Storytelling is an important tool to have as part of your armour as a product person. This doesn’t mean that we should go around making stuff up, telling lies or sharing fables. In contrast, storytelling can be a very useful tool in any of the following situations:
- Selling a vision for a product or service idea
- Getting other people to buy into your strategy (product, go-to-market)
- Before you present designs
- Making tough tradeoff decisions
- Asking for (more) budget or investment for a product
- Explaining the value of your product to (non) customers
When it comes to storytelling, I learned the most from Sarah Doody. Back in 2008, Sarah wrote a great article titled “Why We Need Storytellers at the Heart of Product Development” :
- Facilitate collaboration and co-creation – This is the first goal of a product storyteller. Sarah highlights common tensions between product and marketing teams, who often work completely isolated from each other. As a result, marketing tells one story about a product or service, and product tells a completely different one. As a product person, working at the intersection between the wider business, technology and the customer, you’re in a great position to facilitate collaboration between different teams and help create a single story.
- Share and evangelise the story – So you think the hard work has been done once you’ve created story about the value of a product!? Think again. As the person who in my view bears ultimate responsibility for product performance, you’ll need to go out there and champion your product, both internally (with stakeholders, product development teams, the board, etc.) and externally (with customers, suppliers, etc.). Sarah rightly points out that when no one evangelises about about a product or service, people will quickly loose sense of the bigger ‘why’ behind the product.
- The story as a product differentiator – As Dan Pink has identified, the impact to story in business is that, “like design, it is becoming a key way for individuals and entrepreneurs to distinguish their goods and services in a crowded marketplace.” In other words, a compelling story will make it easier for customers to connect with your product or service.
There are number of different story types and techniques that you can use to tell a story that resonates:
Circular narrative – With a circular narrative, the story ends where it originated. You typically find circular narratives in poems, short films and novels. For example, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” opens with Alice playing outside on a riverbank. When she falls down a rabbit hole, she embarks on a journey through Wonderland before her sister awakens her, recalling her to the riverbank. If you apply this to everyday pitches or presentations, circular narratives can help to draw in an audience and provide closure at the end.
Fig. 1 – Picture of Alice on a riverbank – Taken from: http://www.proprofs.com/quiz-school/story.php?title=alice-in-wonderland
Refracted narrative – Like the circular narrative, the refracted narrative is another form of non-linear narrative. Events can be told in any order. A story may start in the middle or at the end, and finish at the beginning or middle. It’s almost like white boarding, where you can add elements to the story or your points as you work through things. If you look at examples in the film world, then Pulp Fiction come to mind: the film uses parallel storylines and combines different moments in time.
Fig. 2 – Screenshot from “Pulp Fiction” – Taken from: http://www.miramax.com/movie/pulp-fiction/
Hook – Irrespective of which narrative type you apply, it’s worth making sure that your story has got a “hook” to it. When telling a story, you can use a hook to kick off a narrative or you can refer to the hook throughout. For example, a hook can be an underlying theme or worldview that listeners can relate to and feel ‘hooked’ by. A strong hook typically helps to maintain people’s attention.
Button – So you’ve captured the interest of the listener or reader, and have kept them engaged throughout, how do you come to a clear conclusion of the story? A “button” is a technique that you can use to end a story with a satisfying resolution or a strong closing argument. Like the conclusion of a good book or film, a button should arouse curiosity or an emotional response from your audience.
Situation-Complication-Resolution framework – In 2014, Dave McKinsey introduced the “Situation-Complication-Resolution” framework, which I’ve found very helpful in taking listeners or readers on a journey, getting a problem, impact and resolution across in a short space of time. One of the things I like about this framework, is that you don’t have to apply it in a linear fashion:
- Start with the situation – You can start with the situation, then follow with the complication and end with the resolution. You’ll thus take the reader or listener on a fairly linear journey, painting a picture of the current state, building tension and urgency through the complication and bring closure through the resolution.
- Start with the complication – This approach follows a non-linear narrative form, by beginning in the middle of the action, and providing context after gaining the audience’s interest. In cases where you want to make sure that your audience is fully engaged right from the beginning, it can pay off to start with the complication.
- Start with the resolution – Starting with the proposed solution first, can really help in scenarios where the audience is short of time or very keen to hear the outcome. I’ve found that the risk with this approach, is that in pitch situations you might not get a chance to explain the context around your solution (i.e. situation and complication), as the audience is keen to hash out the proposed solution or talk through versions of it.
Fig. 3 – Applying the Situation-Complication-Resolution framework in linear and non-linear ways – Taken from: http://mitxl.onlinecampus.getsmarter.ac/mod/book/view.php?id=163&chapterid=77
Storyboarding, getting others to create the story with you – I recently did a sketching session at a digital agency where we went spent a lot of time sketching user interfaces for mobile, without really understanding the underlying customer story first. This is where I’ve found Sarah Doody’s storyboarding technique to be most helpful. Sarah’s key point is that “Before presenting designs, you should first formulate the story you’re telling through the designs” and storyboards offer an easy way of doing so. With the aforementioned sketching workshop, I felt we could have benefit from fully understand the customer and their current interactions first.
There are five key steps to cover in your storboarding exercise:
- Identify the problem
- Establish the characters
- Write out the moments
- Overlay moments with emotions, actions, thoughts
- Sketch out each scene of the end to end story
Naturally, you can make the storyboards as sophisticated as you’d like to. The key thing is to have a good set of clear scenes and characters that make up your story.
Fig. 4 – Sarah Doody – Scene Time Location example – Taken from: http://www.storyboardthat.com/storyboards/sarah/scene-location-time-example
For instance, the example above is quite high fidelity, but it doesn’t have to be. Doing a rudimentary sketch with some people who might not be sketching every day will work well too, especially as way to get everybody engaged in a single story.
Main learning: Being able to tell a story is a true and not an easy one to master – I feel I haven’t even reached ‘beginners’ level yet – but very important as a product person. Given that you’ll often have to work with a wide range of stakeholders, being able to influence or get to decision quickly is critical. A good story can defintely help in this respect!
Related links for further learning: