Storytelling is continuously mentioned as one of the most important skills in Product Management.
Cool, but how do I get better at it?
Here's a very practical aspect of storytelling you can implement today. It has helped me communicate how to get to mature product discovery processes.
Hope it helps you in bringing complex concepts across. Maybe you can even steal this approach to evangelise discovery inside your organisation.
Storytelling is not about being heard
Storytelling is not about being heard. It is about being UNDERSTOOD.
Our modern work lives are filled with noise. With slack messages and email notifications. Modern tooling allows for information of all formats to be spread with ease.
Which makes us start to skim, cross-read and ignore more and more. It raises the bar of attention.
Holding a presentation, delivering emails or drafting decision proposals has become easier than ever - with modern tooling.
Getting a presentation, email or decision proposal to be truly absorbed has become harder than ever - due to modern tooling.
So what does technology (modern tooling) force us to do?
Improve our communication, improve our storytelling.
Being physically heard is not the same as being understood. Having your email be read is not the same as it being absorbed, digested and taken into account for further decision-making.
Visuals are a Powerful Communicator
In 2019 I came across a British guy on Twitter and later on YouTube called Jack Butcher. He has built quite a name for himself by now, but back then he didn't have much of a following.
Which was great for me. Because without hype around a person I find it much easier to evaluate the merit of their message.
And the message was clear and simple.
A major share of the value our work provides is "communication value". Or turned the other way round, communication problems reduce the value our work provides to others.
And Jack brought that message across using visualisation, such as the one above.
Visual Storytelling in Product
How do I apply visual storytelling to my Product Management work?
Let's jump into examples:
After I've been asked by a team on how (the hell) they will be able to achieve the ambitious OKRs set for them I created the following:
The team had struggled to understand that rushing to build was not the way. Rather to learn quickly, with a higher cadence. And that concept of frequent course corrections is a concept I find myself explaining over and over again.
I use the analogy of a rocket needing to have sensor to course correct. And that is what inspired that squiggly line in the illustration above.
Visual story telling is about distilling a concept down to the absolute essentials. You could call it a mental model. I cheat by adding some text. But having the constraint of adding only one sentence forces me to distill here too.
I aim to find different ways of illustrating a single concept, or concepts that are in the same spirit. Like the conversation that sparked the following visualisation. A technical lead as part of a product trio was looking for
These minimalist visualisations do not work for everybody, and that's ok. They are meant to be added to a bouquet of tactics to get my point across. I frequently use them together with
- analogies from other fields (like course correction of a rocket)
- a past experience of the exact concept applied (a story)
- artefacts of that concept in action (like a report, Miro board)
So, feel free to mix and match. The aim remains "being understood".
How To Find Your Visual Story Telling
A few words on how to develop your own style.
I know you have to learn the basics first. Meaning imitating the best, learning from them and then developing your own style.
Shuhari is a concept from the martial arts world which describes this well.
- Obey: Follow the best practices
- Detach: Find new approaches off the beaten path
- Leave: There are no rules anymore, you can now follow your intuition
That being said: There are so many ways to do visual story telling well.
Like Julia Steier, who creates extremely playful and intricate visual story telling illustrations. These works require
So, I would propose to start with some piece of visual story telling you really like. Imitate that style for the concept you'd like to explain and iterate from there.
Our jobs are mostly about communication. And spoken words are but one way to communicate.
Another way is the written word. But an often overlooked medium of communication: visual storytelling.
So, I invite you to experiment with this format. Take inspiration from what's out there and boost up a slide with a visual communication element. See how it goes. And take it from there.
That's how I did it. And while visual elements do not clarify all concepts to all people in an instant, they explain some concepts to some people that would have otherwise not understood.
And our jobs are about being understood, not merely being heard.
You can see a selection of visualisations from Jack here.