Q and A with a Story Guru: Paul Smith: Don’t Apologize for Telling Stories

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See a photo of Paul, his bio, Part 1 of this Q&A, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

Q&A with Paul Smith, Question 5

Q: If you could offer just one piece of advice to storytellers, what would it be?

A: I’ve seen too many business leaders and professional speakers lessen the effectiveness of their stories by apologizing for them, or asking permission to tell them in the first place. They start by saying something like, “I hope you’ll forgive me for telling a personal story, but . . .” I’ve even seen a paid professional speaker ask several times in his speech, “Can I tell you a story?” and then proceed only after a few obligatory nods from the audience.

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That kind of language signals to the listener that you don’t value the story as much as what you would have been saying otherwise. If that were true, you should skip the story and get on to the bullet points on slide number 72. A story is a valuable gift to your audience. They’re lucky you took the time to craft it and share it so they can learn something important in a way they’ll remember and perhaps even enjoy. Leaders don’t ask permission to lead. They just lead. Never apologize for or ask permission to tell a story. Deliver your story with the confidence that your listeners will thank you for it later.

In fact, while you’re not apologizing for or asking permission to tell a story, go one step further and don’t even tell your audience you’re about to tell them a story. Some people (including me) bristle when a speaker announces he’s going to tell a story. They’ll sigh and roll their eyes and think, “Oh, here we go. Another 20 minute waste of time.”

I think that’s because great storytellers don’t announce their stories. They just tell them. Inexperienced storytellers, on the other hand, often preface their stories with “Let me tell you a story . . .” It’s probably just a nervous habit. Or perhaps they’re insecure about telling stories in a business setting and they feel the need to clarify that what follows is a story, and not “real” business dialogue (whatever that is).

As a result, many people rightfully associate what follows “Let me tell you a story” with a poorly crafted, poorly delivered story. They immediately shut down.

Follow the example of the expert storytellers, and just start telling your story.