March Event Review: “Storytelling for Maximum Influence: How to Tell Great Stories That Will Enroll Stakeholders in Your Product Vision” with Dan Kimble, CEO of Resonance Executive Coaching
By Geoff Anderson
The session began with an exercise: first turn to your neighbor and articulate something you are passionate about (it could be anything). The second step was to reverse places with your partner, and the third step was to move to a different part of the room and repeat the exercise with an unfamiliar person.
What did the audience notice?
- The energy in the room went up
- People learned interesting things about neighbors/strangers
Sharing problems tells stories about your situation. “Passion” drives engagement of your audience.
Dan shared that his passion is playing guitar and singing, and told an anecdote about how a few years ago he began singing, and was initially terrified of the experience. However, he has become passionate and while there remains some stage fright, he quite looks forward to singing in public. He also is passionate about coaching.
At this point, Dan played an amusing video clip, “The Conference Call” about 3 minutes in length. Why does this work?
- We have all experienced this (common shared experiences)
- The clip has a lot of info in a short period of time, yet it doesn’t feel cramped
Moving on, Dan spoke about the evolution of leaders. There are five distinct phases: Frustrated, Aspiring, Competent, Advanced, and finally Inspired. The one commonality between leaders who have reached the two top stages, advanced and inspired, is that they are extremely effective storytellers. Their ability to tell stories that engage leads to their organizations believing in them and ultimately buying into their vision/mission.
Product management is one of the most difficult leadership challenges. As the classic trope goes, PMs have all the responsibility with none of the authority. Product managers must build buy-in or their great ideas will not be realized.
Dan described some potential roadblocks to achieving sufficient influence in this fashion:
- People are skeptical – they naturally filter their opinions and beliefs. Product managers need to overcome these “filters” to effectively change priorities and biases, and ultimately to change behaviors.
- Change doesn’t come easy – The natural human state is to retain the status quo, to resist changes, to view changes as “threats.” People need to be moved to change by leaders they like, or trust.
Storytelling overcomes these intellectual “filters” – it provides something that people can relate to, and offers insights and information. Ultimately, stories can provide a direct line to the subconscious.
To demonstrate these concepts, Dan played another clip from the film Dead Poets Society, in which the teacher (played by Robin Williams) calls on a student who didn’t complete his assignment. In a short period of time, the teacher gets the recalcitrant student to open up and deliver a piece of verse that is quite brilliant.
This illustration of a story, and the structure around a story, led to the next part of Dan’s talk: what makes a great story?
- It connects with the listener’s emotions
- It resonates with personal values and experiences
- It paints a clear picture of the ideal state – one that is believable
- It also gets the audience to feel the ideal state
- Lastly, it emphasizes how the status quo is harmful
A great story has a few common traits.
- A vertical take-off, the beginning or first act, goes straight into action, right from the beginning. This should be not more than 15% of the total time the story takes. It grabs the attention of the audience. At the end of this “beginning” it is important to have an unexpected twist that leads to:
- The middle or second act – Here the story lays out the conflict and the groundwork to resolution. That “resolution” should require something “big” and insurmountable. The middle should be about 75% of the total story length.
- Resolution, the third act – This shows major change. When the story effectively transitions from the second act, the audience relishes the release of the resolution. It is the entire point of the story (i.e., both prior acts build to, and support this resolution). The third act should be the shortest part of the story, 5 to 10% maximum. It includes a crisp, clear resolution of the conflict of the story.
As an illustration, Dan played one more video, a French language advertisement for Dove beauty products. It was a moving tale of women who were encouraged to keep a diary of their thoughts, and the diaries were filled with self doubt and criticisms. The producers then had actresses read these diaries as “lines” in a conversation in a coffee shop, with the authors listening in. These performances formed a powerful statement of how one’s self image is too negative. It is a human tendency to look at one’s own situation in an overly critical fashion. Yet, hearing that harsh criticism from other people provides enough separation to realize how harmful these feelings are.
Dan then pointed out that an important part of effective storytelling is to alter this pattern of negative self-talking, to reduce the feedback loop that leads to damaging, self-fulfilling prophecies.
At this juncture, Dan began the next exercise. A handout was provided with an outline to guide the attendees through creating a compelling story. This involved five minutes of self-work, then telling the story to one’s neighbor.
In the debrief from this exercise, Dan asked a few people to share their experiences. Common observations were that it went well (better than the scary thought at the start), the discussions and telling of the stories were helpful, and that the exercise improved people’s confidence in telling stories. One audience member said that this would help him in his presentations.
Product Management is about influence. Stories drive influence and strengthen relationships, ultimately building trust, the currency of influence-based management.
Persistence and calm confidence, alloyed with effective storytelling, are key attributes of effective product management. Combine that with mapping out of the informal power structure of the organization, and your ability to set vision and build enthusiasm will make you an outstanding product manager.
The call to action from the evening was to use these techniques. They work, they are not difficult or magic, and you will see results.
The last thought, again from Dead Poets Society: “Carpe Diem – Seize the Day!”
Geoff Anderson – a practicing product manager with over 20 years of experience, in a variety of industries from semiconductor manufacturing equipment, networking technology, industrial measurement and test, enterprise communications software, nanotechnology, and educational services. He has a degree in Physics from SJSU, volunteers in the rescue of retired racing greyhounds, mentors high school kids interested in science and physics, and loves to read science fiction novels.