Why product leaders must master the art of storytelling
Petra Wille is a freelance Product Leadership Coach who’s been helping product teams to boost their skillset and up their game since 2013. She is the author of “Strong Product People.”
“Storytelling is a critical skill for product leaders when they need to motivate their teams or bring the wider business on board with their product vision and strategy.”
One hot summer morning, my young daughter insisted on wearing her heavy winter boots to school. Given the warm weather, I told her not to wear those boots. This led to the typical childish pleading familiar to all parents.
But then, my daughter stopped complaining and started a story.
She told me about a game based on the Disney movie Frozen she and her friend had been playing the previous day. The pair thought that having winter boots like the main characters would make the game even better. Both agreed to wear them to school the next day.
Now I understood the context behind my daughter’s unusual request. I heard a story that made it much easier for me to say yes. She wore those boots to school that day.
From a very young age, we understand the power of storytelling. But as we grow older, we often forget to use this power or dismiss stories as trivial when compared to the logic of data or a well-reasoned argument.
I still believe in stories and their ability to inspire action. I think storytelling is a critical skill for product leaders when they need to motivate their teams or bring the wider business on board with their product vision and strategy.
But too often, leaders lack the confidence to tell good stories. Instead, they fall back on facts that can bring someone over to your side but rarely gets them fully behind you.
We all need to overcome our inner critic and re-embrace the power of stories. Here’s how to be a better storyteller who can turn doubters into believers.
Whenever Steve Jobs spoke at an Apple product launch, he used a classic three-part story structure to set up the problematic status quo, describe the challenges involved in changing it, and then finally reveal Apple’s solution.
Barack Obama often recounted tales from his childhood or about his parents to demonstrate his unique presidential perspective on the issues facing the United States and the world.
It’s not just individuals who succeed by telling stories. Companies with iconic brands have also mastered the art and can inspire customers to imagine a better future with just a few words.
Whether it’s Nike’s “Just do it”, L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it” or Airbnb’s “Belong anywhere”, these slogans are the compelling opening lines of each organization’s broader brand story.
Successful people and businesses understand that stories impact people on a biological level. Hearing a great story makes our brains light up by triggering the release of powerful hormones:
- Oxytocin, which causes us to build trust, generosity, and a personal connection
- Endorphins, which can make someone laugh or help them deal with fear, pain, or uncertainty
- Dopamine, which leads to a desire to know what happens next when you tell a story with peaks and troughs that lead to cliffhangers
It’s likely that these chemical reactions evolved because they helped our species work together to solve problems more effectively. Thousands of years ago, the unique gift of language allowed Homo sapiens to take a collective approach to hunting and gathering food.
Today, stories remain a critical tool in how we overcome challenges, build trust, and deal with uncertainty. Their value is felt in all aspects of our lives, from a child choosing footwear to our collective response to the global pandemic. There is no reason why we shouldn’t use storytelling to enhance product management.
“We think in stories, remember in stories, and turn just about everything we experience into a story”
When I worked as a product manager for a job board service, my team was strong on output. We got stuff done. But none of it seemed to translate into good outcomes. Traction metrics were poor, users rarely provided feedback, and new features didn’t make much difference.
I conducted product discovery initiatives to figure out what we were doing wrong, but I struggled to build a consensus among stakeholders about how to fix our problems. When I mentioned my frustration to my then mentor, Marty Cagan, he hit me with a hard truth: I wasn’t a good storyteller.
Marty felt that I was failing to communicate my product discovery learnings in a way that motivated my team and other stakeholders. As I wasn’t connecting these individual findings to the big picture of our product, my team was left uninspired, while stakeholders had no reason to get behind our efforts.
Having identified my lack of storytelling skills as an issue, Marty encouraged me to work on them and recommended Guy Kawasaki’s book, Selling the Dream. The marketer behind the success of the original Apple Macintosh notes that telling great stories about a product creates evangelists: people who believe in your idea or product and promote its value to others.
Understanding the critical importance of stories and developing my storytelling skills changed the rest of my career as a product manager. My stories now united my development team, convinced stakeholders to back our ideas, enhanced our marketing and sales, and most importantly, helped me to figure out what really mattered to our users.
“Telling great stories about a product creates evangelists: people who believe in your idea or product and promote its value to others.”
Stories are a perfect design tool because:
- Everyone has the ability to create one
- It’s easy to iterate on a story
- They provide more clarity about what you’re trying to achieve
If you’re struggling to convince your team and stakeholders that your strategy will work or that you’re building the right features, storytelling might be the way to make your ideas resonate.
But how do you get started?
The first, and perhaps most critical, step is to dedicate time to writing your story. Trust me, the hours you spend now crafting a great story will save you from wasting many more later in endless, frustrating meetings. The upfront investment is worthwhile, so find a slot in your calendar.
Next, decide whether you’ll put your team or the user at the center of your story. Then choose a structure. A clear beginning, middle, and end makes it easier for people to understand the point of your story.
The “hero’s journey” is a classic structure that underlies many of the best-known stories from The Odyssey to Star Wars. Outlined by professor of literature Joseph Campbell, it describes a main character’s journey from their ordinary world through a call to adventure and a transformative conclusion. The journey can take the form of a simple three-act structure or expand into more stages if your story demands complexity.
The quickest way to start writing a story is to fill in the blanks in the following template:
We want to ________________________________
In order to _________________________________
Because if we don’t, _________________________
Once you have the bare bones of your story in place, it’s easier to flesh out the details.
“Good stories…stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that a PowerPoint…never can.”
Once you’ve written your story, you need to make sure that it works. To get your audience excited about your idea, your story needs to include certain key elements. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Have I painted a picture of a desirable future?
- Is it clear why the listener should be part of this future?
- Does the story acknowledge the current situation while describing the potential difficulties that may arise and why it’s worth overcoming them?
- Does it suggest a common goal, while providing enough clarity on the next steps?
Next, you need different versions of the story. While you’ll occasionally have the floor for a full presentation, other times you may only be assigned a short segment in an agenda-packed meeting or have the ear of a critical decision-maker for the length of your elevator ride together.
That’s why you should create the following three variations so you can always deliver your message, whatever the occasion:
Short: Your elevator pitch should be no more than approximately 150 words and take about 75 seconds to deliver. You need to deliver your set-up, challenge, and resolution quickly while retaining the overall impact of your story.
Medium: This version can be about 900 words and take 6 minutes to deliver, but don’t assume you’ll have everyone’s full attention throughout. Start with what you are going to tell them then finish by reminding them what you just told them. That helps ensure your message gets through to wandering minds.
Long: You may have the room booked for an hour, but resist the temptation to make your story longer than 18 minutes. TED talks are restricted to that length for a reason. As TED curator Chris Anderson says, “By forcing speakers…to bring it down to 18, you get them to really think about what they want to say.”
Use visuals to help tell your story, especially in the medium and long versions. Drawings, illustrations, pictures, graphs, and memes can keep your audience engaged and help make your story stick.
Now you’re ready to start testing your story. Share it with a small number of people and observe how they react. Are they drawing the right conclusions? Did you provoke their emotions and inspire them to be part of the future you envision? Did they laugh?
Rework your story based on this feedback. You may need to add more emotive language or even a joke or two to ensure that you’re really lighting up the brain of your listener. Cut down on buzzwords, tool names, and abbreviations, as these can cause people to tune out.
“The best stories never sound like the teller is pushing a specific point of view. Instead of convincing people of a position, a good storyteller inspires them into action.”
When you tell your story, speak to the hearts and minds of your audience. Show them your curiosity, passion, and vulnerability. This helps listeners connect to the story, making them more likely to remember and retell it.
For this is the ultimate power of storytelling. When a listener takes your tale and makes it their own, your ideas go further. They live beyond you, the original storyteller, making it more likely that you’ll inspire action and achieve your vision.