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The power of sharing failure stories


The willingness of small businesses to share a failure can have a powerful effect.

I remember this one failure clearly. It was a real punch to the gut. I was standing in the foyer of a building in downtown Melbourne when I received the call. The voice on the other end of the line was a new client: ‘I’m sorry Shawn. We’ve terminated your contract’. 

‘Stories are just lies’.

About a month earlier, my business had won a project to develop a strategy story for a large logistics company. They were rebranding and wanted a story all their executives could tell that explained why it was happening, and why now. Our way of creating a strategy story usually involves a group process where executives work together in a series of workshops to develop the narrative. This helps them all get on the same page – in fact, I’ve discovered that this process helps leaders work out what their strategy really means.

But in this case, I was told the executives were really busy and didn’t have time to get together. They would rather I interviewed each of them separately and develop the story myself. I told them this was not our standard process, but they were adamant. Against my better judgement, I agreed. I should have seen what was coming when I was told the CEO was too busy to be interviewed.

After interviewing all the other executives, I crafted the strategy story and shared it with a small group of them. They received it enthusiastically, pleased with the way it had come out. We then organised a meeting where I would present the strategy story to all of the executives, including the CEO.

I found them all sitting around a boardroom table, eager to hear the story. So I started to tell it. People began nodding in agreement, smiling to themselves. The story seemed to be having the desired effect. But a couple of minutes into the telling, the CEO interrupted me: ‘Shawn, I just want to say, I think stories are just lies’. Suddenly, all those smiles turned into frowns and everyone rounded on the story. The next day, I was fired.

When to tell a failure story

One of the best times for me to tell this story is when a prospective client asks whether we can take shortcuts with our group process and just interview their executives one by one. After they’ve heard me out, they understand why this is not a good idea – no-one wants to experience that embarrassment and loss of social capital.

I will also tell a story like this when we are proposing new work. It shows we’ve learned some things along the way, and that we have the strength of character to admit our mistakes. These types of stories bring people together. A failure story also encourages the person you are hoping to work with to share their own failures, or the sensitive things that are really happening in the organisation. It prompts people to open up.

Now while failure stories are great for grabbing attention and do a wonderful job of warning someone off a particular course of action, they don’t really give the listener any alternatives. So I find that after sharing a failure, it’s useful to then recount a success story that helps the listener to plot a new way forward. Thankfully, we’ve also had plenty of positive stories illustrating how we’ve helped a variety of companies with their strategy stories.

Be ready to talk failure

After you get over the hurt of a failure, you’ll find that its retelling will be extremely valuable. I recommend you have a few failure stories at hand, ready to be told to prospective clients or customers. You don’t have to dwell on them. Simply share the story, let the point sink in, and then shift to a story about how things can be in the future.

About the author

Shawn Callahan is business storytelling specialist and founder of Anecdote.  Shawn works with leaders and sellers around the world helping them find and tell oral stories to spark action. He is the author of Putting Stories to Work: Mastering Business Storytelling (Pepperberg Press).