Here’s an example of what a story looks like with and without dialogue. Which do you think is more effective?
Getting D&B’s books restated in six weeks left Sara feeling the high of success still early in her tenure as CFO. But that high was short-lived. Once a year, everyone at D&B completes an employee satisfaction survey. Sara had just gotten the results for her department. They were among the worst in the company. Her organization was sending her a clear message about how she had gotten the restatement done. The long hours and unyielding focus had taken its toll. Quickly, she was back in the CEO’s office, and he was not happy. His opening line was, “You’re not leading well, Sara.”
Of course Sara was disappointed in the survey results. But in the light of what happened with the restatement, it seemed inevitable to her. She assumed the end result justified the means it took to get there. Her response reflected this belief. “You need to make a choice,” she said. “Which do you want—great results, or happy people?”
The CEO’s simple, but profound response was, “Great leaders do both.”
Those words hit Sara like a freight train. It forced her to reflect on her own methods and the impact she can have on others in her urgency to deliver. Like most people, she was aware of her own foibles. She was a strong strategic thinker, and a natural problem solver. But she was also a terrible listener. She was direct—to the point of being blunt. She was tough, demanding, and played to win. If you were on the other side of the table from her, it could be intimidating. But she had assumed that was just part of who she was and a requisite part of how she got things done.
Her boss convinced her otherwise. She decided to have several round-table discussions with her employees to gather direct feedback on the shortcomings of her leadership style. It was a painful, humbling process. But she didn’t just gather the feedback. She actually accepted it and acted on it. Two years later, her employee satisfaction scores were among the best anywhere.
Sara shares this story today to teach the value of being a learning leader. Even bosses need to continually learn, whether they are the CFO, CEO, or chairman of the board—all roles Sara has held. If she hadn’t learned the hard lesson she did as CFO, she would have never been given the chance to have the second two.
How would that story have sounded without dialogue? Imagine the first paragraph closed by saying that “the CEO called her into his office to express his displeasure with her employee survey scores.” That’s not nearly as engaging as hearing him say, “You’re not leading well, Sara.” You can put yourself into her shoes when you hear her boss telling her she isn’t doing her job well. Without the dialogue, it’s more removed and impersonal.
Similarly, consider her response: “Which do you want—great results or happy people?” That’s a very bold question to ask the CEO. It’s clear from the dialogue Sara disagreed and was standing her ground. That’s more effective than writing, “Sara believed happy people and great results weren’t possible at the same time, so she stood her ground.”
Finally, the CEO’s response was poetic in its simplicity: “Great leaders do both.” Compare that to, “The CEO disagreed, and insisted Sara could do both if she tried.”
Is there any doubt the dialogue made this story more engaging?
[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]
Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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