Product Framework: Storytelling for Product Managers
“A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward.” - Chris Anderson
What is storytelling
Storytelling is the process of using fact and narrative to communicate something to your audience. Some stories are factual, and some are embellished or improvised in order to better explain the core message.
While this definition is pretty specific, stories actually resemble a variety of things.
Storytelling is an art form as old as time and has a place in every culture and society. Why? Because stories are a universal language that everyone — regardless of dialect, hometown, or heritage — can understand. Stories stimulate imagination and passion and create a sense of community among listeners and tellers alike.
Every member of an organization can tell a story. But before we get into the how, let’s talk about why we tell stories — as a society, culture, and economy.
Why Do We Tell Stories?
There are a variety of reasons to tell stories — to sell, entertain, educate or brag. We’ll talk about that below. Right now, I want to discuss why we choose storytelling over, say, a data-driven powerpoint or bulleted list. Why are stories our go-to way of sharing, explaining, and selling information?
Stories solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages.
We’ve all experienced confusion when trying to understand a new idea. Stories provide a way around that. Think about times when stories have helped you better understand a concept … perhaps a teacher used a real-life example to explain a math problem, a preacher illustrated a situation during a sermon, or a speaker used a case study to convey complex data.
Stories help solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages. Taking a lofty, non-tangible concept and relating it using concrete ideas is one of the biggest strengths of storytelling in business.
Take Apple, for example. Computers and smartphones are a pretty complicated topic to describe to your typical consumer. Using real-life stories, they’ve been able to describe exactly how their products benefit users … instead of relying on technical jargon that very few customers would understand.
Stories bring people together.
Like I said above, stories are a universal language of sorts. We all understand the story of the hero, of the underdog, or of heartbreak. We all process emotions and can share feelings of elation, hope, despair, and anger. Sharing in a story gives even the most diverse people a sense of commonality and community.
In a world divided by a multitude of things, stories bring people together and create a sense of community. Despite our language, religion, political preferences, or ethnicity, stories connect us through the way we feel and respond to them … Stories make us human.
TOMS is a great example of this. By sharing stories of both customers and the people they serve through customer purchases, TOMS has effectively created a movement that has not only increased sales but also built a community.
Stories inspire and motivate.
Stories make us human, and the same goes for brands. When brands get transparent and authentic, it brings them down-to-earth and helps consumers connect with them and the people behind them.
Tapping into people’s emotions and baring both the good and bad is how stories inspire and motivate … and eventually, drive action. Stories also foster brand loyalty. Creating a narrative around your brand or product not only humanizes it but also inherently markets your business.
What makes a good story?
Words like “good” and “bad” are relative to user opinion. But there are a few non-negotiable components that make for a great storytelling experience, for both the reader and teller.
Good stories are …
Entertaining: Good stories keep the reader engaged and interested in what’s coming next.
Educational: Good stories spark curiosity and add to the reader’s knowledge bank.
Universal: Good stories are relatable to all readers and tap into emotions and experiences that most people undergo.
Organized: Good stories follow a succinct organization that helps convey the core message and helps readers absorb it.
Memorable: Whether through inspiration, scandal, or humor, good stories stick in the reader’s mind.
Three components that make up a good story — regardless of the story you’re trying to tell.
Characters. Every story features at least one character, and this character will be the key to relating your audience back to the story. This component is the bridge between you, the storyteller, and the audience. If your audience can put themselves in your character’s shoes, they’ll be more likely to follow through with your call-to-action.
Conflict. The conflict is the lesson of how the character overcomes a challenge. Conflict in your story elicits emotions and connects the audience through relatable experiences. When telling stories, the power lies in what you’re conveying and teaching. If there’s no conflict in your story, it’s likely not a story.
Resolution. Every good story has a closing, but it doesn’t always have to be a good one. Your story’s resolution should wrap up the story, provide context around the characters and conflict(s), and leave your audience with a call-to-action.
7 Storytelling Techniques Used by the Most Inspiring TED Presenters
Immerse your audience in the story.
Tell a personal story.
Bring characters to life.
Show. Don’t tell.
Build up to S.T.A.R. moment.
End with a positive takeaway.
1. Immerse your audience in a story.
A well-told story is something that will stick in your audience’s mind for years to come.
Take this simple yet exceptional TED talk as an example. In it, a 12-year-old Masai boy from Kenya named Richard Turere transports his audience to another world by telling a story about his experiences in his homeland. With basic words and slides with large, graphic images, Richard weaves a captivating tale of how he invented a system of lights that was able to protect his family’s livestock from lion attacks.
The reason this presentation was so successful was that every word and image presented helped to create a clear mental picture of the problem Richard and his family faced. Also, it clearly followed a golden rule of presentation-giving which is to use visuals that supplement your story rather than repeat what has already been said.
Another way to immerse the audience in your story is to provide sensory details that will allow them to actually see, hear, feel, and smell the different stimuli in your storyworld.
According to Akash Karia, this will turn the presentation into a mental movie that the audience cannot help but engage in, as is done in this TED talk.
Unlike novels, though, presentations must make use of short but effective descriptions.
2. Tell a personal story.
Few things are as captivating as a personal story, especially those of triumph over extreme adversity.
In his insightful book The Seven Basic Plots, author Christopher Booker finds that there are seven basic story plots that have universal appeal. These include the story of the hero defeating a monster, the rags-to-riches tale, the quest for a treasure, and the voyage of a hero who comes back a changed person.
These plots are clearly seen in some of the most popular and moving presentations ever given. Take, for example, this gripping and harrowing tale of a woman’s escape from her homeland of North Korea. Or this woman’s equally powerful story of domestic violence and how she found the courage to leave her abusive spouse.
3. Create suspense.
Those who love to watch movies or read books know that a good story always has to have a conflict and a plot. These two elements are what make a good presentation into a roller coaster ride that keeps listeners/viewers at the edge of their seats, asking themselves, “What will happen next?”
There are several devices that can increase the level of suspense of your story. One way is to tell a story chronologically and build up to a climactic conclusion, as is done here in this story about a woman who was born without fibula bones and grew up to be an accomplished athlete, actress and model.
Another way is to plop the viewer/listener right in the middle of action and then go backwards in time to reveal how all of this occurred.
A good example of this is Zak Ibrahim’s story, which begins with the revelation that his father was involved in the World Trade Center bombing. He then goes back in time to tell events from his childhood and how he grew up to choose a different path from his father’s.
A third way is to begin by telling a predictable story and then surprise the audience by taking a completely different turn from what was expected.
For example, this TED talk begins with a presenter who leads his audience to believe he doesn’t speak English, only to surprise them in order to make a point about how we construct identity.
4. Bring characters to life.
Characters are at the heart of any story. Their fortunes and misfortunes are what make people want to laugh, cry or rejoice.
The most successful stories, I found, were those that created three-dimensional characters who were easy to identify and, at the same time, had an uncommon characteristic.
In order to do this, you must provide enough detail to bring the character to life in the minds of those in the audience.
For example, master storyteller Malcolm Gladwell creates a vivid picture of Howard in this presentation by describing his physical appearance and mentioning his hobbies and obsessions.
5. Show. Don’t tell.
Instead of telling your audience about a certain event in a story, try showing them by transporting them to a scene.
For example, in the introduction to this article, I could have simply told you that I had an introverted classmate who one day wowed the whole class with an awesome presentation. This, however, would not have had the same effect as using descriptions of setting and conversations to take you to the middle of a scene.
So, whenever you deliver a story, try scene-by-scene construction of events and use dialogue instead of narration, as seen in this presentation which won the 2014 World Championship of Public Speaking.
6. Build up to a S.T.A.R. moment.
Similar to a climax, a S.T.A.R. moment is a “Something They’ll Always Remember” event that is so dramatic that your audience will be talking about it weeks later.
According to presentation expert Nancy Duarte in her book Resonate, this can come in the form of a dramatization, provocative images, or shocking statistics.
Bill Gates resorted to this technique in a 2009 TED talk when he made the case for increasing investment in eradicating malaria. He gave statistics to prove how serious the problem was and then shocked the room by opening a jar full of mosquitos, saying “There’s no reason only poor people should have the experience.”
7.End with a positive takeaway.
After analyzing 200 of the best TED talks, presentation expert Akash Karia found that the most effective presentations not only had a conflict and a climax, but also a positive resolution.
On the path to triumph, most characters in these stories received what he calls a “spark,” a key piece of wisdom or advice that helped them overcome their obstacles and change for the better.
This key takeaway message was then packaged into a short, memorable phrase or sound bite that could easily become viral on social media platforms like Twitter.
For example, in the previously mentioned talk on domestic abuse, the presenter concluded that instead of blaming victims, we should “recast survivors as wonderful, loveable people with full futures.”