The perils of vulnerability in corporate storytelling

“When storytelling, be vulnerable, talk about your mistakes and you will connect with your audience.” says a communication expert to a group of corporate professionals.

It is worth exploring the perils associated with this generic advice that doesn’t always work in a corporate setting.

A few years ago I was watching videos of corporate leaders such as Indra Nooyi, Meg Whitman, Ginni Rometty and Sheryl Sandberg to learn how successful women communicate? There is a clear link between these women’s online success and the vulnerability they demonstrate. Their vulnerability creates connection.

So, it’s tempting for one to think, I am also going to be vulnerable because that is what leads to corporate success.

But here is what we need to observe and understand – online success is not corporate success. To achieve online success, we’ve been advised to be vulnerable with our audiences; while that’s not wrong, being careful with where and when we become vulnerable is important.

Let’s take a look at an experiment by psychologist Elliot Aronson, who tracked the audience’s reactions to participants in a game show. When the high-performing contestants spilled coffee on themselves, the audience liked them more. They were competent and relatable. They were human and imperfect. However, when the mediocre performers did the same thing, people liked them less.

This was called Pratfall Effect, In social psychology, the pratfall effect is the tendency for interpersonal appeal to change after an individual makes a mistake, depending on the individual’s perceived competence. In particular, highly competent individuals tend to become more likable after committing mistakes, while average seeming individuals tend to become less likable even if they commit the same mistake.

What this indicates to us is when we reach a certain stage in our careers and are considered high performers, our vulnerability and shortcomings make us more relatable and therefore, more likeable. Where mediocre performers are concerned, the research indicates a greater focus required to first gain a certain level of competency before showing vulnerability.

My advice to every person, irrespective of man or woman is to infuse vulnerability in your storytelling only when you have gained a certain level of credibility.

As Seth Godin says, “Where you were born, how hard you worked and what roles you played in the story is interesting only to your mother.” I would add to that, people would want to listen to that story once you have enough credibility under your belt.

Your journey is interesting to people only on the basis of your credibility or extreme adversity. Most of us in life have not faced extreme adversity like losing a limb, a near death experience, an aeroplane crash etc that it becomes a story worth telling.

We are simple people with simple lives but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to tell. In our initial years we should work hard to build credibility so that our vulnerability story becomes attractive to others. 

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