Effective Storytelling to Motivate and Align Your Team by Anna Marie Clifton

BY MEGAN CONLIN ON JULY 3, 2018

As product managers, we often talk in data points. For instance, we have X number of monthly active users, we want to grow subscriptions by X amount, this feature is expected to increase logins by X. However, when we start listing out data points, our listeners’ eyes begin to glaze over. As humans, we’re not built to take in and process data points, we’re built to understand the world around us through story.

In this talk, Anna Marie Clifton, product manager at Coinbase, shares how she taps into our humanity by using storytelling to align teams, connect with customers, and get buy-in from stakeholders.

What Makes a Good Story?

Every good story has a solid framework that outlines the situation and brings listeners into the mind of the characters, in our case, the user. Anna Marie outlines the following framework she uses to tell stories:

  1. Develop empathy: Who is the user you’re describing? What is their day like?
  2. Establish context: What is the problem that user is trying to solve?
  3. Describe the conflict: What is getting in the way of the user solving their problem?
  4. Resolve their conflict: How can you solve the user’s problem?

For example, Jane is a project manager for Acme Corp. Her job is to ensure that everyone is on schedule with their deliverables so the project is completed on time. In order to see what everyone is working on, Jane has to go into each person’s status page and then she types that information into Excel so she can view it all at once. This takes her upwards of three hours. With the new reporting feature we’re proposing, Jane will be able to generate the report she is looking for with three minutes of set-up time, simply refreshing it when she needs an update. There are 25 project managers at Acme Corp who all need the same information. This feature will make each project manager more efficient, saving them time and Acme Corp money.

Using Storytelling to get Buy-in from Stakeholders on big Decisions

“Data may help you find the best path. Storytelling is how you get other humans to walk that path with you.” Anna Marie Clifton

As product managers, we need stakeholder buy-in when making key decisions on the direction for our product. These are the moments when we normally come into a room with a presentations full of charts, graphs and metrics. However, these are the times when storytelling can be extremely powerful to sell in our vision and connect everyone to the end user. Below are a few big moments we face as product managers where we can incorporate storytelling to influence our stakeholders.

The story of what you want to build

Illustrate the problem you’re addressing for your users and the impact you’ll make on their lives with this new product or feature.

The story of what you want to kill

Establish the narrative of what the world was like when you built that feature. What did it do for your users then? What is the world like now? Does this feature still have a place in resolving problems for your users?

The story of your user research or test results

What did you learn from your research or test results? How does that affect how you’re planning to solve your users problem?

Incorporating Storytelling into your Everyday Work

We don’t have to limit the use of storytelling to major presentations with our stakeholders. Anna Marie suggests using it as a way of thinking that we build into our everyday work as a product manager. Below are a few ways we can incorporate storytelling into how we work with our teams on a daily basis.

The story of what this feature will enable

Frame new features to your team, not as functionality, but as the problem you’ll be solving for your users. Sharing the end goal with the team will keep everyone aligned, help surface any trade-offs, and allow the team to find the best way to address the need.

The story of why we should fix this bug

Think about your users’ workflow. How does this bug affect what your user is trying to do? Do they have a simple workaround or does this block them from essential functionality they need to do their job? This will help you and your team prioritize the bug appropriately.

The story of why we’re here

The product manager’s job is to understand the user, but also to develop empathy for the users with the rest of the team. Anna Marie recommends introducing a “Story Time” as part of your stand up to communicate customer stories to the engineering team. This will keep teams connected to your users, always having their best interest in mind.

Anna Marie outlines storytelling as a way of thinking and highlights the opportunities we have as product managers to incorporate it into how we work. Using stories humanizes our product decisions, enabling us to get buy-in, and help our teams connect with customers. Check out the video to hear some great examples from Anna Marie on how she applies this framework as a product manager to motivate, influence, and align her teams in the interest of her users.

About MEGAN CONLIN

Megan is a Senior Product Manager with a background in advertising. She is currently working on audience and data products for global advertising agencies and their clients. As a Speaker Curator for ProductTank SF, Megan finds, interviews and hosts speakers at San Francisco ProductTank events. Megan believes in continued learning and emphasizes the importance of connecting with the product community.

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