Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Tell It Better: Why is storytelling about failure so compelling?

Among my most unusual engagements last year was the chance to coach four higher education experts in delivering five-minute TED-style talks. That's a pretty common coaching project for me. But this time, the topic was failure.

In modern times, the desire to smooth out and sand down the rough spots in our image--whether that's your personal image or the image of your company or organization--means failure talks get rejected out of hand, before they ever hit the stage. But failure's a compelling component of good storytelling. In every dramatic arc, the prince fails to win the hand of the princess right away. Classic storytelling requires that he overcome obstacles, try things that don't work, and generally fail a few times before he finds the path to success. Without that struggle, the prize is not as sweet and the story lacks punch and verve.

Failure as a topic is catnip for audiences, which is why you can see many failure talks featured at TED conferences. There's a trick to making a failure story work, and that's redemption. We want to hear about the failure, and what you learned from that, and how that took you to a better place. The story has to progress beyond the failure in order to work, although we don't want you to leave out all the messy bits.

So that's how I guided the people speaking in this session, at the Association for Public and Land-grant Universities conference last November. First, APLU vice president Shari Garmise spoke about the failures in the process that led to the session, since universities were loathe to discuss actual failure. Most submitted video proposals that were slick, smooth, and successful-sounding. Then three executives from Morgan State University, the University of Memphis, and Western Michigan University each told about failures in their student success programs, which aim to help students complete their degrees.

Every one of these talks was risky, for the speakers and their institutions, and every speaker was well aware of the risks. Would the audience react negatively? Would they be able to engage with discussion of failure? Would they look bad for highlighting things that most universities just wouldn't discuss?

Far from it. The session included an engaging discussion, and a reporter in the audience wrote about the three failure stories in this article (behind a paywall) for the Chronicle of Higher Education. That kind of reaction is validating--and not uncommon. Your fear of failure fails to imagine how the audience will appreciate what you have been through, and your courage in presenting it.

There are all sorts of ways to tell a failure story, going well beyond a TED-style talk. Charity:Water did just that a few years ago when it posted a livestream of a water well being drilled on the organization's "birthday"--and the drill failed. The organization used that fail, seen by all its viewers, to underscore its key points about the scarcity of water for drinking.

Perhaps my favorite failure story happened at the very first TEDMED conference at which I coached speakers. It's the story of how distance swimmer Diana Nyad failed to complete a long-hoped-for swim from Cuba to Florida. Eventually, she did complete the swim and gave another talk about that. But my favorite is this talk, the one about the failure. Take a look at how she describes a big fail, and brings it home with lessons anyone can learn.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by hobvias sudoneighm)

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