Product Storytelling — How stories help your product grow.

June 24, 2021
6 min read
Photo by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash
“A story is a trick for sneaking a message into the fortified citadel of the human mind.”
— Jonathan Gottschall

Product stories are born in garages, showers, and people’s heads. The product story takes root before writing the first line of code or building the first prototype.

That product story is, by necessity, a work of science fiction.

It’s a story of a future world, one better than today. The buyer is the protagonist or hero of the story. The product is a magic bean, a device that propels the hero forward and gives them special powers, powers that make the hero a better version of themselves.¹ The product story breaks the audience out of conventional thinking and supports innovation.

The first audiences for these stories are the backers and the builders.

The backers are the people that will support the work.  They give the first-generation product time, credibility, and money. In large organizations, this might be an executive council, or the head of product development, or R&D. In smaller organizations, the CEO. In startups, the backers are the angel investors and venture capitalists.

The builders are the engineers and product managers who build the first products. In Pinocchio, who dreams of being a real boy, they are the blue fairy. In Cinderella, the builder is the fairy godmother.

The builder takes the dream and makes it real.

The ingredients of a product story.

A product story is not a use case, a set of requirements, or a list of features and benefits.  

When you hear a good product story, your gut speaks to you. You believe it. The story is emotionally appealing, and you act on it.

The story defines the product in the buyer’s mind. It’s descriptive, telling them where the product fits in the world and what they get from it.  If you get the story right, people repeat it.

Product stories are not complicated or filled with jargon. They demonstrate many of the characteristics of good business stories.

Here’s the checklist.

When product stories work, products sell.

Product stories take shape over time.

Take the story of Slack, a $25B unicorn born from the ashes of a massively multiplayer online game.

The Slack we know today was first a set of internal tools built and used by the game’s developers. It was introduced in August 2013 as “your searchable, infinite brain” and “zero-effort knowledge management.” The press called it an “Enterprise Social Network” (yawn) and compared it to Yammer and Hipchat.²

That product story originated with the founders and engineers of Slack. But it wasn’t what they stuck with. Slack did something really clever — it let its users begin to tell the product story.

Slack took off like a rocket ship, fueled by word of mouth.

Early Slack users explained to others what it was,  “So I get it– @slackhq is the messaging platform (with integrated services) that you didn't realize you needed until you try it.”

They compared the new product to known products, “@slackhq > @hipchat.” And they heaped praise on it. “I love #Slack. It's an awesome tool!”

Those stories propelled Slack to be used by 30,000 teams and a $1 Billion valuation — all before they hired their first CMO.³

The Slack wall of love.

Slack turned those user stories into a wall of love, a Twitter testimonial to their product, its relationship with its users, and Slack’s growth.

Still amazed by how much @SlackHQ reduced the number of unnecessary emails I could have on a normal workday. #slack
4:31 AM · Apr 1, 2015·Twitter for Mac
Seriously, forget email. Everyone everywhere just use @SlackHQ.
11:25 AM · Mar 31, 2015 from
New York, USA·Tweetbot for iΟS
Been playing with @SlackHQ for a few hours and already instantly in love with it. Great team collaboration tool.
10:07 AM · Mar 31, 2015·TweetDeck

The story evolves.

The most difficult thing to describe is something that isn’t there.

That challenge describes the difference between Loudcloud and Amazon Web Services. In 2000, when Marc Andreesen launched Loudcloud, the idea of “pay as you go” didn’t exist.⁴ You licensed software and upgraded it, you didn’t pay for it per user. Business insiders scratched their heads. Wired magazine described “custom-designed, infinitely scalable sites that blast off a virtual assembly line” when people were still debating the merits of Unix over NT.

Software as a service was a theoretical fancy.

Six years later, Amazon Web Services launched. Loudcloud and Andreesen had paved the way. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, talked up ‘cloud’ at an industry conference.⁵ Amazon Web Services descriptor was hot — ‘cloud’ computing. The comparator was clear — expensive, slow to spin up data centers. And the outcome — headache-free, managed infrastructure, appealed to the avant-garde CIO.

The product story never exists in a vacuum.

When products don’t have stories.

Without product stories, fledgling innovations will not thrive.

It’s one thing to convince backers and builders; it’s another to convince buyers. The theory of diffusion of innovation, aka the adoption curve, gives us a clue.⁶ The first buyers are made up of innovators and early adopters.  Innovators will try anything, and early adopters will follow. Together, they represent 15% of your potential market.

The product story evolves along the technology adoption curve

In those early days, the descriptor and the comparator are key.
What we now call a car was originally a “horseless carriage” — a name with a descriptor and comparator.⁷ In the pre-dawn of the web, the internet was called an “information superhighway.” In 1979 a little company called Taylor Made introduced a “metal wood” to golf. When Lee Trevino won the 1984 PGA championship with a metal wood, a whole generation of golfers rushed to trade in their “wood woods” for a “metal wood.”⁸

A descriptor and comparator are often found in the first phases of innovation.

Everywhere you look, products have stories.

Those stories have the three core elements that came with Lee Trevino’s victory — A descriptor (metal), comparator (wood), and an outcome (I will be a better golfer). And the language around these three elements evolves as the product becomes more mainstream.

Look at the litter of product failures, and you can see stories that didn’t connect.

The first generation of Google Glass was described as “a wearable computer with a hands-free display.”⁹ An unexciting mouthful. There was (and still is) no comparison unless you count Microsoft’s Hololens, which fewer people have heard of. The outcome didn’t run in Google’s favor, either, “lacking a cool factor.”¹⁰

To cross the chasm requires not just storytelling but ‘storymaking.’

Storytelling and ‘storymaking.’

Marketers are not storytellers.

Let’s unpack the underlying wisdom in that incendiary statement. Raja Rajamannar, Chief Marketing Officer of Mastercard and author of Quantum Marketing, makes this distinction.¹¹ “Quantum Marketers are brand builders, business drivers, and amazing storymakers.

It’s storymaking that helps the product story cross the chasm. Marketers don’t control the story, they unleash it. They join forces with Product to build the product story. They work with Sales to find what lights a twinkle in a prospect’s eye. Innovators and early adopters share in the product story. The role of the storymaker is, according to Raja, to “enable, curate and amplify stories that connect and resonate; they connect brands to people in compelling and unique ways.”

This is what Slack did, solving the product story as a team sport.

The balance of jargon.

Geoffrey Moore describes reaching the remaining 85% of a market as “crossing a chasm.” ¹²

The difference between a business-to-consumer market, and a business-to-business one, is jargon. Although a consumer market is larger, the rule, for product stories, is easier — no jargon. Trying to get a consumer to learn, use, adopt or understand jargon is like squeezing a rock back into a tube, or pushing toothpaste uphill.

It’s impossible and unnatural.

When terms of art inside an industry leak into the product story, you’re asking for trouble.¹³ Ask a friend if they know what 5G is.¹⁴ Or the difference between an HMO, PPO, EOP, or HSA.¹⁵ Or to parse the difference between a mortgage and a lien, a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA.¹⁶

A simple truth — the more we are confused, the less we trust.¹⁷

But, there is a place for some jargon in business-to-business markets. It is true that “incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession.”¹⁸ In a B2B market, use enough to show you belong, and no more.

Setting hooks and avoiding traps.

A good product story is repeated. That’s how word of mouth works.

Word of mouth, that conversation between innovators and early adopters, helps products cross the chasm. Here, two elements of the product story are refined, “what is it?” and “what does it compare to?”

The more concrete the descriptor, the better. A ‘tool’ or ‘app’ is easier to understand than a ‘platform’ or ‘service.’ Avoid weird, or ominous, descriptors. A wearable computer (Google Glass) sounds geeky. An implantable chip sounds ominous.

The comparator should be something your audience knows. Think — what would you compare your Blockchain innovation with? Or AI? Or Digital twins? Can your audience easily relate? More importantly, think about how they might feel. This will jaundice the outcome element of your story.

For every benefit of AI — reducing human error, less repetitive work, faster, more ethical, or accurate decisions — there’s a story of AI run amok. Think HAL, the Terminator, or The Matrix.

The product story formula.

The product story — your product story — boils down to a descriptor, a comparator, and an outcome. Added together they make your audience feel better about themselves.

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.

¹ This gem: “People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.” Hulick, Samuel. “Never Mix Up Features with Benefits Ever Again.” UserOnboard, 13 Nov. 2013.
² Lunden, Ingrid. “Slack, The Newest Enterprise Social Network, Is The Latest Effort From Flickr Co-Founder Stewart Butterfield.” TechCrunch.
³ “From 0 to $1B - Slack’s Founder Shares Their Epic Launch Strategy.” First Round Review.
⁴ “Andreessen Launches Loudcloud.” Associated Press.
⁵ Regalado, Antonio. “Who Coined ‘Cloud’ Computing?” MIT Technology Review, 31 Oct. 2011.
⁶ Rogers, Everett. Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition. Simon and Schuster, 2003, p. 281.
⁷ See Google Books nGram viewer to see how the automobile competed with “horseless carriage”
⁸ Taylor Made was sold in May 2021 for $1.7 Billion.
⁹ “Google Glass: A Wearable Computer with Head Mounted Display.” Electronics For You, 8 Oct. 2013.
¹⁰ Haque, Umair. “Google Glass Failed Because It Just Wasn’t Cool.” Harvard Business Review, 30 Jan. 2015.
¹¹ Rajamannar, Raja. Quantum Marketing. HarperCollins Leadership, 2021.
¹² Moore, Geoffrey. Crossing the Chasm, 3rd Edition. HarperBusiness, 2014.
¹³ Mitchell, Vincent-Wayne, and Vassilios Papavassiliou. "Exploring the concept of consumer confusion." Market Intelligence & Planning 15.4 (1997): 164-169.
¹⁴ Sbeglia, Catherine. “Consumers Don’t Really Get 5G, but They Want It Anyway.” RCR Wireless News, 11 Jan. 2021.
¹⁵ “Low Consumer ‘Literacy’ of Healthcare System Estimated to Cost $4.8B Annually, Accenture Report Finds.” Accenture, 12 Sept. 2018.
¹⁶ Martin, Jake. “Most Bank Website Content Is ‘Inaccessible’ to Average Americans, Study Finds.” Bank Automation News, 4 Jan. 2019.
¹⁷ Walsh, Gianfranco, and Vincent‐Wayne Mitchell. "The effect of consumer confusion proneness on word of mouth, trust, and customer satisfaction." European Journal of marketing (2010).
¹⁸ Kingman Brewster, Jr., U. S. Ambassador to England, President, Yale University, Speech, British Institute of Management, December 13, 1977

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