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Product Managers need to tell compelling stories

A product manager is like the coach of a football team. Only he also has the additional responsibility of making them aware of what tournament they are playing in and what the rules of the game are.

Just like a football coach doesn't actually play in the game, the product manager doesn't either. He doesn't write code, he doesn't design prototypes, and he doesn't build data science models. Yet, when the team is underperforming and not delivering on expectations, like the football coach, the product manager is the first to take the responsibility and the blame. And when the team is doing great, then again like in football, it is the team that is at the forefront and not the product manager.

Having to work in such a scenario, one of the key skills a product manager needs to have is the ability to influence and motivate people - to get the team to buy into his vision, to get them to understand his philosophy and to execute on it without errors. And one of the key aspects of influencing people is the ability to tell compelling stories.

Outside of being a Product Manager, I write blog posts daily, I write fiction (I've published one book and am working on another), and I do stand-up comedy. All of these teach how to influence people. If I have to be good at any of these, I have to be good at telling compelling stories. And the better I get at these, the better stories I can tell my product team to influence them to work on my vision.

Here are seven things that I have learnt about telling compelling stories from writing and doing comedy, that I can translate directly to my work in product management:

1. Understand the audience

While writing, I have to pick metaphors that my audience understand and get. If I start using metaphors from 18th century England, even though that makes for excellent English literature, it doesn't help me get across my point. And when I don't, the audience leaves and I've lost them forever.

While doing stand-up comedy, I need to tell jokes about situations and scenarios that the audience I'm performing in front of understand and get. If I'm telling a joke about how southern Italians think northerners are not Italians at a pub in Bangalore, I won't evoke any laughter as nobody will get the context. Instead, if I talk about start-ups and the traffic, I have a much higher probability of doing well.

The foremost thing to do as a Product Manager is to have a good sense of what the people I work with are influenced by, and I have to work with a lot of people - engineers, designers, data scientists, other product managers, CEOs, sales people, etc).

People come from a variety of backgrounds, hold varying world views, and are motivated by different things. Just like a football coach can't hope to motivate the 18-year old youngster and the 32-year old veteran in the same way, the Product Manager needs to learn to put his point across in a way that every member of the team gets it.

2. Have a core reason for why they should care

While understanding the audience is the first part, what it really helps with is identifying and formulating that core reason as to why the audience should care about what I have to say. 

Once the motivations of the audience is understood, the story they are told needs to address a core reason that will get them on board. If I have an engineer that cares the most about working on the latest technology, and I'm harping on with a story of how impactful the changes we make could be to the users, I won't get him on board. It will be the equivalent of writing about the arc of a hero to a tech audience. They simply won't care.

The story I tell needs to address the core reason of every person of the team. 

Sometimes, it is hard to stitch together a story that addresses the core reason of every person on the team. And when that is the case, that team is too disjointed to succeed and it is better to structure the team in a different way. 

3. Have strong credibility

If I'm writing about how to evaluate startups for investments, or if I'm telling jokes from the vantage point of a north Indian, even if I say all the right things, they won't resonate with the audience. Because I have given them no reason to believe me or take me seriously. I must make my claims sound credible and the only way to do that is to actually gain the credibility.

If I'm working on a technical product, the engineers know way more about it than I do. And I take a back seat and let them run the show on most decisions and guide them in the right direction when it comes to identifying core user needs and taking the product to market. 

While at the same time, I will invest my time in getting to know the technology better and in a deeper way, so that I can make meaningful contributions to the architecture and design discussions. 

If I'm unable to do this, I will be like a football manager who never played the game professionally talking about how to deal with the situation of being two goals down at half time in front of the home crowd. 

In order to influence, I need to be perceived as having credibility on the things I'm saying. 

4. Have strong content

If I get all three things right, that's only setting up the platform for being taken seriously. The real test comes with what I have to actually say. With the story I have to tell.

If I do all three, but write trivial things on my blog, nobody will read it. If I do all three, but tell lame jokes, nobody will laugh. 

Strong content and compelling stories always introduce a perspective that hasn't crossed the audience's mind before. It is something that will make them think. Jerry Seinfeld can talk about answering machines and still be funny because he notices something that the audience hasn't already. He brings in a new perspective. 

Without that, the credibility that I have will soon erode and turn into pixie dust. I need to constantly show up with strong content in order to influence the people I work with.

5. Be humble

If I write about how great I am and how everyone should treat me as a role model and follow my ideas, nobody will read it. People don't like a**holes. Instead, if I talk about my vulnerabilities and show that I'm going through the same troubles and issues that my audience is facing, but am trying my best to overcome it, then people can relate to it and are more likely to pay attention to it. 

As a Product Manager, if I go out and act like it is my opinion that should count above everyone else's, then I'd fall out of favour faster than Rahul Gandhi did. 

It is vital to be humble and to hear everyone's perspective. It is all the more essential as the Product Manager has the responsibility to influence, but not the authority. 

Ironically, it is humbleness that brings authority.

6. Show you've got the audience's back

If I'm picking on someone in the crowd and making fun of them (which is easier said than done), I should ask for a free drink to be given to them, to show that it is all in good spirit (pun intended). When I'm writing, I always offer to continue the discussion offline with someone who is interested. 

Rather than just saying something and walking away, I need to understand their perspective and be willing to see things through with them.

If I've sold my team on a vision and then am not doing enough to get them the support they need in terms of time and resources, then the story will seem superficial and fail to be compelling. Showing them I've got their back is walking the talk.

I have to do everything in my power to help them execute on the ideas I'm laying out.

7. Show examples from your past

The ace up the sleeve when it comes to influencing people is to show real examples from my past. Once credibility has been established, and all the other points above are taken care of, examples from the past will drive home the point.

When I write, I always pick examples from my own life to help corroborate the point I'm trying to make. And when I'm doing comedy, I'm very often the butt of my jokes.

And when telling the team a story, when laying out a vision, if I can back it up by saying, 'This is something I've tried in the past and this is how it turned out, and hence I recommend we do this', it is a lot more effective than simply laying out what needs to be done. 

Conclusion

It is vital for product managers to tell compelling stories in order to succeed in their jobs. And telling stories is an art. I've deconstructed this into the seven steps above from my own experience. 

Let me know if you have a different way of going about it.











- Show examples from your past - when I write, I always link a personal example from my own life. This adds credibility as well as makes the others think 'if he can do it, we can do it'


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