Why a Product Manager Needs to Be a Great Storyteller

When he walked into venture capitalists’ offices to secure funding for his idea to make WiFi-connected doorbells and security cameras for homes, the founder of Ring didn’t launch into an analytical pitch about costs and revenue projections. He told those VCs: “We’re going to solve neighborhood crime.”

You probably know the rest, but in case you don’t, Ring went on to become an enormously successful company that Amazon bought for $1 billion.

What Ring’s founder was doing in those early fundraising meetings was brilliant, but it was actually quite a simple strategy: He was telling a great story.

The Product Manager Storyteller

As Donald Miller argues in his book Building a Storybrand, a product manager’s job is not simply getting products to market, but also communicating why customers need those products in their lives. In fact, even if you have the best product in your industry, you will still lose to an inferior competitor if their team knows how to paint a clearer and more compelling picture of how their product will benefit customers.

Why? The human brain has evolved to continuously scan its environment for opportunities and threats, to ask itself every time it receives a new message: “Is this worth my time and attention?” To do that, our brains need to quickly make sense of all incoming information. If a message (say, your product’s promise to a user) is too complicated, that person’s brain will almost certainly ignore the message, determining it’s not worth the effort to keep working to figure it out.

So how can you give your product’s message the best chance to break through that primitive brain filter so it instantly perceives what you’re saying as an “interesting opportunity” rather than “not worth processing”?

The answer is to use the best sense-making mechanism human beings have ever developed: the story. Here’s why.

3 Reasons Story Is So Important for Product Managers (or Anybody)

Stories simplify (and help us filter out the noise).

When describing the importance of simplifying your business message, author and podcaster James Altucher said, “I’m a former IT guy, so I understand how the technology works. But if I were trying to explain Amazon.com to someone who’d never heard of it, would I describe it as an algorithm-driven software application built on the TCP/IP platform? Of course not. Almost nobody would bother trying to process that, and none of that detail is important anyway. So I’d call it an online store.”

Altucher is right: One of the most effective ways to persuade someone with your message is to simplify it as much as possible. This way, the person can zero in immediately on what you’re trying to convey, without forcing their brain to work hard to figure it out.

And because it’s a framework that every one of us is deeply familiar with—from the fairy tales we heard as kids, and the movie we saw or novel we read last week—a story is the best way to simplify and package your product’s message.

Stories engage our emotions (which can persuade us).

Storytelling is also a great tool for a product manager because stories reach us on an emotional level, rather than an analytical one, and it’s our emotions that propel us to act.

If you are trying to persuade a market to try your new product, you will be much more successful by painting a picture for how that product will improve their lives (an emotional appeal) than by presenting a list of features or a comparison of how much more affordable your product is than a competitor’s (analytical appeals).

When you can describe an aspirational future for your user persona—“Imagine saving 15 hours of work a week with this product – time you can reclaim for more important tasks, or even just to have more freedom!”—you’ll be far more likely to move that persona to buy.

Stories are easier to remember than straight facts.

Let’s say you have to give a pitch to an audience. The details don’t matter; you could be pitching anyone about anything. Imagine, for example, those VC meetings where Ring’s founder was trying to secure funding for his startup.

The decision-makers in that pitch aren’t going to remember everything you say, every detail on every slide, and everything that happens in your meeting. But they are going to remember some of it.

In his book Pitch Anything, sales veteran Oren Klaff argues that it’s the emotional moments, where something intrigues your audience, or worries them, that they’ll remember. So why not package your pitch into story form—something with emotional resonance, something that intrigues them, makes them curious, and makes them want more—so you have some control over what they remember?

It doesn’t matter how great your pitch is, or how compelling you think the details are. Your audience isn’t going to buy whatever you’re selling because of the details—they’ll quickly forget almost all of them anyway. But they will remember the great story you told them, and if you told it well, it just might propel them to buy.

Now let’s discuss some specific examples of how and to whom your role as a product manager already involves telling stories—even if you’ve never thought of it this way.
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Whether They Realize it or Not, Product Managers Are Always Telling Stories

Your roadmap presentation is a story to your executives.

Taking into account everything we’ve discussed to this point, can you see why you’d want the product roadmap presentation you make to your executive stakeholders to be built around a great story—rather than a dry walkthrough of your planned features and epics?

Assuming you need your executive team’s approval to move forward with your product’s strategic plan, your best bet for securing that buy-in will be to build your roadmap presentation around a great story.

This could be a story about what you believe (and what your data supports) will be the benefits to your company when your product launches and is well received by the market. Or it could be a story about how your product is going to improve the lives of your user personas—making them more productive at work, for example, or making them heroes and heroines within their organizations.

When you organize the details of your product roadmap into a coherent and compelling story for senior leadership, you’ll be engaging them emotionally and putting a complex strategic plan for your product into a simple framework they can easily understand and remember. And that’s much more likely to lead to the buy-in you need than any boring recitation of features and timelines.

Your development and sprint planning meetings are stories for your developers.

There’s a good reason that in agile software development, the smallest standalone requirement a product team can write for its developers is called a story.

When you’re trying to communicate a product requirement to your development team, you don’t want to explain how you want them to build something—that’s their wheelhouse.
Instead, you’re trying to communicate why you want them to build something.

And the best way to do that is through the use of stories. The agile framework is brilliant in this regard because it recognizes the truth that product managers and developers speak different dialects. But one language we’re all familiar with is the story framework.

This is why you don’t tell your developers how to code what you need when to start, or which developers to put on which task. You simply tell that “the mobile user should have a persistent search bar at the top of each screen in the app.”

From that simple one-line story, your developers have all of the information they need to get the job done.

Your marketing and promotional materials present a story to users (or they should).

Finally, let’s talk about the protagonist in your product’s story: the user.

Going back to the book “Building a Storybrand,” author Donald Miller points out that you should use the actual elements of a real story—hero, guide, obstacle, villain, etc.—to build a message around your product or company.

Every product’s marketing materials tell some kind of story—whether compelling or boring. But according to Miller, you can significantly improve your message by clearly explaining all of these elements in the story you tell to your prospects. For example:

The hero: Your user
The goal: What your user wants (something to help them succeed or avoid failure)
The villain: Whatever is preventing your user from experiencing their goal today
The guide: Your product

As Miller points out, most products and businesses get this wrong because they cast themselves as the hero. But for your story to persuade anyone to buy from you, the protagonist—the one who will save the day—has to be the customer.

Say your product is a team collaboration app for small businesses. Your message can be as simple as this:

“Is your team wasting time and productive energy every day jumping in and out of different messaging and collaboration apps to get your work done? (The villain.) With the XYZ app (the guide), you can do all of your collaboration—chat, share files, assign tasks, and even have a video call—all in the same online workspace. (The goal.) No more email clutter, no more app hopping, and you (the hero) will make your team more productive than ever.

Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas for making your stories more compelling. If you have a story in the works or one that you’ve been using effectively, please feel free to share in the comments below!