Storytelling is what we do

Storytelling is what we do as product managers. Whenever I talk about the importance of storytelling, I’m always at pains to stress that storytelling isn’t the same as lying or being liberal with the truth. When I think about storytelling, I think about selling the vision for a product or explaining the value of a product.

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Particularly as a product person, I feel that stories are a powerful tool in taking people on a journey, These people could be team members, stakeholders, board members or customers. I was reminded of this significance when I recently read “The Science of Storytelling” by Will Storr. In his book, for instance, Storr draws a close relationship between stories and social emotions. “Gossip exists to teach us about other people, to tell us who they really are. Most concern moral infractions: people breaking the rules of the group. (…) We enjoy great books or immersive films because they’re activating and exploiting these ancient social emotions.” Storr also refers to a study done thirty years ago by Christopher Booker, which found seven recurring plots in story:

Overcoming the Monster — The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland.

Rags to Riches — The poor protagonist acquires power, wealth, and/or a mate, loses it all and gains it back, growing as a person as a result.

The Quest — The protagonist and companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location. They face temptations and other obstacles along the way.

Voyage and Return — The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses or learning important lessons unique to that location, they return with experience.

Comedy — Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion.

Tragedy — The protagonist is a hero with a major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. Their unfortunate end evokes pity at their folly and the fall of a fundamentally good character.

Rebirth — An event forces the main character to change their ways and often become a better individual.

Now, I’m not suggesting that product managers should become screenwriters or comedians — although humour in stories or interactions is underrated in my humble opinion

– it is important to have a clear plot or structure in the stories we tell. For instance:

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a lot of disruption, to people’s lives and businesses. [starting the story with the relevant situation or cause of the problem]

People have lost energy and a desire to undertake things. A recent study found that over — % of the world’s population hasn’t left their house for recreational activities since the end of the of the pandemic. [stating the problem and the impact of the problem]

“Go Out” will address this by inspiring people to go out and rekindle their love of the outdoors. This app will provide recommendations that will encourage people to leave their homes for nice activities, building up the recommendations in line with customer behaviours and interests. [introducing our solution to the stated problem]

We have now completed our Beta trial with over 1,00o users and will introduce the app to the app stores on iOS and Android next month, aiming for 20,000 active users by the end of the year. [ending with next steps and defining what success will look like]

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The simplest but in my view highly effective structure comes from Matt Abrahams, author of “Speaking Up without Freaking Out”:

“What?” — What is the problem, situation, opportunity or solution?

“So What?!” — Why should the listener care?

“Now What?!” — What are the next steps and why? What could or should the listener do next?

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Main learning point: The key for me when it comes to storytelling is about understanding your audience. In my latest book “Managing Product = Managing Tension” I write about empathy and understanding where the other person is coming from. This doesn’t mean that product managers should just tell the stories that (they think) people want to hear, but appreciate the role and importance of storytelling for the right audience and at the right time.

Related links for further learning:

Written by

Product at ASOS, author of "My Product Management Toolkit", family, boxing and founder of @hiphoplistings and blogging via http://t.co/uGr5nRye

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