Storytelling is a skill all product managers need. The ability to craft and present compelling and informative stories for targeted audiences is the not-so-secret weapon great PMs use to move their products forward.
In this article I will provide tips for utilizing this often under appreciated skill that product managers can deploy throughout the product process.
Storytelling is a part of being human. A good story engages our brain on multiple levels – intellectually, emotionally and sensory.
Stories are a great way to simplify complex ideas and can infuse these ideas with emotions making it easier for your audience to remember.
As a product manager it is part of our job to communicate the goals of our product. Bullet points in a PowerPoint can be easily forgotten in the sea of presentation content we wade through each day. Meeting fatigue is real and makes our memories porous.
But a good story sticks with us.
So whether you are pitching a totally new product or a feature in an existing product a story can help educate, excite and unify your team behind a clear concise vision.
Don’t Worry – You’re Already a Storyteller!
At this point you might be saying “But Rich… I’m not a storyteller. I’m a product manager. ”
Not so fast, friend. If you’re a product manager you are likely already telling stories even if you don’t realize it.
When you write feature specs you are telling a story.
When you explore user personas you are developing characters for your story.
Heck, the word “story” is right there in User Stories!
And when you make a development roadmap you are creating a story – albeit may be a somewhat boring story but it is a story nonetheless.
So don’t be afraid to jump into more ambitious storytelling! You likely already have the foundation you need.
Know Your Target Audience
Not all stories are intended for all audiences. When you construct a story it is important to know your audience and adjust your techniques and content accordingly. Just as you wouldn’t show a violent movie to a small child, you wouldn’t tell a product story that is inappropriate to your audience.
When preparing a story I ask myself a few basic questions to understand my target audience:
- Who will be in the audience? Executives? Teammates? Clients? Perspective Clients? Interns? Note that it may be a combination of people.
- What is your relationship to the audience? The next step is to define your relationship with the audience. Do you know them well? Are you passing acquaintances? Is there a clear differential authority? (aka: are you presenting to someone who is much higher “status” than you – a CEO, VP, POTUS, etc…).
Defining your audience should inform the style and attitude of your storytelling. It may also influence your choice of language and storytelling mediums as well.
- What Are Their Goals? Why are you telling this story to the audience? (aka: Why is this meeting happening and what is the audience trying to get out of it?)
Are you pitching a new feature or defending a product decision?
Is this a client wanting to learn more about your product?
Or perhaps you are simply reporting on how the product is performing.
In each case the target audience is looking for information (research results, user metrics, system performance, etc…) so you want to be sure you are meeting their expectations.
- What is their knowledge level on the topic? By defining this you set the level of information and detail your story requires. Compare the audience knowledge level to what you want them to learn and remember. Audience members with expertise in a field will likely require less introduction to a topic than novices who might need a bit more handholding and explanations.
Example: When I tell the product story of autonomous semi-trucks to my family I use different language, examples and levels of detail than if I were speaking to my coworkers or those in the logistics industry.
And note that when speaking to a group with mixed levels of knowledge it is usually advisable to center in on those with less knowledge. Yes you may be providing redundant information to more knowledgeable audience members but you are ensuring that the content stays accessible for everyone.
Constructing Your Story
With your audience and informational goals defined it’s time to construct your story.
- Start with a (brief) summary! – I like to begin my stories with a brief summary of what the audience will hear. Sometimes called an Elevator Pitch (because it’s short enough that you could tell the story during a short elevator ride) this is an opportunity to hook your audience’s attention and reinforce the overall narrative.
In this example, let’s pretend we are telling the story of a home pet sitting service.
Example: We love our pets like members of our family. And being apart from them can be stressful for both us as owners and our furry friends. But what if you could avoid kennels and boarding and instead have a certified, insured pet sitter come right to your home? HomePet has you and your pets covered!
- Introduce the Characters – Explain to your audience who the characters are in the story. Usually the character (s) is the person who has a problem that your product can solve! Make the user the hero of your story. Detail their experiences and perspectives and be sure it is understandable and relatable to your audience.
And don’t just barf demographics at people. “32 year old man” is not a character.
Give your characters names, personalities and lives.
An example might be “Tomas (32) lives in SOMA with his girlfriend Denise (34) and their three rescue cats – Huey, Dewey and Louie. Both Thomas and Denise are dedicated pet parents but they are also building their careers (Thomas an accountant and Denise a lawyer). After Denise finishes a lengthy court case the couple decides it is time to fulfill a dream and travel to Hawaii together. ”
- Inciting Incident (The Problem) – This is your opportunity to set the stakes of your story and set up the need for your brilliant solution.
While a trip to Hawaii is very exciting, the couple is experiencing a bit of heartache. This is the first time they will leave Huey, Dewey and Louie since they were adopted three years ago.
Denise is particularly worried about Dewey who, as the runt of the litter, has some medical issues and needs medication twice a day.
- Rising Action (Present State) – Explain the present state of the industry or area your product is targeted towards and highlight the weaknesses in existing solutions. You want to clearly set the table for why your solution is superior to anything that exists currently.
Tomas doesn’t want to board the cats because of a bad experience he had when he boarded his dog years ago.
Denise is also shocked at how expensive boarding an animal can be – let alone three cats!
And the couple feels a mixture of guilt and concern asking friends to watch the cats, particularly because of the precise nature of administering medication to Dewey.
The couple is concerned that they will spend their entire trip worried about the cats.
- The Climax (Your Solution!) – Now is the chance for your product to swoop in and save the day! You’ve established the characters and their problems – now present the solution. Show how your product meets all of the character’s needs and accounts for all of the problems you previously established.
Thomas’s co worker recommends HomePet. She used the service to find caretakers for her exotic fish while she was on assignment with a client and was pleased with the experience.
Thomas shows the app to Denise.
Denise likes that the app allows them to select specific caretakers with listed skills.
They select Leslie, who is studying veterinary science and has fantastic reviews from the HomePet community.
Having a veterinary student administer Dewey’s meds is a HUGE relief for the couple.
And Thomas likes that the caretaker can come into their home, so the cats can stay in a place that feels familiar and safe.
And best of all Leslie will send them updates to the app with each visit! The couple can enjoy their well-earned vacation and know that their fur-babies are in good hands.
- Denouement – Wrap it up with a brief summary. Give your audience a short recap of what they just heard.
Leaving our furry friends is difficult. It can have a hefty toll – both emotionally and monetarily. But HomePet allows clients to find local, vetted and insured caretakers that will give everyone – human and animal – peace of mind.
Tell Your Story
Stories have the power to change minds and educate in a way that a straight recitation of facts and figures can’t match. By becoming a better storyteller you become a better product owner – one more capable of explaining the full depth and relevance of your product to any audience.
For more information on storytelling in the technology space consider the following:
- Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron
- Stories That Stick: How Storytelling Can Captivate Customers, Influence Audiences, and Transform Your Business by Kindra Hall