Product Storytelling — How to craft powerful product stories with these 6 rules

March 25, 2024
9 min read
Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash
People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it.
Simon Sinek

2012. Glitch shut up shop.

2021. Slack sold to Salesforce for $27.7 billion.

What happened in between was an object lesson in product storytelling.

The backstory.

Glitch was a whimsical online game that never caught on. As the game stalled, the developers at Tiny Speck pivoted.

The team, under Stewart Butterfield, went into stealth mode with a new focus—communications software. Venture Capitalists bought in.

From the ashes of Glitch, Slack emerged.

Slack was the “Searchable Log of All Communication and Knowledge,” an easier, centralized way to collaborate and communicate. At launch in 2013, Slack and Butterfield had a villain squarely in their sights—email glut.

A successful beta ran for six months, with Slack gathering user tweets into a wall of love:

“It's officially the best tool for team communication I've ever used. Period.”

“I should be working. I am NERDING out  about Slack.”

“Pro tip: @slackhq is like @yammer and @skype without the bad parts.”

In Months, Slack broke through as “Team messaging that works.” Soon, Slack had five million users. Among them: NASA. Slack was “A messaging app for teams who put robots on Mars.”

Slack kept growing.

In 2019, it traded publicly. Its NYSE  ticker symbol—WORK. The company proclaimed, “Whatever work you do, you can do it in Slack.”

In July 2021, Salesforce acquired Slack for $27.7 billion.

This is a product story.

And a valuable one.

Product stories are born in people's heads. They pop up in garages, showers, and on long walks. The product story takes root before writing the first line of code or building the first prototype.

Product stories are, by necessity, a science fiction.

They are stories of a future world—better than today. The buyer is the protagonist. The hero of the story. The product is a magic bean, a device that propels the hero forward and gives them special powers.

The product story breaks conventional thinking and spurs innovation.

When product stories work, products sell. So, if you’re an entrepreneur, or an intrapreneur; a marketer, or an engineer, if you’re building anything, you want to crack this particular code.

Here are six rules of product storytelling.

#1. People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.

Modern product development starts with jobs to be done, wicked problems, use cases, or user stories. Each is an offshoot of the other, starting with Ted Levitt’s insight that, when hanging a painting, "People don't want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” That kernel of truth points to customers' desire for outcomes, not the product itself.

Taken together or individually, jobs to be done, wicked problems, and its ilk are not product stories.

They are the data in the story, lacking emotion.

To tell the product story is to understand the psychology of the buyer. It’s to understand that people don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.

Products are filled with transformative potential. Narrative translates that.

Slack tapped into this ethos.

"Who Do We Want Our Customers to Become?... We want them to become relaxed, productive workers who have the confidence that comes from knowing that any bit of information which might be valuable to them is only a search away. ...We want them to become masters of their own information [not] overwhelmed by the neverending flow."

This was from a memo—We don’t sell saddles here—penned by Stewart Butterfield to the team at Tiny Speck— weeks prior to launch.

#2. Use old words to describe new things.

We like our comfort food. Our go-to traditions. Our favorite playlists.

Human nature prescribes predictability.  Habits and routines save us time. We don’t have to think too hard. The tried and true give us a dopamine hit. The familiar gives us comfort, safety, and belonging. That doesn’t mean humans don’t try new things. We do.

But product builders overestimate our fascination with the new and underestimate the bundle of biases that make us back off.

Therefore, in product storytelling, we must use old words to describe new things. We see this rule in action over and over again. Product storytellers have to bridge the gap between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

What we now call a car was first called a “horseless carriage”—a name with a descriptor and comparator. In the pre-dawn of the internet, it went by the moniker “information superhighway.”

In a never-look-back-moment in 1979, a little company called Taylor Made introduced an innovation to golf. When Lee Trevino won the 1984 PGA championship with Taylor Made’s “metal wood,” a whole generation of golfers rushed to trade in their persimmon drivers for metal ones.

The name carries power.

Old words compare and describe new things. The Comparator and Descriptor work in tandem like a horseless carriage. The order doesn’t matter. It’s a descriptor (metal) and comparator (wood) plus the promise of a better version of yourself (I will be a better golfer).

That’s the title of the product story.

If the name has power, it doesn’t have to be the name alone.

Analogies help—the verbal art of making the unfamiliar familiar. They could be abstract: Steve Jobs introducing the computer as “a bicycle for the mind” or an iPod as “1000 songs in your pocket.” Or, more concrete, the apocryphal story of Bill Gates's internal product demo to Windows investors by showing them a Mac.

You are using old words to describe new things to create vivid, relatable scenarios that highlight the product's benefits in everyday terms.

Slack used its early adopters masterfully. More from Slack’s wall of love:

“Heard someone at work say that @slackhq was just another chat client. I slapped them. Hard.”

#3. Craft stories for backers, builders, and buyers.

There are always three versions of a product story.

The consumers of each version have different wants and needs. They buy into the story at different times, but the story is the same. Think of this as the book, the movie, and the video game.

The three unique audiences: Backers, builders, and buyers.

The backers: They’re investors in the story. They’re more likely to buy into the concept and the team because when they’re read in, the story is a few slides long or some sketches on a whiteboard.

The backers believe in the idea and the capability of the team.

The builders: This is a crucial audience. They’re turning vision into reality. Designers, creators, coders, engineers—whoever is on the team—will make thousands of decisions as the product goes from whiteboard to bench to production.

The builders make a product that lives up to the story or make it a lie.

The buyers: These are your customers and users. Depending on what you’re selling, there are people who write the check and people who use the thing. That could be the CIO whose budget pays for security software, the CISO who insists on it, or the developer who uses it. There’s usually more than one buyer in the loop, even for something as simple as candy: the kid who points to it at checkout and the parent who pays for it.

The buyers are the heroes of the product story, even as an ensemble.

The trick is to adjust the narrative to address each unique perspective. For backers, the story might focus on potential and return on investment; for builders, on innovation and challenge; and for buyers, on the product's practical and emotional benefits. This is message discipline at its finest.

Stewart Butterfield hinted at his pitch to Slack’s backers in 2013.

"We want to do what Gmail did for e-mail. All your communications just goes into one big place, and you don't worry about it."

His “Saddles” memo adjusted the story for builders.

“We get 0 points for just getting a feature out the door if it is not actually contributing to making the experience better for users or helping them to understand Slack."

#4. Demonstrate, don't declare. (If you can)

Product storytelling is like Aesop’s fable.

The tortoise is concrete and tangible. The hare is abstract and hyperbolic. It’s tempting to bet on the hare, but the tortoise wins every time. Human nature strikes again.

Our brain prefers demonstration to declaration.

Showing a product in action reduces uncertainty. Seeing, hearing, or touching something creates a visceral understanding. Stories activate mirror neurons. The reflected experience of others primes our personal narrative. The product story borrows credibility from testimonials and user accounts.

The demo is everything.

At product launches, they surprise and delight. Think of Boston Dynamics' inventive videos of robots breakdancing, performing parkour, or backflips. None of the reasons you might actually buy a robot, but impressive nonetheless.

Putting the product in people’s hands is powerful juju.

The demonstration is visual and visceral; concrete evidence makes benefits tangible and believable. For the buyer, it becomes sunk cost. This is the motor of the freemium business model— use creates a personal and persuasive narrative driving purchase.

Mark Roberge, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Stage 2 Capital and Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, has turned the demo into a science. For him, it’s a leading indicator of product-market fit.

In Slack’s case, sending 2,000+ team messages in the first 30 days was an objective, data-driven “aha” moment where products stick.

#5. Adapt and grow your stories over time.

A product story isn’t static. It evolves from hope to fear.

At no stage are you done. The story changes in response to new insights, market changes, and user feedback. Flexibility allows the narrative to remain relevant and engaging.

The technology adoption lifecycle changes the product story. In the early stages, innovators are buying in. A tiny population taking a risk on new inventions. It’s the rush of the “new.” Half the appeal is life on the bleeding edge.

The early adopters are fractionally more cautious. They will take risks if the benefits are there, buying into early results and case studies and looking for practical solutions to specific problems.

The product story crosses the chasm to the early majority.

Another shift in the story. To get to that group, the story has to amp up social proof and track record.  The story is no longer about avant-garde; it’s about value. The product story quells fears of incompatibility, reliability gaps, complexity, or potential obsolescence.

The story shifts again in the next phase.

Here, it’s FOMO. The fear of falling behind. A product story for the late majority asks, “Why aren’t you...?” instead of “Why don’t you...? The story highlights elements of essential and proven. It’s a story for market leaders and mainstream adoption.

The laggards are the natural skeptics.

Any product story will have a countervailing one. The one laggards are more likely to believe. You have heard them: windmills cause cancer, or vaccines are tracking you. And laggards are not easily persuaded.

For Slack, every “one hour in, and I’m ready to burn every email server into the ground” has a story that swings in the opposite direction. “We already have email, I have messages, I have texts. I don’t need another way for people to get hold of me.”

#6. Product stories fit into a world.

This last rule of product storytelling connects them to brand storytelling.

The simple version is that the product story has to be “on brand.” That doesn’t mean an unquestioning dedication to selected fonts and colors. It means the product story has to fit. It has to be believable. A nuanced understanding is that the product fits into a broader world.

This is true in the real and in the imagination.

Months of work and obsession by the builder translate into fleeting attention from the buyer. In the real, the product fits within the buyer’s broader context. Their environment, their community, their workflow, their day.

In the imagination, it’s the world-building. The product itself is a doorway to a world that the buyer wants to be part of. The in-crowd. World-building, the arena of sci-fi and fantasy nerds everywhere, plays a role. This is the magic system that powers your product. The rules of what you would and wouldn’t expect.

Tiny Speck started with the idea of creating an online civilization, the world of Glitch. The craft of world-building was brought into the product and the product story. Custom emoji reactions let users infuse playfulness and personality. Shared channels created member-only spaces to reinforce bonds, inclusion, and identity.

Butterfield knew this: "We are unlikely to be able to sell “a group chat system” very well: there are just not enough people shopping for group chat system...That’s why what we’re selling is organizational transformation."

This is the better future—the science fiction of the product story.

What is your product story?

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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