The Next Best Thing to “Failure” in Business Storytelling

Virtually every great story encompasses failure or at least a crisis.

Apple flirted with bankruptcy.

J.K. Rowling lived on welfare before Harry Potter came to the rescue.

Everyone told Freddie Patek he was too short to play professional baseball (naturally a favorite).

As Fortune Journalist Patricia Sellers noted in discussing storytelling in business, “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested.”

If the failure causes the reader to wince, all the better.

This poses a challenge for business communicators who are conditioned to do the exact opposite. We’re striving to highlight achievements, ever conscious of keeping any semblance of a crisis behind closed – no make that locked – doors.

But business communications can still shape a form of storytelling by using a technique adored by the advertising world: contrast.

While contrast alone won’t tease out drama à la “Shawshank Redemption,” it still makes for a more interesting read/view whether you’re striving to reach journalists or taking your story directly to the target audience.

There’s something about the  “before and after” approach that resonates with people. Borrowing from three different media properties, you can see how three different examples of visual storytelling depend on contrast.


  • Time Magazine

The Next Best Thing to “Failure” in Business Storytelling image Time Magazine Manufacturer1The Next Best Thing to “Failure” in Business Storytelling

Even if you don’t read the information, you take away that today’s worker in manufacturing has gone white collar.

  • Yahoo

The Next Best Thing to “Failure” in Business Storytelling image Yahoo a fresh look for search1The Next Best Thing to “Failure” in Business Storytelling

Very clever on Yahoo’s part to contrast the difference of the old site design to the new site design in a GIF that flips back and forth. I think I’ll be borrowing this technique down the road.

  • Fortune

The Next Best Thing to “Failure” in Business Storytelling image Fortune Hip to be SquareThe Next Best Thing to “Failure” in Business Storytelling

If there isn’t strong contrast between the traditional way and the new way, the company probably shouldn’t be taking on the status quo.


In short, contrast in business storytelling comes from the difference between “what was” and “what is.” Typically, the greater the difference, the more interesting to the audience.

It all sounds so simple.

Yet, companies often derail contrast in storytelling by deciding to not share the “what was” part. Sometimes, they perceive that the “what was” reflects poorly on the company, so they prefer to leave the information buried in history.

But you need both to create a frame, which in turn delivers the contrast.

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