Storytelling for Product Managers

Great entrepreneurs and product managers are great story tellers. We have all heard this adage but what do we mean by good story telling and why is it so important? While it is inspiring to hear great story tellers, the art of storytelling is very basic and simple. This article helps to peel the onion layers behind this adage.

Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash


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What do we mean by good storytelling?

Try to reflect on a story that touched moved and inspired you. It could a movie, a book, a video, a WhatsApp forward, or a conversation with a friend or family member. What was about the story that appealed to you the most? The comical nature, the emotions, the pitch, the narration, the acting, your connection? A good story is one that connects with its audience. That is it.

What is storytelling in a corporate set up

As a product manager you may be required to narrate your story to many people. Imagine a product proposal that you need to first sell to your sponsors to seek alignment and funding. Then you sell the same proposal to your team to inspire them with the ideation.

Storytelling is not about once upon a time. It is a connection. A connection between the speaker and the listener. There are just 6 simple rules for good storytelling.

1) Know your audience

2) Know yourself

3) Know your content

4) Know the set up

5) Know the wants

6) Make mistakes

1. Know your audience

The most important element in any storytelling is the listener or the audience. What do we mean by knowing the audience? So, you are going to pitch your product idea to the vice president of your organization. Is knowing the designation enough?

Here are a bunch of questions for you to ponder over.

  • You know the designation of your audience (I hope you do), but do you know the person behind that designation?
  • Do you know whether she has some context of your product idea, already? That may just save you the precious 5 minutes that you may spend on context setting.
  • Do you know what she must see in the product pitch? Maybe, she is a finance & numbers person who needs to hear business value while you focus your entire pitch on the customer value that your idea may accrue.
  • Do you know what irks her? Maybe, she likes getting to the point as fast as possible while here you are explaining your journey towards building your product?
  • Who all will be there in the room with her? Maybe, someone in her team understands her very well. Did you present your idea to that person to get a perspective of your own story?
  • And the list goes on.

Depending upon the answer to each question, you may change your pitch, your presentation, & your preparation. The moot point is, knowing your audience is the first step to any form of storytelling.

There could be scenarios where you just don’t know the audience and there is no way to get upfront information. E.g., let’s assume you are planning a talk at a university or an organization that has an open invitation for the event i.e., anyone can join as the audience. How do you get to know your audience better when even the organizers won’t know who is the audience?

Get creative. E.g., whenever I give talks to a large audience, I typically sit amongst the audience 30 minutes before my talk and start casual conversations to better understand my audience. Once, I had prepared a talk on idea to product for students at an engineering school, only to realize that some of those students were already CEOs of their companies. My talk would not have resonated with them since it was assuming that they are beginning with an idea and trying to build a product while these CEOs were struggling with operational issues therefore, I had to improvise. It would not have been possible had I not known my audience a little better.

There could be times at work when you do not know your audience. In such cases you do not have the liberty to talk to the audience 30 minutes before the meeting. You just enter a room, and the audience is not what you expected. What do you do in such situations? Again, get creative. You can summarize what you believe is your understanding of the audience and let the room correct you. E.g., in a customer meeting, I found staring at totally new faces since my previous liaison with the customer had recently quit due to an organization overhaul. I took the first 2 minutes of the meeting to state my understanding of what the audience already knew about the product. And guess what, my assumptions were totally wrong. My new customer liaison was not up to speed with our work. It took me 2 minutes to know my audience and that helped us to have a more meaningful conversation.

To summarize, knowing your audience well is the first stepping stone for effective story telling.

2. Know yourself

In one of my public speaking workshops, a student approached me and asked, “How can I be funny on stage.” I asked him, why does he have the need to be funny? He replied, “This is what he has learnt on YouTube videos, that being funny helps you connect well with the audience”. I agreed with him, and we both worked on him being funny. I gave him some tips however he soon realized that he was completely out of his comfort zone while being someone that he is not. We both reflected on what we were trying to achieve here. Our aim was for the audience to feel inspired after the talk and we assumed that being funny is the only way for us to achieve that goal, even though it is not what he was comfortable with.

For his next talk, we dropped the jokes and went with the tone that he was most comfortable with. Few months later, I realized he has a knack for speaking the most comical lines in the most serious manner and that itself was hilarious to the audience. I remember, how he introduced himself in the most somber tone, “A big forced grin on his face. Those who know me well, know that this is as funny as I have ever been in my life so don’t expect humor from me.” and the crowd immediately burst into laughter. No doubt, emotions help you connect with your audience, and true emotions only come when they come from within and are not forced.

Know yourself. Be self-aware. Understand what you are good at and what are areas that you need to work on. Look at yourself in the mirror while speaking or get one of your family members or friends to critique you on your speaking styles. Check if your jokes land well. Check if your tone is the right tone to deliver the message. Be comfortable with the content and yourself. If you are a laid-back person then showing energy on stage while jumping around the stage will not work. Your audience will see right through you, and you will not be able to connect with the audience.

3. Know your content

There is no substitute for preparation. You need to be thorough with what you wish to present, how you wish to present and the medium in which you want to present. The medium could be slides, word documents, videos, elevator chats, or just a plain old verbatim story.

Do a dry run of the presentation with your colleagues, friends, or family and see whether they leave the room with the key message that you wish to land. You can even do shadow practice on your own and see whether you sound fine. There is no substitute for preparation and good content. If your content is not good, it will act as a distraction to your otherwise impeccable speech.

In corporate world it often happens that someone else prepares the content that you have to deliver. We often make the mistake of taking the content as-is and force fitting our story into it. Remember that once you start speaking, it is your content and your story.

If you need to then make changes to the content to suit your style of the narrative. Let us assume you are presenting your product proposal in a slide deck. Here are some dos and don’ts that can help you in your preparation:

1) Keep the presentation crisp.

2) Do not include slides that you will not talk about.

3) You should share your content as a pre-read, to ensure the audience is up to speed. This will also help you know your audience upfront.

4) If you are sharing the slides as pre-reads then add the key message that you wish to land in each slide in the notes section so that your key message is not lost in the text.

5) Prepare — prepare — prepare

The best speakers who are able to ring your emotions are not just spontaneous speakers. They have practiced their content to make it so impeccable. Similarly, you need to know your content, your story, your medium like the back of the hand.

4. Know the set-up

Set-up is the environment in which you wish to narrate your story. Remember the golden rule of knowing the set up.

Arrive early.

Let’s say you are giving a public speech. Appear 30 minutes before the talk. There are a number of things I have learnt over the years after several mistakes that I made in my public speeches. Ask yourself,

1) Do you have the right dongles to project on the screen?

2) Do you have a memory card to share the presentation on another computer?

3) Do you have a slide changer?

4) Do you need a pointer?

5) Do you need a microphone?

6) If you walk and talk then you need a collar microphone.

7) If you need to refer to your slides while talking, you need an easel.

8) Do your videos work after projecting?

9) Do you have audio in your deck? Does that work after projecting?

10) Who is going to introduce you for the talk?

11) What is the trigger for you to enter the stage?

12) Is the lighting appropriate that allows you to see the audience while speaking? At times, the lights glare in your eyes and you are not able to see or connect with your audience.

13) And many more in the online world that I did not discuss.

You must know your set up else the most well prepared speech can send quivers up your preparation when the logistics are not working.

5. Know your wants

In public speaking, it is often said that you should be able to tell what your audience should take away after it exits the room. To answer this statement, you need to be very clear about two things:

1) The wants of your audience

2) Your own wants

Let me explain with an example:

These are questions I ask while writing each blog:

1) Why are you reading this blog post?

2) What do you WANT as my audience?

3) What do I want you to leave with after reading this post?

Here is the answer:

You should have at least 1 or 2 bullet points that you can internalize and implement in your next talk.

It is important for you as a speaker to be clear about what YOU WANT from the talk and what your audience MAY WANT from the talk. For example, let’s say you are pitching a product to your vice president.

Write down your wants on a piece of paper:

  1. I want my VP to be impressed with me
  2. I want my VP to like me
  3. I want my VP to invest in my idea

Also, think what your VP wants from this meeting:

  1. She wants to know whether this product idea is worth her investments
  2. She wants to understand whether it address customer and business value

Now, when you prepare your content, you must focus on both the wants. Remove items that are not helping you achieve the wants. Many times, we prepare one presentation for different audience segments, but we deliver the same pitch. That may not work. Since each segment may have a different want, therefore your pitch of storytelling may change depending on the wants of each audience cohort.

6. Make mistakes

Remember, no matter how hard you prepare and how good you are, mistakes will happen. Your message still may not land. You may still be rated an average speaker. It happens all the time. What do you do in such scenarios? Just continue to talk & learn.

One pro-tip, if you are beginning with public speaking professionally then try Toastmasters. It will help you talk so many times in different scenarios that you would get the basics of public speaking right 9 out of 10 times.

If you are reading this line, then it means that I was able to write something meaningful for you. Please post a comment regarding that one bullet point from the blog post that you were able to internalize and will try in your next talk. Leave a clap if this post was meaningful since that is my only measure of the effectiveness of the content.

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