Storytelling differentiates the average Product Managers from the awesome Product Managers. There is literally no other skill that comes close when it comes to differentiating PMs. Given that PMs lead by influence, not being able to tell a consistent, compelling story, is going to slow down your career progress.
I have been curious about how PMs come up with, and tell great stories. What differentiates great stories from mediocre ones? When should stories be used? And is there a “checklist” that you can follow to come up with an amazing story? Let’s get into it.
One of the most compelling books I have read on this topic is Made to Stick. The book provides three core elements of a good story:
Great stories are simple. They make it simple for the reader to understand the core message. The key to simplicity is to prioritize the most important elements and use something relatable for the user as an analogy.
Great stories have inherent conflict. They have some inherent conflict that grips the reader’s emotions.
Great stories have a hero. The hero brings change to the world. Change is most compelling when the reader can see himself/herself as the hero.
Now let’s bring these elements to life with an example from Drift, a fast-growing Boston startup helping re-shape how marketers work. Take a look at their story page. (Yes, they have a story page!). The story follows the following framework.
What is changing in the world?
What is the conflict?
How can we resolve the conflict?
Why are we the right people to play a part in this change?
Drift says that the way we communicate is changing. Very simply — we instant message. We like to get immediate responses.
But there is a conflict between how people market and sell and how they communicate. Why should you communicate with businesses any differently than how you communicate with real people?
The existing method of communicating with businesses seems to be that you fill out a form, then you get an endless series of emails from the business, and eventually, calls to buy from them.
The way to resolve this conflict is exactly what Drift offers: instant messaging for Marketing and Sales powered by Bots so that you don’t have to reply to everyone!
Drift’s story page begins by establishing credibility. David and Elias — the co-founders of Drift — first started Performable, which was acquired by HubSpot in 2011. They establish upfront that they are best suited people to play a role in the change they are about to mention. They have played a major part in how companies market and sell by leading the Inbound revolution (i.e., attracting customers through relevant and helpful content) while they were at Hubspot. And now at Drift, they are once again re-shaping how marketers operate.
PMs tell stories all the time, but let’s go deeper into some areas where stories are most important.
Let’s face it — you can only be a great PM if you have a great team. And a team becomes great when it is united and dedicated towards your mission. People go the extra mile if they believe in what they do — both logically and emotionally. They need to deeply understand why what they do matters.
There are two aspects of storytelling that are vital in this situation.
The first one is consistency. Don’t follow a different theme each week. The stories you tell must follow the same core message week to week. Inconsistency gives the impression that you don’t have your story straight. As the great saying goes “Repetition does not spoil the prayer.”
The second one is customer focus. It is much easier to inspire teams by showing the impact you are having on your customers, rather than impact on internal business metrics.
One way we keep our team at Google motivated is via our weekly kickoff meeting. We begin the meeting with a “customer share,” highlighting a story where we were able to make an impact for our customers, and kept them happy and delighted to be using our products, and to be working with us.
One of the ways leaders shape behavior is by showcasing what awesome looks like. Recognize people who act in amazing ways. It will not only inspire them, it will paint a picture of what behaviors are valued in your organization.
There is an approach called “working backwards” that is widely used at Amazon, and now at other places. For new initiatives, a product manager typically starts by writing an internal press release announcing the finished product. The target audience for the press release is the new or updated product’s customers. Internal press releases are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.
Before a single line of code is written, before a screen is designed, before anything is shipped, you need to clarify what is the story you are telling your customers. It should be convincing. It should inspire. It should be consistent with what your company stands for. And more than anything, it should matter to your customers
As per Simon Sinek’s great Ted talk, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Before you sell your customer on your specific product and its features, convince them that you are the kind of people they want to work with. Show them what you stand for. Express why your product exists in the first place, and why you care personally about the the specific problem you are solving.
As a PM, you have to learn how to sell yourself. To get the next responsibility, the next career move, the next job. And the medium you use is stories.
PMs love to quantify impact on their resume. And that is great. But what will get you the job is the ability to tell a compelling story about what you did, what situation you did it in, what it meant for your customers and your company, and why it personally mattered for you.
This is the most important category in my opinion. What story do you tell yourself, about you? Why do you exist? What is your mission? What change do you want to bring in the world? Why does it matter to you personally? What are the two or three incidents during your life that have gotten you to where you are?
This is a force multiplier. I have found that unless I clarify why doing something matters to me personally, and unless I clarify the narrative to myself, I will give up at the earliest signs of trouble. But if I get to the root of what matters to me and why, I will be resilient, I will face discomfort, stretch beyond my comfort zone, and likely achieve what I set out to achieve.
Let’s get through a simple way of writing that story you want to tell. Answer the following questions in as much detail as you can, and you will see a story emerge!
Who do you hope to influence through this story?
What do you want them to feel?
What do you want them to do?
What are the conditions that have lead to conflict? Has the world changed in some way but not in others?
What is the conflict?
How can the conflict be resolved?
What can you/your product do to resolve this conflict?
Why are you the right person to resolve this conflict?
Is your story clear?
Is there something relatable that you can use to simplify the story? Some sort of metaphor, some sort of analogous story that will make it easier to grasp?
What would you say if you had half the time and space to tell the story? What will you cut?
Use the structure provided here to clarify your story to yourself. Remember the four elements — the change in the world, the conflict, the resolution, and the people behind the resolution. And then tell me, how did it all work out for you?
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