Consulting secret: stories and storytelling

By | September 19, 2014

This week I went out to dinner with team mates twice. On each night, I heard inspirational stories from my team mates – 1 personal and 1 professional – that really made me think deeply about how I am living my life. One story was about friendship; staying friends and keeping a beautiful tradition for 40 years. Another story was about bravery and leadership; knowing when to leave a company because it is not a fit.

Consultants tell stories. From the time we make proposals to clients, we are telling stories of how we did the work previously, how the industry is changing, what we know of their competitors, and why we can be trusted as consultants. When we recruit, we tell candidates what we are looking for, and paint a picture of what their life and career will be like, if they join us. When we make recommendations, consultants pull together all the data, interviews, benchmarks, industry trends, hypotheses, and insights into a cohesive narrative, which is often told by Powerpoint.  Simply, we tell stories.

Life is about stories. My wife and I – certainly the older we get – believe that life is about stories because the most important things in life (getting spiritual here) is about people and experiences. Once you have enough money, safety, and get over the ambition of the 20s and 30s, it is about people and experiences.

People experience stories

Stories come from travel.  “Are you going on vacation this year?” is one of my favorite questions to ask clients, friends, and strangers. It gets people thinking about good things: relaxation, friends, family, travel, and fun. It is what stories are made of.

I was once told that Europeans rarely speak of work, or ask “what do you do?” when first meeting someone at a party or social. It is crass, and actually, a bit boring. Instead, conversation gravitates to travel, food, hobbies, and sports. Americans talk about work, while Europeans are more apt to tell stories. European readers, tell me if this is true.

Stories come from sacrifice. Very possibly, things that have the most value to us are the things that we worked hardest to achieve. For hard-charging consultant types, the projects where we really had to invest our head, heart, and hands are the ones we are gloriously proud of. Also, when we run into cowards, bullies, and ignorant people – they are anti-mentors who we learn not to be like. This is informative too. These experience make us better coaches, and managers. Tough times make us more competitive.

“If you are going through hell, keep going.”  – Winston Churchill

Leaders tell stories. This is so true, it is almost a cliche. Leaders get things done through other people. Leaders make voluntary followers. Leaders motivate through words, vision, direction, credibility, authenticity, and ultimately, stories.

Storytelling is an art.  

1) Think of 3 people who you know who tell great stories. What is their secret? Travel and diverse experiences? Openness to try new things? A strong sense of timing, and really making the “punch line” of the story count? A good listener who knows what the audience is interested in hearing? Learn from great presenters.

2) Think of 3 people who are terrible at telling stories. Do they drag on and on? Do they laugh at their own jokes, when others don’t? Do they talk about boring things people are not interested in? Do they repeat the same stories?

3) Watch TED.  Listen to story-telling podcasts. Visit with people 20-30 years older than you, and ask them about their lives. Pre-internet stories are WAY better. Trust me.

My favorite story-telling podasts:

Have a story-worthy week. This is what they say at the end of the Moth broadcast. What a wonderful thought.  Live life fully. Do work that matters. Make it memorable. Have a story-worthy week. Amen.

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9 thoughts on “Consulting secret: stories and storytelling

  1. Andrew Burgess

    You asked about the European view on discussing work in a social environment. I am an Englishman living in London and can confirm that this is true – probably one of the last questions you might ask someone at a dinner party is what job they did, and then you would only ask because you had found nothing else in common to talk about. People who ask about someone’s work early on in a conversation are generally seen as one-dimensional, with nothing interesting to say. Sounds like there are two very different approaches across the Atlantic.

    1. lili

      Absolutely and it is also considered terrible manners to start the conversation with work, or even ask about it altogether the first time you meet someone. I am French and have a tendency to put people in the “rude” box straight away if this happens……
      My understanding is that this is perceived as an attempt to evaluate your interlocutor’s relevance to your own career before even making an effort to be a nice and friendly person.

      Very interesting article !

  2. John Els

    What a wonderful read this was! I will make it a habit to look out for, and pay more attention to people who are good story-tellers. I never thought about it, but as you suggest, they are the most interesting people. 🙂

  3. Daryl Gerke

    Years ago I came up with a phrase to break the ice when meeting someone for the first time. “So, what is your story?” Works very well on planes and similar situations, and has led to many interesting conversations.

    Just stumbled across your blog, and will be back. I do a blog on consulting too, and you are welcome to visit. Best wishes!

  4. Andre Lugo

    Excellent though. Abraham Lincoln was a master storyteller and used it very effectively to connect with people. Emotional intelligence is really starting to become the new currency of management in the 21st century.

    1. consultantsmindadmin Post author

      No question – increasingly the logical, process-driven, computational stuff is not done by humans – so what we are left with is innovation, contextual understanding, persuasion, and decision making. Good stuff.

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