What building a 0-1 product taught me about storytelling
No, it's not another 3 act arc
Hi, it’s been a while. I’ve been spending some blissful time with my two under two girls. Seeing the world through their innocent eyes made me miss writing. So I’m back, with a change of format: an original article (about product, growth, creativity) and a few intriguing links. This is an experiment. Let me know what you think.
Reflecting on 3 years of building a product 0-1, there’s one skill that if strengthened could’ve saved many mistakes and made the journey smoother: storytelling.
Powerful storytelling is the most high impact skill for product people. Yet, it feels elusive & intangible compared to the more popular and concrete product management “frameworks”. So here’s my attempt to note down what I learned about using storytelling to propel a product from 0 to 1. Spoiler: it uses a screenwriting technique.
Intention and obstacle - a storytelling approach for product people
Storytelling is about transformation. My many mistakes mostly resulted from optimizing for content rather than transformation. Everyone has limited time and attention. Bullet-proof content is not enough. It has to be packaged into a story that transforms a belief that the audience cares about.
Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter of “The Social Network”, “A Few Goodman”, knows a thing or two about great stories. His approach is: a good story always starts with intention and obstacle.
Intention: What does the subject want? Raise the stakes, why is this so important to them?
Obstacle: What’s in their way of getting it? You don’t have a story until there’s conflict and tension.
Every phase of the 0-1 product development lifecycle is about telling a story that moves the audience towards your goal:
Concept Review: tell the story of how this bet moves the company’s strategy forward, so execs and stakeholders agree to invest in it
Design & Development: tell the story of the most important problems to solve in what sequence, so designers and engineers can come up with the best ways to solve them
Go to Market: tell the story of how the product makes the customer’s life better, so sales & marketing can effectively sell it, and customers can easily use & buy it
Putting it in the format of intention and obstacle for different audiences:
The main story of the product is always from the perspective of the customer: intention is their job to be done, obstacles are reasons why their current options suck. For product managers, this is the core product story that drives their communications. I had this nailed. Every person that came in contact with my product told the same story, had the same “chant”.
But the story to achieve the goals of each stage of build needs to serve the perspective of the audience. This is where I fell short. I led with the product story but didn’t raise the stakes for my specific audience to care. The stakes must be high - so that it gives people reason and urgency to care.
For example, when pitching for the investment for a new product concept, presenting key info such as the size of the market opportunity, the customer pain point, how the product solves the pain point, competitive analysis, etc., doesn’t make a compelling story. It’s just another info-overloaded-meeting in an exec’s calendar. But if it directly addresses why & how the opportunity drives the company’s strategy and raises the urgency that there’s a small window for first-mover advantage, then you’ve got the exec’s attention.
Many famous business memos have intention and obstacle beautifully baked in. It’s what makes the message so compelling.
Yahoo’s Brad Garlinghouse’s “Peanut butter manifesto” calls for the re-focusing of the company’s strategy (intention), emphasizing the current lack of focus as “spreading peanut butter” across many opportunities (obstacle).
Slack’s Stewart Butterfield’s “We don’t sell saddles here” inspires a more value-driven positioning of Slack (intention), emphasizing the significance to differentiate from selling just the product to selling how the product transforms the customer (obstacle).
The writing process
With the approach in mind, now comes the hard part of doing the work. (PMs - I’m sure you block a few hours every day for this type of deep work right? 🤡 )
There are two types of writers (or creators in general):
People who start with a vision of the perfect end result, then work backwards towards that vision with supporting evidence.
People who start with a brain dump of ideas and thoughts, then allow the theme to emerge in the process of writing.
Most of us are type 2. (Unless you’re Steve Jobs or Picasso.)
Realizing I was a type 2 writer freed me from the excruciating pain of trying to start with the perfect catch phase/theme for my story. Here’s a much more approachable way:
Start with the intention as a north star to anchor the story around what the audience wants.
Then brain dump all obstacles and the supporting points to address them.
Finally, shuffle the points around to form a coherent story. In the process, the central theme will emerge.
Final few tips:
Don’t write and edit at the same time - Kevin Kelly
Ruthlessly cut. Don’t let the “need for context” hold you hostage. Cut the preamble down to bare bones.
Have a log line - one sentence catch phrase that captures the essence of the idea. Eg. “We don’t sell saddles here”. This makes the story memorable and helps it spread. For inspiration, see these 50 insights from Hollywood movies.
We inevitably have to influence others on the journey of building great products - through storytelling.
Don’t make the same mistakes I made. Start with the audience’s intention & obstacle. What do they really want? What’s in their way of getting it? Then how will you help them get it? Optimize for transforming rather than informing.
What stage are you in with your product? Where do you see this storytelling approach help you influence your stakeholders and get closer to your goals? Let me know in the comments!
🔗 Worth reading
- . A concrete guide on cutting preamble and succinctly getting to the core of your writing. It even gives examples across mediums, such as in writing emails, job interviews, presentations, and more.
Storytelling tips to take fundraising pitch from mediocre to memorable. Oren Jacob spent 20 years at Pixar, then co-founded PullString which was acquired by Apple. His one key lesson: a pitch meeting should have a natural cadence, like a screenplay. Take people on a journey with you.
- . This collection of internal memos is fascinating as they give a glimpse into the raw storytelling by compelling leaders, without the PR fluff. I revisit these often for inspiration.