Good Storytelling is Good Product Management

Posted on July 3, 2023.
Jeff on stage at the Product at Heart conference in 2023.

I’ve written about the power of storytelling here before yet after attending the Product At Heart conference last week in Hamburg, Germany I’ve become even more convinced in the criticality of storytelling as a key tool for good product management. The sad reality is that most product managers don’t lead with authority. They lead with influence. The best way to influence your team, stakeholders, customers and clients is through compelling storytelling. 

How many times can I tell a story?

You may wonder how many opportunities exist for you to tell stories. I believe that every single artifact product managers produce is a storytelling opportunity. There are the big ones — the roadmaps, the business cases even the dreaded Product Requirements Documents (PRD). These may seem obvious as initial targets but don’t miss out on the “smaller” opportunities. Every user story, hypothesis, research report and JIRA ticket also provides an opportunity to shift mindsets. 

Each deliverable is a chapter in the overarching story of the product you’re building. Tying them together in a cohesive narrative paints a clear thread for your colleagues to follow. The reasons behind the work become clearer. The drivers for the current efforts and the goals we are targeting give context. If we can provide that context at the right time and the right “flight level” we increase the team’s confidence and their push to solve the right problem in the most effective way. 

Compelling elements for stories of any size

Outside of the bigger documents, the smaller story opportunities don’t provide you with a lot of room to write. Unless you want to write hypotheses that are 3 paragraphs long (pro tip: you don’t), you’ll have to focus. Here are the components that should exist in every story:

  • Target audience — make sure your persona features in every story. You don’t have to describe it in detail. Ensure it has a clear name (e.g., “the frequent shopper”) and a link to more details where the whole persona is stored.
  • Target outcome — the desired behavior change the artifact is working towards provides a clear definition of value and done. Keep it clear and specific (i.e., make sure it has a number)
  • Core idea — what’s the meat of the story you’re telling? Is it a feature? A new service? A directional change? This is the time to share it. 

Remember that each of these elements should be as long as it needs to be and no longer (i.e., keep it short). Be as specific as you can be making sure to avoid ambiguous words. Use the short format as a constraint challenge. It’s easy to tell a long story. Can you tell a short one?