A couple of years ago, at the final meeting of a storytelling training program, someone asked us, “what did you learn from most, to become such good storytellers?” “Us” meaning Guy – another member of The Story Telling Company team – and myself.
We looked at each other. Well aware of audience anticipation Guy asked, “Limor, are we actually going to tell them the BIG secret?” upon which I obviously replied, “I’m not sure they can take it”. The students looked like, “please…” Guy and I exchanged as-if skeptical looks once more and then, with a glint in his eye, without coordinating the answer with me because we both knew very well what it was, he said “from every single time we’ve failed. Applause and ‘thank you so much’ are really nice but learning comes from deep failure, from finding yourself shattered at the bottom of the stage. Failure is what we’ve learned from most, because if you intend to continue doing what you do, you can’t ignore failure for too long.”
There is a failure in the room
Stories of failure are not told often enough, especially not in the business arena. We read news reports about failing products, companies and brands, but how often do we get a full true story told by the failing company’s CEO? including the lessons? and how they were applied? how they changed her or him? those are rare stories. We do take part in debriefings, drawing conclusions meetings and future action listings. I’m referring to something else that does not allow this kind of ‘professional escapism’ – story and storytelling; molding the actual failure story with other people – to be heard, looked at, feel sorry for, understand and only then look forward.
It took The Story Telling Company five difficult years to meet its proper destiny; to find the right market segments that know why we can serve them best, and why they want to pay good money for our services; Segments that can support us willingly. As strange as it might sound to some, when you find the right clients, they actually know they want to support you – so you can continue to support them for as long as they need.
Every time I noticed repetitive failure, it was sitting with people and talking about it, telling the story. It is never easy to hear what they have to say, or say what you know for the truth, the actual story. Nevertheless it is worthwhile, because the more you do it, the more focused you become. For a company with almost endless possible applications, a lot of experience, a very knowledgeable team, a tiny amount of resources, working in a small, highly competitive market where everyone thinks they know better, focus is a matter of make or break.
My stories of failure
I’m not going to unravel everything that happened along five years. I’ll give you the essence of some failure stories with the conclusions that suite my company, so you can realize that the business plan was eventually carved from life and not pre-determined like it happened with the first plan – that didn’t work.
Dazzle – we worked with advertising agencies for a year and a half. Obviously, they were the first to notice a company with a storytelling name. They were after the “wow” element and slogans. Any attempt to go deeper, research properly and come up with excellent briefs, was bound to fail. This ‘dazzling’ frustrating affair ended with a known incident, a story to be told in its own right. Lessons: never work with people who have the power to cover a bad job with dazzle and impressive packaging; Never work with someone that does not respect the need for a thought through brief; if you’re not part of their real main line of business (dealing media) you’ll never get paid the worth of your work or be appreciated for doing it well; if the client does not care, we are not the people to give him service, we need a client that does.
‘Soft skills’ training – When we first approached organizations with these offerings, we went to HR. They never found it in their heart to give it a try. The single question they would cling to was, “how is your offering different than others/what we already have?” this was a no-brainer for quite a long time until I realized most of them were also using “soft judgment” – they never actually wanted to figure out the answer for sure. All they wanted was “something else” that would feel very “else” aka – a new technology, not change. Lessons: anything perceived “soft” under “soft” judgment is the wrong direction for us. We need people who appreciate the ability to make-sense in an orderly way within “soft”, that are not afraid of complexity and the subjective. We found them under engineering. People with an engineering mindset are our best clients.
Corporations – I mean the big players. Those turned out to be a frustration way too often. You’re invited into a “don’t we work in an amazing place?!” building, led through endless open spaces and glass corridors, offered coffee in a ‘state of the art’ pretentious coffee station, only to eventually meet a couple of ants with fancy hardcover notebooks, that have the power to nothing. Lessons: if approached by a corporation, close all the details via phone and mail, don’t go to a meeting; if they won’t do it, don’t go further; Charge well because there will not be a continuation to this job; in most cases, it’s a one time show. Most important: better work with smaller companies where we get to meet a VP if not the CEO.
Product and scalability – at the beginning the main suggestion people were giving me was “you need to have a product so you can scale”. There was even a point when they were busy trying to find a way to multiply Limor. We did develop products but I stopped the process before production, realizing that what people will buy will (1) not give them what they receive when they meet us (2) will make them think they can now be us. Lessons: there is no way or need to multiply advanced ability. What you need are the right clients to recognize it and pay for it. Sell value that can’t be owned or copied and keep away from consumer goods. Our value is in strategy and sense-making, order and telling the truth about what we see.
There is much more. After twenty years of enjoying success in storytelling and music, I found myself shattered at the bottom of the stage very often. The business and organizational arenas were not welcoming, but eventually it happened. The current business plan is lean and clever, eliminating anything we should not be doing although we could. It happened because as a storyteller, I was bound to tell the stories until I can understand my audience (the market) and communicate with them.
Telling failure stories turned a regular procedure in the company. It saves resources, heartaches and helps facilitate business decisions in a clearer way. And… when you’re not trying to hide failure, you can use your energy for better deeds.