Storytelling and product development

Storytelling is a crucial part of any product marketing strategy. Why does it matter and what are initial steps to consider when crafting that story?

Storytelling is key in product development. It can be easy de-prioritize or overlook, but it has a major part to play in your go-to-market motion. Understanding why it matters and how to frame it, are paramount as you craft a product story.

Why storytelling matters

Very few people ever buy anything, because of logic, veracity, precision, or statistics. 

Most of us choose a thing, or do a thing, or buy a thing, or join a thing, because of the myth/fiction (or story) around that thing.

Yuval Noah Harari, a Israeli historian and best-selling author in his book Sapiens talks about story this way. I quote selected excerpts from chapter 2 of that book. 

“Fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states. Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers… Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. States are rooted in common national myths. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths.”

excerpt from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens

Literally everything about life revolves around telling stories, and convincing people to believe them and reorient their lives around those stories. 

Yuval goes on to say…

“Modern businesspeople and lawyers are, in fact, powerful sorcerers. The principle difference between them and tribal shamans is that modern lawyers tell far stranger tales.”

excerpt from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens

Yuval’s synopsis of storytelling is analogous with the late Steve Jobs, who said:

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.”

Steve Jobs of Apple fame

Ben Horowitz says it this way:

“If you don’t have a clearly articulated story, you don’t have a clear and well thought-out strategy. The story is the strategy.”

Ben Horowitz, investor and author

The story you craft about your product or solution, is as important as the level of design and engineering thoughtfulness. 

Stories are powerful because they excite oxytocin in a person. You build trust through storytelling, because stories trigger oxytocin in the brain.

framing a product story

The mistake so many product people make (heck even companies of all sizes make), is to center themselves in the story. 

Obi-Wan giving Luke his father’s lightsaber

Great products are talismans, objects of power and intrigue, that accelerate people forward on their personal path.

Great products are always a little bit offstage, never the star, never the sole reason. These products are aligned to who they are and what they hope to accomplish.

In the same way that great product managers (and great companies) focus entirely on their users and the problems worth solving…

Great product marketing managers (and great companies) decenter themselves, their product, and their company… 

So many product stories cast their company or product as the conquering hero and their customer as territory to be conquered.

This has to be flipped on its head.

It’s never about you or your product…

Additional Resources

+ Why a Product Manager Needs to Be a Great Storyteller
+ The Five Principles of Persuasion
+ Why Narrative Design Will Replace Product Positioning in 2020
+ Storytelling for Product Managers
+ Storytelling and Luke Skywalker
+ Use Story Frameworks to Transform Your Traditional Product Marketing Into Storytelling
+ How Winners Really Differentiate
+ To Create a New Category, Name the New Game