Storytelling is at the heart of product management. Whether referring to assembling the nuts and bolts of product delivery, crafting a product strategy, or selling a product vision, stories are key to both successful product development and customer engagement as a whole. I’d even argue that stories—and no, I’m not just talking about user stories—are also integral to the execution of projects. A story—that simplest of frameworks—serves as a musical counterpoint, if you will, to the formal project management phases.
Consider below some general reasons for using stories (and prepare yourselves for some unapologetically mixed metaphors). In a later blog entry I’ll focus on storytelling and specific applications to product management—but I’ll set the stage first before the curtain rises.
A story is familiar.
Stories are familiar in two crucial aspects: the listening, and the telling. Everyone understands stories. We hear the opening lines of a story, and we can already visualize a protagonist, and expect some sort of resolution. This act of listening to a story is deeply ingrained, a skill we’ve practiced since childhood. For some of us a story was the last thing we heard before we drifted off to sleep.
Everyone tells stories. You get home and someone might ask you, “So how was your day? What happened today?” Unless you’re a sullen teenager, you respond by fishing for highlights—also known as “events”—from the undifferentiated stream of time that comprises the workday. You weave these events into something coherent, “by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images,” as Joan Didion famously wrote. You use stories all the time to fashion something interesting out of something dull, or to transmute chaos into order. Stories are alchemical that way, and you, too, have that not-so-secret art at your fingertips.
A story is a door to other worlds.
Stories let you enter different worlds, whether they are thinly sketched or lushly painted. Even for just a brief moment, you conjure someone’s world, and, most important, a person’s experience in that world: whether it’s a princess-in-training in a rainforest kingdom patrolled by gleaming metal unicorns; two sisters sharing an umbrella at a bus stop somewhere in rural Japan; a pregnant woman in a remote rural village in India, miles away from a hospital, about to go into premature labor; or a harried office worker in a cubicle with a messy desk and a monitor festooned with Post-Its. (Or—if you’re in the software application development biz like me—especially if that world is a cubicle with a messy desk et cetera.)
That last example was not meant to imply that a story’s ideal protagonist is someone similar to the listener. (In this lies stasis; we should constantly strive to listen to, and amplify, those voices different from ours.) Stories are effective because they help bridge the so-called empathy gap; they facilitate understanding of people and the worlds in which they live. Stories create feelings of emotion for the listener. Which leads me to…
A story involves emotions.
Stories resonate emotionally with listeners, far more than just a cold recitation of facts. Indeed, a story doesn’t just involve emotions, it creates them. Engenders them. Arouses them. And in product management—same as in writing fiction!—it’s that emotional connection you want to create with listeners and potential customers. This isn’t being sneaky or manipulative; human beings are emotional beings after all.
The single-best case you can make for research is an illuminating story. Sometimes one story that is real can reach people and be the foundation of a project.– Cyd Harrell, on stories and user research
A story makes numbers come alive.
I get it. The suits love numbers. Give them a heap of rich and chewy qualitative data, and it’ll still be the numbers that make them sit up straight. (Which is why Jared Spool recommends that UX practitioners speak in the suits’ language, by tying UX design to increasing revenue or decreasing operational costs.)
Numbers are important. But there’s nothing like a vivid story to drive the point across and give your proposition an extra charge. Stories put flesh on dry bones. Think of the common expressions “putting a human face on” something, or “the story behind the numbers.” As Nancy Duarte says, “Data doesn’t speak for itself, because it needs a storyteller to tell what it means.”
Anyone can make a slide deck that enumerates product features or announces accomplishments. Congratulations; you’ve made an awesome product. But reframing those slide decks as stories make them far more compelling and more memorable—especially if these stories are about people and how your product helps them.
A story is portable.
There are more familiar adjectives or metaphors to describe this aspect. For instance, stories are communicable, transmittable, shareable—which is why the metaphor of a virus is so germane, pardon the pun, to the way information spreads in the age of the internet.
But I like thinking instead of stories as portable, as things I can easily carry with me to different places. No slide deck or collateral material necessary. Or imagine a story as an object you can give to someone, like a gift. As something that can be exchanged. Then imagine your recipient giving the story to someone else. Stories survive because they’re passed on.
A story creates community.
Imagine ancestors gathered around a fire, or a family around the dining table. Your listeners—potential customers, or your product team—begin to form a common experience, a shared understanding. That “shared understanding” is affirmed even on a neuroscientific level! I like imagining storytellers and listeners vibrating in sympathy with each other.
And because they’re portable and memorable, stories are woven into the fabric of everything else members of a community share, whether values, or traditions, or knowledge—in short, culture.1
A story is a framework.
Stories are intuitive ways of organizing and understanding the world. Imagine a story as the scaffolding around which your marketing pitch is built. Or, to push the argument even further, start with a story as the very basis of your product strategy. (A real story is way better than a made-up one in this case.) Stories come conveniently pre-installed, as it were, with a familiar structure and conventional elements.2 How do you tell and retell your product’s story so that it ends with
successful outcomes for your customers “And they all lived happily ever after?”
But what do I mean when I write “story” in product management? Do I mean, more specifically:
- a philosophy
- a product strategy
- talking points
- a Unique Positioning Statement
- selling points
- value propositions
No. I am not talking about any of those things.
I’m talking about a real story. A story with that familiar structure of a beginning, a middle, and an ending. I’m talking about a story with those conventional elements of a hero grappling with a problem—maybe even a villain!—and figures out, with help, how to do it herself.
In my next piece I’ll write more about storytelling specific to product management.
Yes, I have footnotes (because old habits die hard)
1Writ large, histories can be seen as those collective stories either formally sanctioned by the state, or informally as “conventional wisdom.” In 2020 America, it became even more necessary to interrogate how these received histories came to be. Who are the storytellers that get to write history and define the community? Whose voices have been silenced and forgotten? And what are these stories that America tells itself?
2I do not mean to run roughshod over the many different cultural forms of storytelling (particularly oral storytelling) and the ways in which stories are employed. Certainly many stories do not adhere to the Aristotelian three-act structure. Similarly, what seems like so-called “cultural universals” may not be shared in other traditions. Take for example the concept of an individual protagonist in a story—because why shouldn’t “protagonists” be collective, or in the first-person plural? Or even the idea of an ending—because why shouldn’t the telling of a story be the simple unspooling of event after event, only to stop once the storyteller runs out of ideas, or the audience has fallen asleep? Nonetheless in this piece I focus on the arguably dominant mode of storytelling as advanced by the Hollywood / Silicon Valley / New York media industrial complex.