up the hierarchy myself, so you ended up spending a little bit of time in a C-suite with some of those officers. I just started noticing their behaviour exemplified some good storytelling. But the other reason was just very practical, honestly, and perhaps even selfish. About that time, I started asking myself, “Here I am, 15 years into this company. Do I want to spend another 15 years here? Or do I want to do something different? What do I want to do here?”
And I decided that what I really liked – the best part of my job was the few days a year that I got to teach a new Higher hire Training class, or a new General Manager training class, or speak at the annual company meeting or something. That’s the part of my job I loved the most, and it was like 5% of my job! What could I do to make that all of my job? Turns out, there wasn’t any job at the whole company that was doing that full time. And I realized that the only people I know that get to do that are these guys that have written some best-selling book and they get to travel around the world talking about the book. I said, “Well, I guess that’s what I gotta do. What am I interested in enough to write a whole book about?” And I thought, storytelling; this thing that I realized I don’t know enough about. Then it became more purposeful; (I thought) “I want to learn this not just to learn this, I want to learn this because I want to write a book about it and completely change my career path” and it ended up working. It didn’t have to, but I got lucky enough.

Ravi (3:23)
Fascinating, Paul!
I loved this experiment that you did. You personally interviewed 300 CEOs and executives in 25 countries! Were you doing this while you were working at Procter & Gamble, or was it later?

Paul (3:37)
Well, the first 100 or so of them was while I was still at P&G.

Ravi (3:43)

Paul (3:43)
I wrote my entire first book while I still had a full-time job at P&G. The reason was because I didn’t know if it would work. I’d love to tell you some romantic story of how I woke up one morning and decided that I was going to do this, so I walked into my boss’ office and I quit my job, then I went out and started this. But, I’m reasonable and maybe just too risk-averse to do something like that. I dedicated probably 1 hour a day, and 5 hours on the weekend every week, for a couple of years while I was still working at P&G, to research and write that first book, out of the 5 books I’ve written. And then I still waited until 6 months after the first book came out before I left the company, because – like you said, it was an experiment. I was running my own market research to see if it would work; if enough people would read the book and call me to generate the speaking engagements and training courses that I (envisioned); to see a sustainable business model. After the first 6 months once the book came out, I used up all my vacation time doing these training courses and speaking engagements. I ended up asking for a reduced work schedule, because I ran out of vacation time which really upset my wife – that was no good! Once I spent all of those days, I realized that this is meeting my success criteria. By that time, the book was already into its third printing after 6 months, so I could see that there was a sustainable business model there.

Ravi (5:15)
In hindsight, it’s a great call. But while you were doing it, it must not have been easy. I remember reading this on your website, I’m just going to quote a little bit from the personal story you shared. You’ve written “I wrote my first book. I worked on it nights and weekends for two and a half years, all while maintaining my day job. I dedicated one hour a day and five hours each weekend to it. I found an agent and a publisher, got my book published, and then waited to see what would happen.”
That’s a ton of dedication, Paul. Reading this, some might feel like, “Oh, that’s it? It doesn’t sound too bad.” But could you take us through some of the struggles (you faced) during that time? Some incidents or stories (that could be useful for) somebody who might be considering that position now (so that they) would get a real sense of saying, “Hey, it’s not easy to do something like this.”

Paul (6:06)
It’s not easy, but if you chunk it up into little pieces like that, and have some dedication – like an hour a day, that’s not that hard. You might have to give up one TV show you’re watching in the evening, or you might have to eat a quick breakfast instead of a lengthy one. An hour a day is not undoable for most people. The two and a half years of dedication takes some dedication, and perseverance. The biggest difficulty I found was actually finding an agent and getting a publisher. The first seven agents I sent my proposal to, told me, “No.” One at a time, I wrote a lengthy proposal, sent it to an agent, they said, “No. Your idea is not good enough.”
The way it works in this business is, it’s not like you can just hire an agent like you can hire a lawyer or a doctor, you know? You don’t just walk in and say, “Here’s my money, I want to hire you.” They only get paid if your book gets published. So, they take you on a contingency. They’re very motivated to not take on a client if they think that client’s book is not going to get published, because they’ll waste their time and not get paid at all. The first seven I sent it to told me no, and I easily could have given up after the first one, or two, or three, or four. But the eighth one, Ravi, told me “Yes”; the eighth one took me as a client. She put together a list, “Here are the seven or eight different publishers I want to send this to.” The first one she sent it to wrote me a contract. My batting average with agents was one out of eight, but my batting average with publishers was 1000.

Ravi (7:50)

Paul (7:51)
And there’s a reason for that, and that’s because each of the seven that turned me down gave me ideas to make it better.

Ravi (7:58)
Oh, that’s amazing.

Paul (7:59)
They didn’t just say, “No.” I’d write them back and say, “Okay, I get it, you don’t want to take me. But tell me why. What’s wrong with my proposal?” “Oh, it’s not a big enough idea,” “It’s not broad enough,” “you’re not planning on interviewing enough people,” “You’ve interviewed too many people” They gave me ideas.
In fact, the seventh one assigned me a junior member of her team, and said, “I want you to go work with her for a few months to make this much better.” Every week, I would meet with her and took up a lot of time, (I got) a lot of her ideas and (we went) back and forth with the proposal and changes, changes, changes, changes. And then after three months, we sent it back to the boss at the agency. And he said, “I still don’t like it enough, I’m not going to take you.” So, it wasted three months of her time which I did not pay for at all, but made the proposal so much better. And then that’s the proposal that I sent to the eighth agent and she said, “Oh, I love this. I’ll take it.”
So, you can do it, but it takes some perseverance.

Ravi (8:56)
I think that shows a lot of perseverance. By this time, you had a family – you had kids and stuff, so it’s not easy to take time out. So, hats off (to you)! I think that’s very inspiring.
Talk me through a little bit of the leader interviews. A lot of people write books about storytelling; I’ve read a lot of books. But both Lead with a Story and Sell with a Story – for Sell with a Story, you talked to talked to a lot of Sales Leaders, and Procurement Leaders – which is quite rare. I’m guessing part of it comes from the research DNA that you had, but how easy, or difficult, was it at the beginning, especially, when you’re going to approach a CEO and saying, “I want to talk to you about Storytelling.”?

Paul (9:42)
That’s a great question. You might imagine me asking a bunch of these CEOs I’d never heard of – who had never heard of me – just saying no. But here’s the secret. One thing you mentioned, yes, I spent many years in P&NG and consumer research, so I knew my way around an interview and how to ask questions and getting people to answer them well, and things like that. But getting the interview…Here was the secret: Imagine, Ravi, that you didn’t know me. (You’ve) never heard of me, and I wrote you an email and I said, “Hey, you don’t know me. My name is Paul Smith. I’ve always wanted to write a book. I want to interview some CEOs; I hope my book is published. Would you spend an hour with me on the phone?”
What would you probably say?

Ravi (10:26)
Don’t have the time for that.

Paul (10:26)
Exactly! You don’t have the time for that.
But imagine if instead, I said – and this is what I actually said – “Hey, Ravi, I know you don’t know me, my name is Paul Smith. But I’ve got a contract with the American Management Association, division Harper Collins publishingPublishing, to write a book on leadership. It’s going to be published next fall. And I’m looking for strong leaders and successful companies to feature in the book. Would you be interested in interviewing with me?”
Well, now what would you say?

Ravi (10:51)
Incredible. Yeah, I’m in!

Paul (10:53)
Because it’s not like it’s just a pipe dream. This guy’s got a contract with a publisher – the book’s going to be published whether you are in it or not, it’s going to get published. Now, your motivation to say yes is much higher. I literally had a 93% success rate getting CEOs to interview with me; only 7% said no. And I’m convinced the reason was because I didn’t ask them until after I had a publishing contract.

Ravi (11:20)
Incredible, Paul. I think that says a lot about the efforts that you put in with all those 8 agents. That’s where it all bore fruit.
I want to segue into the skill of storytelling. It’s a fascinating topic; there’s so many nuances, so many facets to this. And I’m going to start with data storytelling. There are some folks who have a narrow definition of a story, which is saying it has to involve a person, an incident; time; place, etc. That works, but for a lot of people, you can use the principles of Storytelling even when you’re sharing numbers. You use a couple of great examples, and one that I remember watching is this video on the diaper case study.
Would you like to recount that and maybe talk about the principles that you used?

Paul (12:15)
You’re right, you can use many of the same storytelling techniques with numbers that you can with words, but you have to do it in a very particular way. When a lot of people say data storytelling, what they really mean is data visualization; how to make better charts and graphs. And that’s very important. There are people who are very good at it. I’m not one of them. But I’m talking about something very different.
(What I’m talking about) is literally telling stories using numbers. The example that you’re asking about was around the year 2000. I think I was still at P&G, working on the diaper business. I was investigating this one hypothesis that if you build your sales volume, profits will follow. And I was investigating that because that’s what every P&G Brand Manager is taught the day they get there – you grow sales, market share and profits will work themselves out. I wanted to know if that was true. So, I pulled all the data – I was a finance guy, like you used to be, and still had access to the data so I pulled it. We had 40 years of history in the diaper business; I pulled off out 40 years of data. And what I found was that in the first half of that, (in the) first 20 years, there was an almost perfect correlation between sales and profits, exactly like we’d been taught. But for the second 20 years, there was almost no correlation whatsoever. It was very close to zero. The picture of it looks like a scatter plot – there was no direction to it. And that was fascinating, which led me to some conclusions, which led me to some recommendations that I wanted to make to the leadership team. And when I did, what they expected me to do, of course, was walk in there and say, “Hey, here’s my recommendation, I think we should change our strategy to do this and this, and here are all my reasons why.” Because that’s how we’re taught to make a recommendation: (you) put your recommendation up front, and then you justify it with all your analysis. But I didn’t do that. Honestly, I just did this on accident. This wasn’t intentional, I wasn’t super smart about storytelling or anything back then. This is before I ever caught that storytelling bug.

Ravi (14:14)
It was just (on) an instinct that you did this?

Paul (14:16)
I don’t know, I just got lucky.
I tried something different, because it was my first time in front of the President and the leadership team. Everybody always does these things the same way and I just thought that was boring. I was taking a risk and doing something different, but I had no real indication that it would work, but it did. So, instead of doing it the normal way, I showed them the chart that I just described to you. Showing this near perfect line for 20 years, and then there is just no correlation whatsoever. And I told them, “I’ve been researching this and investigating it for weeks. Here’s what I found,” but then, I stopped. (And) instead of telling them what I concluded from it – and by the way, halfway between the start and the end of those 40 years was 1983. That was the midpoint where the data, the correlation changed – I show them that chart, and I said, “What on earth do you think happened around 1983 that forever changed this relationship between sales and profits?” And I just stopped talking. I let them guess and they started (going), “Oh, that’s when Huggies got bigger than Pampers.”
“Nope, that was years later.”
“Oh, that was when commodity prices got out of control.”
“Nope, that was earlier than that.”
They went through all these wrong answers, which I’d gone through too. And I said, “No, that’s what I thought too. I went and investigated, and that’s not it.”; “Oh, and I thought one too! It turns out that’s not it.”
Eventually somebody got it, they were like, “Oh, is that maybe when household penetration of diapers reached near 100%, and the market matured?”
“That is it.”
And then I showed them the chart that showed that 1983 was when basically household penetration of diapers reached near 100%. People had stopped using cloth diapers and completely switched over to disposable diapers. And then something amazing happened – what I heard from the audience was, “Ohh!” and then right after that, all of my conclusions started coming out of their mouths. And after that, all my recommendations started coming out of their mouths. I never drew my conclusions, or made any recommendations, but every one of my recommendations got implemented. It was the most effective presentation (that) I (had) made in the whole 20 years at Procter and Gamble. Now, of course, at the end of the year, I took complete credit for it on my performance review because they were my ideas, I just never said them. But the reason I didn’t have to say them is because they said them. And that’s what you want your stories to do – they turn your ideas into the audience’s ideas.
The way I was using storytelling there was I took them through my journey of discovery. I now call that (the) ‘discovery journey’ storytelling structure where I’m telling you about the analysis I did all the way up to the point that I had my big ‘aha!’ moment, and then I stop. I let the audience draw the conclusion because that’s the way you tell a normal story. You tell them what happened and then you let them come to the conclusion. Notice the emotion in it and the surprise when somebody finally figures it out. So, it’s got some of those elements as well.
And I told it in a storytelling order, there was a beginning, where I had this challenge and I was doing this investigation; these were the dead ends I ran into.
Using the same techniques, you can do this with data (and) not just with words.

Ravi (17:38)
I love this example. (There were) a couple of things that struck me. One is that you resisted the temptation to give out the answer because you wanted them to have the joy of deriving it themselves. And also (the fact that) you were prepared for all these questions that they could come up with. Because at the end of the day, you’re one person, and you might come up with five ideas – but they are a group of leaders (with) a lot of experience. If they had come up with something totally tangential, then you might be like, “I’ve not looked at that”, and that may not look very good, right? So, you had the confidence that (showed), “Hey, I’ve done my preparation. Whatever angles you throw at me, I’ve got (counter arguments). No, that didn’t happen in ‘83, that happened before, or after.” I think those were quite striking.
My follow up question on this, Paul, is – in what situations is it okay to go with this path, especially in leadership presentations?
I’m going to differentiate this path of story (telling techniques) which I call the ‘discovery journey’ from the other one, which is giving the answer upfront, where maybe there isn’t too much of a mystery. (In) what situations (do) you feel, (it’s better to) actually give the answer upfront and not keep too much mystery? And in what situations is it okay to go through the discovery journey?

Paul (18:52)
First of all, I counsel people that only 10 to 15% of the time should you be using storytelling. Not the majority of the time; 85 to 90% of the time, you should just be doing what you normally do; what you’ve been trained to do; what works well. I’m not suggesting that you stop everything you’re doing that’s working well and change to this. It’s very much only a small percentage of the time. So, if my boss had told me, “Look Paul, I want you to go in there, and I want you to do the presentation the way we trained you to do” of course, I would have done it. Don’t take some big, huge career risk to do these kinds of things. But in this particular situation, nobody told me I had to do it a certain way. And most of the time I did it the normal way, but I wanted to try something different.
10 to 15% of the time, I think it’s okay to do it. Often, people will say, “What if you just get asked a question and you’d rather answer it with a story, but they just told you ‘I just need this question answered real quick’?” Well, just answer it! it’s okay to not tell a story. In fact, you should not be telling a story most of the time.
When you have the opportunity, and you have the time, and you feel like your audience is going to be receptive to it, give it a try. And if those three things aren’t the case, well, don’t. Then don’t feel bad about it; just do things the way you normally (would).

Ravi (20:15)
What are some indications where you feel that, “I think this time the audience would be receptive. I think I should give it a try?”

Paul (20:22)
You need to know your audience, right? If you’re going into an audience you’ve never met before, maybe don’t take that risk. If you’re going into an audience of familiar faces and people you know, then that’s probably better. I think another indicator that you should is when the topic you’re discussing is complex, ambiguous, (and) there’s some intangible uncertainties about it. Storytelling is just better at helping people understand and navigate.
(So,) if it’s very simple, straightforward (points, like,) “Hey, I’ve done the NPV on this project. It’s $3 million, the ROI is 15%”, then just go in there and tell them that. But if it’s (something where people might say) “I’m not really sure. I think the answer is this, but there are a lot of uncertainties.” (then) those are situations where stories help because they provide a human context and flavour to the risks involved by telling a story.
More complex, more ambiguous situations warrant storytelling. Those are going to be your 10 to 15%. But easy, straightforward stuff, you don’t even need it.

Ravi (21:30)
Moving on to a different type of situation, where – again, I’m quoting from the other book, which is Sell with a Story – you talk about when you’re trying to sell a service or a product, and you need to be sharing stories about why the product is good, or how it will help the customer. But before you start sharing your stories, you need to elicit stories from the customer. There’s this paragraph I’d like to quote from your book where you say, “Your first objective in a sales call should be to get buyers to tell you their stories, not the other way round. If you don’t hear their stories first, how will you know which of your stories to tell?”
I (have) actually faced this, Paul. We all have (had) calls with customers where we’re trying to figure out what the problem is that they’re talking about. Often, what happens is that the person you’re talking to is not the person facing the problem. Maybe they’re a leader from HR, or Learning and Development, or they’re not facing the frontline of what that problem is. And it’s not so easy to get those stories.
I’d love to know the tactics that you use to try and elicit actual stories or incidents of problems that the customer faces so that you can then respond with stories of your own.

Paul (22:48)
(There’s) three techniques that I think work the best. Two quick and easy ones are, first of all – just shut up, and listen. People abhor silence in a conversation, and if you just stop talking, odds are the other person you’re talking to is going to fill the void with something. So, try that.
The main technique, though, is that you need to ask questions that require a story for an answer. In other words, ask a question that can’t just be answered with a quick yes or no, or a short answer.
For example, if I were to ask you, “What’s your biggest problem right now?” You could say something like, “Oh, warehousing! Warehousing is our biggest problem.”
What have I learned? Well, I’ve learned the biggest problem is in the warehouse, but other than that I don’t know much. But if instead I said, “Tell me about the moment you realized your biggest problem was your biggest problem” – you can’t just answer that by saying “The warehouse.” You have to tell me a story. The moment that you realized your biggest problem was your biggest problem.
“Oh, well, that would have been a few weeks ago, when one of our biggest customers placed this really big order last minute. It was this emergency order, so we went out to the warehouse, and we couldn’t find the product they were looking for. So, we had to schedule a special production run to produce all of it, which of course, cost a bunch of extra money. Then we had to expedite shipping to them, which cost even more, but we got it there just in time. Everybody was happy. Then we went out to the warehouse and we found the product that they were looking for, right where it should have been all along.”
Now, you know what they mean by a warehouse problem. It’s a warehouse inventory management and location problem. They don’t know where their stuff is in the warehouse.
Asking the question in a way that elicits a story — that demands a story, is a much better way to get those things. The last technique is just if all else fails, you tell the kind of story that you want them to tell you. And that will just give them an example. “Oh, okay. Yeah, I can tell you something like that.” But I always save that one for last, or try the other techniques first.

Ravi (25:00)
The key technique here, Paul, was the moment part, right? Where you’re pinpointing a time that (their) stories are linked to. That’s powerful.
Apart from this are there any other techniques that you have used in your own conversations with clients, especially recently (with regards to) getting them to open up? Because sometimes, people tend to be wary of sharing somethings that they may not be very open (about)?

Paul (25:28)
That’s where that third technique really helps. When you share a story first, you make yourself vulnerable first, and then that makes it more comfortable for them to do it. (They think,) “If you are willing to share that kind of story, then I will as well.” I do save that for last, but it’s still very powerful. You may not need to use it, but if you can, it really opens up all the doors because now I’m sharing and it’s okay. You know exactly the kind of story they’re looking for. You going first always helps.

Ravi (26:00)
The next story category that I wanted to talk about is when you’ve spoken to clients, you’ve sent a proposal and they’re happy to work with you and it’s all going well. Now, the question is about price. You’re trying to negotiate the price; you don’t want to and probably don’t need to reduce (it). What are some storytelling tactics you can use to convince the client without necessarily sounding standoffish (saying) that, “Hey, this is worth it and you must do this”?

Paul (26:32)
What you want to do in this case, is to tell a story that illustrates the reason your price, being as high as it is, is not just a benefit to you but a benefit to them – the client.
The example I gave in the book is about a woman who runs a modelling agency. She always gets this pushback because she sets a high price and she always charges up front, whereas most of her competitors charge a smaller price and they only charge at the end once the contract is done and the talent gets paid. And she always gets pushed back in those early meetings. So, she’ll tell a story about one of her students. She’ll say, “Christine was a 14-year-old young lady who wanted to be a model, sitting in the same chair that you are (in). Right there, with her mom sitting next to her. And she ended up becoming one of my best students. In fact, I took her to a competition with 1400 other young aspiring models, and she came in second place. So, she was immediately getting all of these offers to become a model. She went to New York and was going to meet with all these people, pick one and sign a contract. And she’s in the cab on the way to the meeting with this big company – L’Oreal or something like that – to sign this contract, and she just bursts into tears. (She’s) just bawling her eyes out. She grabs her phone and calls Melissa. She’s sitting there with her mom and dad in this cab, going to become a millionaire – this 18, 19-year-old girl, a young woman; And she says, “Melissa, this is not what I wanted to do with my life. Being a model was my mom’s idea,” her mom is sitting right next to her, “This is not my idea. I want to go to college, I want to get a degree in business; I want to run my own business like you, that’s what I want to do.”
Melissa is telling the story, of course, to this new prospect whose mom is sitting next to her and they’re worried about the price they’re going to have to pay. And she stops telling the story right there. Again, notice (that) she stops telling the story before it’s done. And she says, “Now, if I charged money the way my competitors do, here’s what I would have said to young Christina,” or whatever her name was, “Look, I got six months and $15,000 invested in you. Now, you get your butt in that office and sign that contract so I can get paid!” That’s what I would have said, but because I already charged my money upfront, here’s what I said instead: Oh, Christine! Come home. Pursue your dream. That’s exactly what you should do!” And that’s exactly what Christine did.”
She said, “I charge the money the way I do, upfront and a premium amount, because in this business, young women can get screwed harmed all kinds of ways. And I don’t want that to happen to my clients. So, when I charge my money up front, it makes sure that your daughter’s best interests and my best interests are aligned, so that that never happens.”
And that’s when they say yes, because that’s what they want. What they mostly want is their daughter to be safe and happy, not to get the cheapest deal on an agent. The story makes it clear that she charges the money the way she does for the benefit of the client, not the benefit of her. That’s what you want the story to do.

Ravi (29:51)
I love that reframing, Paul, where you’re completely focusing on the client’s benefit of the price rather than your own. I love that.
Coming towards the end of the conversation, I want to talk about your process of creation. You create content – you’ve written books; you write on LinkedIn; you’ve got courses. In order to create well, you need to consume well. So maybe you can talk to me about all 3 elements that I call the 3 Rs – Reading, or any form of consumption like watching videos, or podcasts; Reflection, where you actually think about what you’ve done; and Writing, or any other form of creation.
What kind of sources or information do you consume? Do you have a schedule or certain categories of information? Is there a reflection process that you have, whether it’s walking or meditation or cycling? And your writing process. A little bit about each of these elements.

Paul (30:48)
You know, for me, all 3 of those are intertwined, because almost all of the reading that I’ve done on storytelling was because I was researching to write a book on storytelling. Almost all the reflection that I’ve done on what works and what doesn’t was because I was writing my next book, and then the writing, of course, was because I’m writing the book. For me, they’re all the same thing.
At this point, I’ve probably read 50-60 books on storytelling at some point, over the course of the last 10 years. I don’t need to read any more books on storytelling, so I don’t anymore. All of that was in service of writing the books that I was writing on them. I continue to reflect, because when I create a course, and then I teach the course, I see what’s working and what’s not working and how I can change it. But, at this point, I’m not going back and reading any more books on storytelling. I’ve read enough and written enough that I don’t do that anymore.
Reflection and refining my training courses, I definitely do. The surprising part of the answer to you might be, as far as the writing (is concerned), is after having written 5 books in the last 10 years, I’ve decided to stop writing more books. It took a lot of my time, so it’s freed up a lot of my time, and I’m reinvesting that time in learning something very, very different. I’ve actually enrolled, about 8 months ago, in a full-time Bachelor’s degree program in Astrophysics at the local university here, of all things. I know it sounds really weird and out of left field, but it’s just something I’ve been passionate to learn about.

Ravi (32:35)
Wow! So cool. That is incredible, Paul! More power to you, and I hope you get a lot of (success joy in that field.)
Coming back to this question, just a couple of quick points – are there any other kind of books that you read now? Non-fiction, or fiction, what kind of books do you consume?

Paul (32:53)
Yeah, I’m reading a lot of books on physics, astronomy and calculus. They’re sitting on a desk right behind me here. That’s filling up my time and I’m enjoying it.

Ravi (33:05)
Do you have a reflection practice, like a walk or meditation or something?

Paul (33:09)
I exercise. I lift weights and run 3-4 times a week. I used to run with headphones in, listening to music, like most people do. Then I found that I prefer to run with no music, no headphones, nothing, because I end up thinking more clearly during those runs. I almost always come back and write down a few ideas that I came up with, or solutions, or something I want to do. That’s a pretty effective method for me.

Ravi (33:43)
And when you used to write all these books, did you have a schedule for writing? Would it be early in the morning, or later in the night…what was your schedule like?

Paul (33:53)
When I was still at P&G, it was that 1 hour a day and 5 hours on the weekend. It was very scheduled, because I had a day job to work around. It was either a few minutes before I went to work, or I’d often try to get 30 minutes over lunch. I’d take out an hour for lunch, but I’d only spend 20 minutes of it eating; I’d spend the rest of the time writing. Or, after my kids went to bed at night. All that added up to an hour or less, and the weekend was easy.
After I left the company, I didn’t have to be as rigorous about it because I didn’t have a 9-5 job to go to. I had clients to teach, but most of the time during the day was all my own, so I’d spend that time researching and writing and it was easier once I didn’t have that pesky day job to work around.

Ravi (34:44)
Was there a specific time for you to write, or would you just do it whenever you got the time?

Paul (34:48)
No, I’m not one of those people (who says), “I have to do everything before 10 A.M. because I’m a morning person.” Or “I can’t do anything until noon.”
The thing I will tell you is – I did this years ago and it was one of the best decisions I ever made – I got rid of my alarm clock probably when I was in my mid-thirties. When I was in my mid-thirties, I looked at these people who were retired and I’d ask them, “What’s the best thing about being retired?” and almost all of them said the same thing – “Oh, not having to wake up to an alarm clock and hit snooze over and over again!” Getting out of bed is the worst part of everybody’s day, right? And I thought, “That’s really insightful. Am I going to have to wait 30 years, like most people? Is there a way I could do that?” and it sounds really simple, but I just started going to bed 30 minutes earlier, and then 30 minutes earlier, until I started waking up before my alarm clock. That time turned out to be 10 o’clock at night. If I went to bed by 10 o’clock at night, I would wake up before my alarm went off. I thought, “Well, that’s genius.” And I never used my alarm clock again. I got the benefit of retiring in my mid-thirties, even though I still had a job.
Anybody can do it. If you don’t wake up before your alarm clock, your body is telling you that you need more sleep. It’s not rocket science. I’ve had that benefit for a long time now.

Ravi (36:10)
Fascinating. I’m going to try that, Paul.
This has been so interesting. Very inspiring to hear about the perseverance and sacrifice you’ve put through to put your books out. I’ve read the books and (they are so well written!) You don’t get the sense that someone actually slogged weekends and nights to do this. It doesn’t give the impression of a first-time author. You’ve really put in a lot of efforts. I think it’s incredible. The journey you’ve had, the amount of rigour and structure that you put into the skill has been an inspiration. Thanks so much for all that, Paul.
Where can people get to know more about your work and learn more (about you)?

Paul (36:50)
Thanks for asking! My website is probably the easiest place to get all that (information). It’s and there’s links there to the books and training courses, all that kind of stuff.

Ravi (37:01)
Can we expect some work on astrophysics coming soon?

Paul (37:04)
Not soon, but I hope so! It’s going to take a few years, but I would love to write some books on science using stories instead of the dry science textbook that you might be used to.

Ravi (37:17)
I shall be looking forward to that. Thank you so much, Paul, for coming to this podcast!

Paul (37:21)
Thanks for having me! It was fun.

And that was Paul Smith, bestselling international author of some of the most insightful books on storytelling that I have read. 

A few things which stood out for me in the conversation

  • The importance of determination and hard work in working on your passion
  • The power of curiosity in holding the audience’s attention
  • How you can persuade the audience better if you are able to get them to arrive at the recommendations on their own
  • The importance of having several stories in your pocket for different work situations – for instance justifying your pricing. Stories can be more engaging and effective than cold, hard logic in those situations!

If you find this content valuable, please rate and review this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Google Podcasts, or wherever you listen to them. It’ll help others like you discover these insights!

This podcast was hosted by me, Ravishankar Iyer. Audio editing by Kartik Rajan. Transcript editing by Amisha Jha and all-round support by Sanket Aalegaonkar.

Until next time, may the force of good stories be with you

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