Storytelling is your PM superpower

I was recently reflecting on the following quote

Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.

Howard Thurman

The first thing that came to my mind was, languages. I’ve had some of the richest experiences by being able to communicate with people in their native language. For example, traveling around Japan in 2009. I want to continue having such experiences.

It takes a very long time and effort to get to fluency in a language. The rewards, however, are immense.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

Nelson Mandela

Language is a strong unifying force, and when two people speak the same language, it helps them build bridges, build rapport, and accomplish much more than we can imagine.

What does this means for product management?

Someone recently asked, as a Product Manager do you ever find ourselves wanting to learn more about design?

My answer, unsurprisingly after this preamble, is “absolutely, 100% yes.”

As a product manager, you are trying to speak many languages on a daily basis. The language of marketing, the language of engineering, the language of design, the language of partnerships. You bounce from team to team and, as you do so, you translate ideas, thoughts and feelings from one language to the other. The success of your product depends in large part on your ability to coherently bring these ideas together into a coherent strategy.

You will never become quite as fluent in any of those languages as your counterparts who are immersed in that discipline. Languages rapidly evolve and your colleagues will be fully immersed in the latest slang for their group, while you’ll dabble in it for a few hours here and there. However, to the extent possible, try to speak to your counterparts heart by speaking their language. And never stop learning about the various disciplines’ languages.

One caveat: remain humble. Don’t lose sight of where your limits are. When having a difference in opinion about design with someone who’s much more fluent than you in design, be careful not to overly push your point of view simply because you’ve passed the beginner phase in design knowledge. Propose ideas and explore alternatives together. When at an impasse, suggest getting additional input from users and/or other team members. Resist the urge of contributing too much to disciplines outside of your core language. For engineers turned into PMs, don’t try to dictate your engineering team’s technical design when writing your PRD.

Your core language

There is one language in which you should have primary command of and hone the most: the language of storytelling.

Human beings are able to organize and accomplish amazing things when they all believe in a story that is worth pursuing. You should work the hardest at figuring out why is it that your product matters and tell that story. What will the future look like with your great product initiative implemented? How will your users benefit? Tell that story day after day.

Everyone should understand that picture. Everyone in your team should be able to listen to it, understand why it matters, and be inspired to show up every day to help make that vision into reality.

As a PM, that’s your primary job. It is also your responsibility to drive towards the accomplishment of that vision by doing whatever you can to contribute to the story, as a core believer and participant in it.

Continuously refine the story as the world around you changes, your users change and your product evolves. Don’t forget to evolve your product story, or soon you will find yourself driving towards a vision that’s no longer needed in the world. You will be driving towards irrelevance.

Lastly, you should build an instinct for how your users will react to your product. Speak their language as much as possible and represent your users in your daily conversations. And remember, not all of your users speak the same language, so learn more and more about their language as you go and represent them throughout your company in all of your meetings.

Bringing it all together

I consider communication a PM’s superpower. As someone often seeking to drive initiatives forward through influence rather than authority, having a compelling story to tell and being able to distill it and translate it into what matters most to different audiences is crucial.

Time spent honing a compelling story, figuring out how to best communicate it, translating it for your various audiences, refining it, and lastly driving towards accomplishing it, is never wasted time.

Do this, and allow your teams to contribute their talents and skills towards helping you refine and accomplish that great story, and you’ll delight your users with a great product only a great story could have inspired.

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