March 31, 2020 / Esther Choy

During a Q&A session in a seminar I taught at the prestigious Swiss Finance Institute, I had an embarrassing moment.

The talk had been going well. In fact, when I asked my audience to exchange their answers to my “interactive questions” with someone sitting next to them, they filled the whole room with engaging discussions. The organizers gave me approving nods.

But then came Q&A. I was really happy with how it was going, but then I got this question:

“Esther, what do you think of Hans Christian Andersen? And why are his stories so enduring?”

And I could not remember who Andersen was to save my life! Someone had to shout from the back: “Maybe you have heard of a story called ‘The Little Mermaid’?”

How embarrassing!

Well, the good news is, that was enough to jog my memory so I could give a humorous response. My momentary memory malfunction didn’t crush my credibility, as I had briefly feared.

No matter how things turn out, most of us prefer to rewrite our life histories without any moments like these. But remembering them is vital. When we acknowledge our embarrassing moments, we say what’s true about ourselves. We’re letting ourselves be okay with being less than perfect. Whew! We’re on our way to becoming well-adjusted “imperfectionists,” as Ida Abdalkhani urges on Catalyst Ranch’s blog.

But there’re a host of other reasons to remember our embarrassing moments—and to share them out loud and in our storytelling where appropriate.

Why You Should Use Your Embarrassing Moment

“The truth is the large majority of us are failure hypocrites,” writes Justin Brady in Harvard Business Review. Learning demands a certain tolerance to embarrassment. We have to fail if we’re going to learn, but in practice, we’d rather bury our mistakes and cover them with a big old rock.

Brady counters the “failure hypocrite” trend with his podcast, The Creativity Cultivator, where—you guessed it—he asks guests to “share their most epic failure to date, how they learned from that failure, and how they overcame it to achieve their success. As he talks to potential podcast guests, he finds that only a few are willing to share a story of failure. It is these select few that end up on his podcast. The others don’t make the cut.

When we fail to fess up to our flubs, we have fewer connections with our team, says Brady, because people want to know that you’re human.

When NOT To Use Your Embarrassing Moment

Of course, there are many occasions to refrain from blurting out a humiliating experience. Some occasions just don’t call for that. And a few audiences might prefer to hear about a success instead. And, unfortunately, in some organizations, it might be downright self-defeating to share anything that smacks of failure.

So be wise as you ask the question: “To share, or not to share?”

When you do decide to use your embarrassing moment, remember that there is a right level of vulnerability. Define it and know it. As a leader, you never want to use a story that suggests a lack of character. Your team has got to trust you. Focus on stories that reveal a lack of experience, a bad day, or a moment of “blanking.”

How To Select Your Story

“Some of the stories we like best are about failure,” reflects Steven Bell, Temple University’s Associate University Librarian. But he adds the caveat— we like these stories “if the failure is followed by redemption in some form that leads to success.” Librarians know this, and yet, says Bell, he has noticed that library leaders are just as averse to sharing failures as other leaders! Bell sees the sharing of failure stories as essential to cultivating a creative culture.

So… is your story about a failure (or foible) followed by redemption of some kind?

Some similar questions might be:

    1. How did you respond to the embarrassing moment? What did this reveal about your personality or strength of character?
    2. What did you learn from this moment?
    3. Does the story help your audience grow or connect?

These are the best stories because the audience can clearly see that you’re not sharing it for a “cheap laugh,” but for a true connection.

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When You Need a Boost

Listen to how others share their embarrassing moments. This not only gives you inspiration, it helps you find “your part of the ‘I can’t believe that happened to me club,’” says Diane Mettler of Media Partners Corp. It helps you remember that you’re not alone.

Once you have found that club, find ways to tell your own story so that your team knows that they are not alone either.

Want some storytelling input? Schedule a complimentary communication training consultation today.


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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.

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