“What’s your story?”
That’s Vivek Bedi’s favorite question to ask product managers in interviews. If PMs can’t explain their own background and interests well, they probably won’t be able to build a strong case for your product.
Vivek is a product guy with over 15 years of experience and knows a thing or two about building and selling great products. As the Head of Product at LearnVest, he manages financial planning products and client experience functions for Northwestern Mutual, which acquired LearnVest in 2015. He is also the founder of mySwapp, a mobile app that allows people to trade unwanted goods. Before joining the startup world, Vivek was a product leader at Goldman Sachs.
Vivek’s work has helped millions of people with their finances, and he attributes much of his success in product management to his love of storytelling:
“Telling great stories enables you to convince others to help you build a great product and convince people to buy that great product,” he says.
He has used storytelling to make his pitches more engaging, keep his team motivated, and even turn harsh criticism into inspiring goals. Here are some of Vivek’s best storytelling tips for product managers.
Build excitement in the first few minutes
Vivek has worked on enough first-time user experiences to know that people are impatient. If users can’t figure out how to use a product within minutes, they will leave. “It’s important when crafting your story to focus heavily on the first few minutes. That is when most in the crowd will decide to stick with you or you will lose them,” says Vivek.
Some audiences need more context than your day-to-day team. Speaking with external stakeholders gives you a chance to tell a broader story about your product and yourself. Vivek recounts a time when he was invited to discuss his products at an off-site conference and missed this valuable opportunity:
“I jumped right into the product roadmap and our strategy, without setting the stage or even telling people who I was and why I was there. A minute into the meeting one of the senior folks on their side stopped me in my tracks and made a joke about how we should take a step back, as it would be nice to introduce ourselves. Some folks chuckled and I felt very embarrassed.”
Vivek’s tactic to building excitement is to thank his audience right from the start. Here’s how he does it with different groups:
- Users: Thank users for downloading your app or signing up for your product. Build an onboarding experience around showing immediate value and welcoming users to the product.
- Clients and external audiences: Thank the audience for coming to hear you speak or inviting you to their office. “It makes it about them and not you. And that’s a great way to stroke the egos of the audience and set the tone of the story,” says Vivek.
- Your team: Don’t overlook the importance of thanking your own teammates. It’s their hard work that helped you build a better product. Vivek says, “Every time I meet with my team, I thank them for working hard and creating magic. It automatically fills the room with smiles.”
A good first impression makes your audience more receptive to hearing what you have to say—whether that’s an aha! moment in the product, a presentation about your product roadmap, or just a weekly status report to your team.
Use personal experiences to validate feedback
Vivek had first-hand experience with the product’s engagement issues. Vivek had purchased an insurance policy from Northwestern Mutual, but years had gone by since he really logged into his account and paid attention to it.
Instead of tiptoeing around his own user frustrations, Vivek was upfront about his experience:
“As I shared my personal disinterest in using the existing website, I saw heads nodding. Everyone was on the same page—our product experience today needed an overhaul. After getting everyone to realize we have a similar viewpoint on the product today, I started sharing about other products I’ve used, like Mint, Personal Capital...especially pointing out the things they do better than our product does today.”
Not only did people thank him for his honesty, but they also had more faith in his abilities to lead the team because of it:
“One of the most experienced financial reps thanked me for criticizing the product. He recognized that everyone was thinking it, but not everyone had the guts to say something. It inspired them to trust me a bit more in leading the initiative to improve our own product.”
Sharing criticism about your team’s work isn’t easy, especially when you’re the newest person in the room. Personal experiences can help soften the criticism and foster a more open and collaborative environment. Reframing areas of improvement as growth opportunities can also be a great tactic for inspiring your team.
Put on a show, not a presentation
Every quarter, Vivek and his team present a company-wide SOTU about the product roadmap and the team’s successes. After one of these sessions, Vivek received two compliments that changed his entire mindset about presentations. One colleague congratulated him on the “amazing show” his team put on, while another person said, “You were like Steve Jobs up there, I loved it!”
Vivek considers Steve Jobs to be the “product storytelling master,” so ever since that moment, Vivek has aspired to turn all his presentations into “shows.” The subtle shift in mindset reminds him of the importance of using product demos early and often:
"Showing your product is much more of a compelling story then talking about it. And show it soon. Think back to Steve Jobs. He did a great job of getting to the demos soon into his presentations, sharing the product features and new Apple product releases, captivating his audience from the get go."
In addition to product demos, Vivek urges using visuals:
"When you add visuals, product demos, or interactive experiences you are hitting on the second sense of sight as well. Sensory studies show if you take advantage of two or more senses when engaging you are automatically going to get more audience attention you would have otherwise gotten."
Don’t be afraid to make fun of the product (or yourself)
It’s second-nature to adopt a formal tone of voice when discussing your work. Afterall, building a product can take months’ or years’ of hard work. You want people to take it seriously and appreciate its value.
However, an overly serious tone can backfire and bore your audience. Vivek had to hone his pitches early on because his partners were traders, who “by nature, have an attention span similar to my 4-year-old. Time is money in their minds,” he says.
Vivek has since learned to infuse bits of humor and personal tidbits into his discussions:
"For instance, I recently gave a talk discussing how I am going through a 'product management identity crisis' and needed to go find my product self, even after 15 years in the industry...I incorporate some jabs at myself and bring in jokes from my personal life - stories about my kids, my wife."
If you’re not comfortable sharing jokes from your own personal life, another easy way to do this is to poke fun at the product. “Showing that softer sider is a secret gem for storytelling that makes your audience feel more comfortable with you,” says Vivek.
Vivek suggests talking about what a horrible experience the first MVP of your product was, and even showing screenshots of how clunky and misguided early user experiences were:
“This is really a great tactic in getting folks to know that you keep it real and you aren’t here just feeding them bullshit. It also sets a great tone that this wasn’t easy—we started from the bottom and now we worked hard to be where we are.”
By making fun of the product, you can make your experiences more vulnerable and relatable, while also showing off progress.
Storytelling ultimately helps PMs connect to others
Product managers work at the intersection of so many teams with competing priorities and different skillsets. Storytelling skills are key to bridging departmental and individual differences, as Vivek explains:
"As a product manager, you’re working with engineers, designers, and marketers to build a product. How are you going to convince them to help you and then communicate your vision for the product you want to build? You sure as heck better be good at telling a compelling story to get them onboard, motivated, and clear about the product you’re building."
For product managers, storytelling isn’t just about whipping up a fantastic tale or putting on a good show. It’s also about understanding your users and teammates and championing their needs.