The Vulnerability Paradox

Stop and think of a blunder in your business or your personal life. Maybe it’s funny, embarrassing, or just plain dumb. What did you learn? Is there a situation in which you would ever be willing to share the story with others? People have told me that one of my stories about being mediocre in my rookie year of sales is honest, refreshing, and even brave. Really, brave? What’s going on here?

The Vulnerability Paradox means that sharing our doubts and mistakes can be a strength, not a weakness. The ability to accept feedback from the dashboard of life, make adjustments, and communicate that transformation to others is the underlying strength. Yet many leaders are still expected to be steely and unyielding, so expressions of vulnerability grab our attention. Finally, add in the emotional connection, and you start to see why stories expressing vulnerability are a powerful element in anyone’s StoryBank.

Successful participants in the The Moth stage and radio project recognize that emotions make the story come alive. The Moth is a premier example of mountaintop storytelling, but still has much to teach us about the business stories that that so many of us share daily in campfire or watering hole settings.

Comedian Lauren Weedman, host of StorySLAMs across Southern California:

“I feel like the most successful stories — the ones that win — have an element of vulnerability. It’s not about being the hero or being clever; it has this element of openheartedness…”

2011 StorySLAM winner Selena Coppock:

“…Stories with self-awareness and a touch of self-deprecation tend to endear the storyteller to the audience more so. For example, the story that I won with was a story about being mugged by a kid on a bike, then I chased him down and got my purse back. The audience was on my side with that one.”

While The Moth organizes contests and performances, all stories are true. Genuine vulnerability isn’t staged, and it’s not the weepy confessional that has become standard fare on certain celebrity talk shows. It can be as simple as self-deprecating humor, admitting mistakes, or acknowledging doubts.

Savvy job seekers recognize the Vulnerability Paradox as an effective way to answer the dreaded, “What is your weakness?” interview question. Isn’t the response, “I have this challenge, and here is how I’ve dealt with it,” so much more tasteful than, “I work too hard,” or “I’m a perfectionist.”?

Emotionally intelligent leaders understand that the Vulnerability Paradox allows them to demonstrate a culture of trust and open communication necessary for big change.

Effective salespeople and marketers balance their dialogues with the Vulnerability Paradox. As clients, we are more likely to trust the salesperson who points out situations where they and their products and services aren’t ideal!

Perhaps sharing a story about your own vulnerability will prompt a story in return, and initiate dialogue. That is the magic moment when you’ll have transitioned from storytelling to storylearning!

*The Moth quotes from LA Weekly Article by Julie Seabaugh

*Strength photo by Brett “Don’t Run with Scissors” Curtiss

Posted in Communication, Leadership, Sales, Story Tagged with: , , , , ,
2 comments on “The Vulnerability Paradox
  1. Very interesting and true.’s March briefing is about this, a trend they’re calling “Flawsome:” brands that accept their flaws and are open about them will be embraced by consumers.

    Their briefing ties in well with this blog post and includes interesting stories of how brands have used mess-ups and negative feedback to turn a bad situation into a positive one. Worth checking it out at

  2. Andrew Nemiccolo says:

    Carol, Thanks for sharing the “flawsome” concept. I especially liked the point about service recoveries:

    76% of people who complained on Twitter received no response from the brand. But among those who were contacted, 83% liked or loved that the brand responded, and 85% were satisfied with the response (Source: Maritz Research, September 2011).

    Goes to show you that we love brands that recognize mistakes and that try to recover.

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