Storytelling can be your product management superpower

Jon Harmer
5 min readDec 22, 2023
source: Midjourney

In the always challenging world of product management, product managers love to focus on innovation or user-centric design, but the ability to craft and communicate compelling narratives is a skill that sets exceptional product managers apart. Storytelling goes beyond mere anecdotes; it is a powerful tool that helps simplify your product’s message, engage your audience’s emotions, and make you and your product more memorable. And in a world where we as product managers have to influence without authority, storytelling is a crucial skill.

In 2009, a journalist named Rob Walker bought 200 random objects on ebay for a total of $129. He then reached out to 200 authors to have them write a story for each of the objects, and re-listed the objects on ebay. One of the items was a horse bust, purchased for $0.99. After attaching a (made-up) story to this object, it ended up selling on ebay for $62.95!!! The entire group of objects ended being sold for over $8000, all because someone added a story to them.

source: significantobjects.com

At its core, storytelling is about connecting with people on an emotional level. The Significant Objects experiment shows that people really value this emotional connection, even to what was essentially worthless junk. In product management, good stories can also help solidify abstract concepts and ground them in reality. By weaving a narrative around the product’s purpose and impact from the point of view of their users, product managers can simplify complex concepts and make them relatable even to non-technical audiences.

As a product manager, your job is not just about presenting features and functionalities; it’s about conveying a vision, addressing pain points, and inspiring action (in your team or in your customers). By framing your product or feature as part of a narrative structure that people can hold on to, product managers can make complex ideas more accessible, relatable, and memorable. Stories help to crystallize the “Why” for a product or feature, which is a key to product success.

Some examples of great product storytelling:

  1. Apple: One of the most iconic examples of effective product storytelling is Apple’s launch of the iPhone. Steve Jobs didn’t just unveil a new device; he told a story of technological evolution, weaving a narrative about a device that combined three things — a widescreen iPod with touch controls, a revolutionary mobile phone, and a breakthrough internet communications device. He spoke of a device that would change the way people communicate, work, and live by comparing how the world was vs how the world could be. He weaved some humor in. But by anchoring the product in a larger narrative of human progress and connectivity, Jobs created anticipation and desire that extended far beyond the device’s technical features. He did the same thing years earlier with the iPod launch, telling the story of “your entire music library in your pocket”
  2. Ring: Start with “Why.” When Jamie Siminoff walked into investors’ offices he started with “we’re going to solve neighborhood crime.” He didn’t start with features or financials, he anchored on a mission.
  3. Airbnb: Airbnb tells stories of travelers living in homes around the world and belonging anywhere. They revolutionized the travel and hospitality industry by transforming the way people find accommodations. The founders recognized the importance of building trust in a platform where strangers opened their homes to travelers. Through storytelling, Airbnb emphasized the human connections that could be forged through shared experiences. The narrative shifted the focus from renting a room to creating lasting memories, turning trust into a tangible asset and setting the stage for Airbnb’s global success.

Let’s delve into some practical tips for product managers looking to harness the power of storytelling:

  1. Know Your Audience: Tailor your narrative to resonate with your target audience. Understand their pain points, aspirations, and values, and craft a story that speaks directly to them. Use appropriate artifacts for different audiences.
  2. Conflict/Problem: No one likes a story that is missing tension or conflict. Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader, Gozer trying to destroy NYC in Ghostbusters. Conflict is essential to a story, and in your product story, the conflict is the probem that your users have. What do they want to do, why is that important to them, and why can’t they do it today?
  3. Create a Compelling Narrative Arc: Just like any good story, your product narrative should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Start by establishing context, build tension by addressing challenges, and conclude with a resolution that showcases the value your product brings. Talk about how things are and contrast with how they could be after your product.
  4. Use Concrete Examples: Ground your story with real-world (or at least realistic) examples from users that highlight the impact of your product. Whether it’s through customer testimonials or case studies, concrete examples add credibility and make your story more relatable.
  5. Embrace Authenticity: Authenticity builds trust. Share the journey, including challenges and setbacks. Authenticity makes your story more human and relatable, fostering a deeper connection with your audience.

As a product manager, storytelling is a potent tool that can transform a product from a bland set of features or technical specifications into a memorable, compelling narrative that resonates with users, motivates teams, and engages stakeholders. Product managers can harness the power of storytelling to elevate their products and leave a lasting impact on the market. So, the next time you find yourself presenting a product roadmap or pitching a new idea, remember that behind every successful product is a story waiting to be told. Craft it well, and watch your vision unfold into reality.

If you’d like to learn more about this, as well as how to drive more impact as a PM and flip your brain from outputs to outcomes so you can escape the feature factory, feel free to sign up for my course

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Jon Harmer

I understand users and buyers and their problems. I help solve those problems and communicate that value.