How to Use Storytelling in Your Product Narrative

Think back to Apple Events when Steve Jobs would present. It wasn’t just the launch of new Apple products that we were excited to hear about, but the product story that Jobs would tell us. Everyone agrees that Jobs was a good storyteller, but what’s stopping us — product teams and marketing teams — from using storytelling techniques to deliver great product stories just like Jobs? 

Maybe it’s the fact that most of us put on a work persona that we bring to the office or Zoom. It allows us to do daily corporate bootcamp with stakeholders, protects us from getting hurt by office politics, and suspends enough corporate gravity to keep us climbing the ladder. But suddenly during the pandemic, we learned that our peers had children, their kitchens looked exactly like ours and that their dogs barked relentlessly at the postal carrier. They were a person outside of the corporate meetings, Google slides, and Slack messages. For a moment, we had a glimmer of vulnerability and relatability. A more complete story and context of the people we worked with.That level of context, vulnerability and slivers of scenes is what all product narratives need at the end of the day.

Let me show you how anyone from a product manager to a product marketer can do the same product storytelling that Steve Jobs did for your new products. Product storytelling can be broken down into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. Each builds on the other. You can do them all at once, but I’ve found it easier to gain confidence by doing storytelling techniques regularly in a corporate setting if you’ve mastered each level first. Some concepts you will be learning for a lifetime. 

Beginner product storytelling

Beginning-level product storytelling starts with these three things:

  • How to write a viral beginning and ending in your product story

  • How to create scenes before moments you want your potential customers to remember

  • How to use the Triple S Threat – suspense, stakes, and surprise to keep your potential customers engaged through the middle of your product story

The beginning is the most important part

The most important thing to get right in your product story is the beginning and ending. In reality, you don’t always finish the whole product story in a call or your sales team uses certain slides, so the beginning is even more important that the ending. You have to start with a good story that immediately sets your narrative into motion. Because if your audience is going to listen to your product story, they want two things: a happy ending for themselves and they want you to get them there.

Your opening is going to immediately challenge your audience that you can do those two things. When we get to the ending, it should be specific and clear. Your audience just listened to a lot of new information, and may not still fully understand what your product is. Close the story by telling them again specifically and clearly, connecting it to your beginning. Give them the happy ending they want. 

Your product story beginning should start with the story of your SaaS category, also known as your category opener.  It positions your product in the category you are creating or entering. The category opener will show your potential customers a problem they cannot unsee. They have no idea what’s about to hit them. They think you are going to give them a generic pitch or tell them about headlines they’ve already read. Instead you take them on a compelling story of something completely unique. It’s told in three parts:

  • Your view on your startup’s product’s category history

  • A paradox or compelling event happening in the market right now in your category

  • A quick education on the SaaS category you are creating or how your product is positioned differently in an existing category

When I wrote Slack’s product story, I started by telling the story of Slack’s view on remote work – how we went from an almost all physical work world to a primarily digital one. I called it the Big Flip. It was our view of how history happened from cubicles, to hot desks, to Google campuses, and then remote work. I took my time telling this story. I didn’t rush through it, worrying that I was wasting someone’s time with the little details.

Next, I built on the Big Flip with a paradox happening in the market. At the time, there was contradictory data around remote work. Any way you spliced it, the data didn’t add up to 100% of what employees wanted one way or another regarding flexibility and returning to the office. What did this data actually mean? I was setting up the problem customers were going to be unable to unsee. 

There were a lot of market reasons as to why this was happening, but all we knew was that at the time 57% of employees were open to looking for a new job the following year. With such a broad narrative targeted for everyone, I had to get them to fill in the blank for themselves. So I challenged our customers to fill in the blank of the problem they couldn’t “unsee” with this statement: what’s missing in your company experience that is making one in two people in your company interview somewhere else right now? 


What an uncomfortable question to think about. A question that will fill you with all sorts of emotional responses in the middle of your work day, especially for C-levels. I finally released the suspense and revealed the category we were creating, and the answer that was missing in their company experience.

Slack’s product narrative was under 25 slides, intentionally short. The best storytellers rarely go over eight minutes, the best sales people never pitch for more than nine. By the end of those nine minutes, we got to the happy ending. I repeated that this futuristic solution that didn’t seem real actually exists, and It was built by people who had spent the last eight years focusing solely on collaboration and how to make work more simple, pleasant and productive. The journey we had just gone in 9 minutes got us to this final place of clarity. 

Create scenes before dense information or important moments you want your target audience to remember 

If you broke down a movie, it could be drawn as thousands of individual scenes like a comic strip. That’s how vivid you want your product story to be. As a beginner storyteller, go through your product story and figure out the core message you want your customers to remember, and also the places that get dense, sound like inside baseball, or vanilla moments corporate requires you to have in your narrative. You will need a scene before all of these moments.

In my example of Slack’s product narrative opener, I purposefully called the whole opening scene of our view of how history happened from cubicles to hot desks to Google campuses and then remote work The Big Flip. I needed a label for the long scene I had created, so when I referenced it later in the narrative, it could instantly be recalled by customers without a long rehash. Internally at Slack, that slide came to be known as The Big Flip slide because it was an instant recall of that whole scene.

Another thing I did in the opening was tell a story about myself in relation to the numbers I mentioned. The numbers were paradoxical and didn’t add up to 100%. I drive this point home by telling a story of having a crush on my Geometry teacher in high school and that I really shouldn’t even be allowed near a calculator. But even I with limited math knowledge can see the numbers don’t add up. It’s unexpected that I reveal this personal moment here, but I need the audience to stay with me. 

Data and statistics are powerful credibility builders in a product story, but are usually dense and do not give context as to why you are revealing this data point. Most narratives cite a stat and put the burden on the customer to try and figure out what it means. The moment someone feels a burden put on them and has to start burning calories to figure out what you mean, they don’t want to listen to your story anymore. Good stories should never feel like work.

Numbers are a place where this happens often. It begins to feel dry, heavy, boring like something you just regurgitated off the internet. Put a scene there. Tell them what you were doing the moment you found that data point. Were you sitting at your kitchen table drinking wine on a Tuesday evening reading HBR articles? Did you see this stat on a like one of your LinkedIn connections gave and it caused a gravitational shift for you?

Use the Triple S Threat – stakes, suspense and surprise – to keep your audience engaged in the middle of your product story

The middle of a product story is usually when things get turbulent. The plane takes off with a strong opening, and then the story goes for an unpredictable ride. It doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s start with using stakes, suspense and surprise. We use these three to create a switchback to get our audience to the end of the story. Without them, most folks can’t make it to the top of the mountain to hear your ending. 

In a product story, these elements can look like this: 

  • Stakes create drama and urgency – why the problem is critical, why customers need a solution today and what happens if they wait

  • Suspense builds the excitement that we actually have the answer and it looks like our product

  • Surprise shows them how your product thoughtfully solves their problem and does it in a way by giving the audience moments of delight

All three of these elements do the hidden work of nudging your customers to keep moving through your story and stay connected to hear the ending.

To go back to Slack’s opener, I created stakes with the data point of 57% of employees being open to find a new job the following year. I heightened the suspense by asking the question: what’s missing in your company experience that is making one in two people in your company interview somewhere else right now? I made it critical to customers that this was happening and they needed a solution to stop it.

I also used suspense in our category opener. I didn’t immediately reveal that Slack was the solution. I first revealed that a new category was being created – this category of a Digital HQ. But customers had a fork in the road – they could either build their own Frankenstein Digital HQs, cobbled together with digital tools and recreate the Big Flip by pushing office meetings into digital meetings. I reminded them I didn’t have to show them the 57% stat again to where that leads. 

One of the ways I used surprise was right before telling the audience the ending. I gave them Steve Jobs’ One More Thing. A little surprise of more value the audience didn’t know they would be getting – whether that’s quick facts on how your product beats the competition (objection handling), solving a second pain point customers have, or showing them how they can combine two category products together. It’s a way to show customers that you are constantly doing the heavy lifting of solving their problems for them in a delightful, light-weight way. Your product story is thoughtful to the last slide.

Even though my product narrative was for Slack as a standalone product, we had recently been acquired by Salesforce. The One More Thing became an explanation to Slack customers how Salesforce fit in to their Digital HQ or for Salesforce customers of how Slack and Salesforce made sense together. It was the natural next question everyone was asking and I wanted our customers to have all of the pieces to make their decision.

If your product narrative does not have a combination of these three sprinkled throughout, your audience won’t make it to the end. It will be too boring and their mind will wander.

Try out some of these concepts in your next iteration of your product story. 

Intermediate product storytelling skills

intermediate storytelling builds on the above three. We can make the switchback of our trail wider so more people can hike and make it to the top. We want everyone to make it to the top to see the view. We take the fundamentals, and add to them:

  • Universe building

  • Nailing transitions 

  • Using data as a story

Universe building reminds our audience to keep listening.

Universe building is kind of like playing Minecraft. If you ever watch someone play Minecraft on Twitch, they are narrating every stone they are picking up, every pig they’ve created, and where they are running to.  As good storytellers we are aware that we are building a universe. It’s not random information packed together, it’s intentional details picked for our target audience. The trick is to consistently remind our audience they are in this Universe with us and don’t want to leave. The best product stories call back to scenes or stories and build on them for their audience. I mention the Big Flip in several ways throughout Slack’s product narrative, constantly reminding the audience of where we’ve been and where we are going. 

Universe building also is a lever to catch the audience up in moments when we’ve given them a lot of information. In Slack’s product narrative I introduce three pillars the Digital HQ is built on. Next, I talk about how Slack’s features were intentionally built around those three pillars. I come back to the three pillars and show how all of Slack’s features and pillars fit together. A complete map of Slack’s universe – the Digital HQ. it’s a lot of information but tucked inside one universe makes it consumable for the audience.

Story structure is king, not content

Not every part of our product story is going to be interesting. Some of it may just be cold, hard corporate facts that we have to deliver to our audience. Great transitions are how you keep everything moving through boring content. Some people say content is king. I say transitions are king. You could have a boring, functional product, or tell me a story about a penny you found, but if you have the formula for how to transition me smoothly, I will keep listening. 

Earlier we talked about the beginning and ending being the most important parts of your narrative. Think of your narrative as a Roman arc. The arc is held together by the pressure of wedged-shaped stones fitting together. These wedged-shaped stones are your product narrative transitions. Your product narrative isn’t a stack of bricks that look like Google slides stacked one on top of the other. The arc stones are all working together to keep tension within your story, regardless of the content.

The reason why most product narratives are boring is because they have no transitions. It’s a narrative to nowhere, so it’s no longer a story arc. The audience doesn’t know where you are taking them, and you don’t know how to get to your ending. 

3 ways to create transitions in your narrative

There are three ways to create intentional transitions in your narrative:

First, solve transitional challenges by adding the words but, therefore, next and so to any place you stumble to transition from one concept to the next. This usually happens at the beginning of something new you are saying or trying to finish a concept.

Second, think of the Roman arc, bring your concepts together in “one stone”. What are all of the concepts that can fit together (no more than 3 because people can only have 3 lanes at a time in their head) and be explicit that there are three transitions that will happen. People need to put your ideas into buckets in their head. Anytime you can signal a transition will happen, you create momentum. The story is moving forward, we are headed to the next stone in the arc and ultimately to the ending.

Last, the more storytelling you do, you will naturally begin to get a feel for “transition gaps”. Read through your narrative and instinctively pick out places that would benefit from a transitional sentence as a bridge to connect two concepts. 

I use all three techniques in the middle of Slack’s product narrative. It’s intentionally bucketed into three sections after the category opener: Slack as your Digital HQ for line of business, three customers’ Digital HQs, and Slack and Salesforce together. I overtly announce transitions like “Welcome to your Digital HQ for sales”, use but, therefore, next and so, repeat how many customers are building their Digital HQ. The closing line begins with “So imagine a place…”.

It all feels cohesive because the transitions are intentional.

Use data as a place for more storytelling

The next intermediate skill is using data as story. This is a hard one. We like to use data points as credibility, but the problem with using data is we immediately alienate our audience. Math is not most people’s native language. They see your statistics and all of the sudden it feels like a math problem. Data is often also floating in its own universe, disconnected from the rest of the narrative and the audience. Since we learned about Universe building, we can make data powerful by connecting to the Universe building we are already doing.

If you want to use data in your product story, start with these three things:

Translate the data into a message

First, you have to translate your numbers into a story. You have to decode the numbers for your audience. In Slack’s category opener I used the statistic that 57% were open to looking for a new job the following year. This was the visual on the slide, but what I actually said was one in two people in your company are interviewing somewhere else right now. That translation of the statistic later became the question that my audience couldn’t unsee – what was causing one in two people to want to interview somewhere else?

Use number sizes that relate to your audience’s daily life

Second, if you use a statistic, don’t use a number size that is unrelatable. We often want to show big numbers or a high percentage because we think that will give our narrative some punch. The reality is our minds cannot comprehend numbers outside of our personal world. They become meaningless to us and do the opposite of connecting us to the narrative. I was helping a product marketing team at Slack and they wanted to use a number that Slack had helped a company’s sales team by reducing 10,000 hours of work. That number is too abstract and we don’t work in the thousands of digits in our day to day. Instead, we converted the number to how many hours the sales team got back a day to do meaningful work. Much more actionable for a customer.

Make data personal and specific

All statistics are abstract to an audience. They mean nothing to their world unless you make it personal and provide specificity. They don’t sit around reading the internet and combing statistics like you do. It’s the first time they are hearing it and it’s totally out of context for them, unless you create the context.

For example, if you are using a general statistic on remote work, make it personal what that would mean for someone in different audiences like financial services, retail, or sales. In the Slack product narrative, we had visual data bubbles on the slides. For example, a data point would say 80% of workflows are created by non-developers. Very abstract.

I would make that specific and say, your marketers create workflows to gather feedback on events instead of filling out a spreadsheet, your sales teams create workflows to automatically update opportunities in Salesforce instead of manually updating cells, and your HR team create workflows for new hires most commonly asked questions instead of personally repeating them one by one. This now connects to the Universe building you’ve been doing through your whole narrative and your customer can think about personal examples to their problems.

Advanced product storytelling is not for the faint corporate heart

The last level of product storytelling is advanced. This is entering the ranks of Steve Jobs, not because you are going to sound like him or get it exactly perfect, but because you are actually going to try. Advanced storytelling has three skills:

  • Vulnerability

  • Humor

  • Presentation style 

Vulnerability is why people will stick around to hear the end of your story

Vulnerability is where a lot of corporate people fear to venture. A lot of people do not want to be vulnerable at work because the corporate world does not reward vulnerability. It opens them up to appear weaker than their peers or be attacked with corporate politics. That is a really tough place to be in a company that may be constantly going through reorgs, has a toxic work environment, or churns people.

The great thing about vulnerability is that there are many ways to do it, big or small. When done in the context of product storytelling, vulnerability as the sum of one part of the whole does not make you seem weak, but empowers your narrative. 

The other great thing is hopefully by now you’ve started getting the audience to feel some internal vulnerability with stakes and suspense in your product narrative. Now, it’s time to show them that you are relatable and can be vulnerable too. That’s what I did when I told the story of having a crush on my Geometry teacher when talking about paradoxical data in the category opener. I wanted everyone to feel that the numbers were confusing and it was okay to feel lost in this new way of remote working.

Vulnerability is what makes your product story memorable, and as good storytellers we need all of the tools in our toolkit to get the audience to the ending. Not everything in our product story is going to be super interesting or much we can do with. Sometimes, you just have to deliver stale, corporate information and there is no way around it, except for moving our audience along with unexpected moments that shake them up to lean in and keep following along.

I did it in a big way when I told the story of having a crush on my highschool Geometry teacher in the opening. In another Slack presentation to our sales team I did it in a smaller way. Before I delivered the one liner, I told the story of how I was drinking red wine on a Tuesday alone in my kitchen during the pandemic, and had an idea I quickly sketched on a piece of paper. Then I showed everyone the piece of paper with the one liner on it. Before I presented, I was asked many times if I wanted that slide to be designed. I said, no. It had to be the original photo I took of the piece of paper. 

I wanted everyone to see the real person behind the glossy deck. The process of how the story came together. It wasn’t born in a Google slide. It was solo moments in my kitchen, hatching one idea at a time. That raw photo was one of the most shared slides out of that presentation.

Another example, during Slack’s Frontiers conference in 2021, one of our presenters was Steve Wood, SVP of Product. When we were chatting about his talk, he said, “Can I show you some sketches I drew to explain this new feature?” When I saw the sketches, I knew they had to be in his talk. They were authentic to him. A sneak peak into his process, his personal way of thinking about the product experience. Guess what? It was everyone’s favorite part of the event because it created an emotional connection to Steve seeing his private drawings.

Do you want to be remembered? Be funny

The next advanced storytelling skill is humor. Another tough one for us corporate folks, but humor builds on surprise, a skill we learned in our beginner stage. My storytelling coach, Matthew Dicks, writes in his book Storyworthy that you should get an audience to laugh in the first 30 seconds of your story. It allows them to relax and know that you have everything in control. It’s like a relaxed pilot who tells a joke before take off. 

Humor for a product story is the most refreshing drink you can give your thirsty audience. Think about the day of an average corporate person. Back to back meetings, grinding through decisions that other people should have made but didn’t, circular conversations for months. And then there’s you with your product story in the middle of their day. You’re making them laugh, they are enjoying themselves at work. They didn’t expect this at all! Do you want your product narrative to be remembered? Be funny.

I added humor to The Big Flip in the first minute of the product narrative. I talk about how in the 1990s, we got hot desks and open spaces. We took the cubicle walls down, but now we were terrorizing introverts everywhere, and people had to wear headphones to make it look like their in meetings to be left alone. I also say how in the 2000s, the biggest tech companies in the world — the companies who were creating digital tools and telling us to get into the cloud — were also telling us to bring our families to dinner on campus, and do our laundry at work. I give enough humor so my audience can relax and know this is going to be a good ride.

The final boss round of product storytelling

The last advanced skill to learn in product storytelling is to start being thoughtful about how you present your product story. You’ve spent all of this time adding storytelling to it, but it’s also up to you to bring it to life. This is where you are going to look really different from your peers. You are not going to do what everyone else is doing, and the sooner you get comfortable with that the faster you will see the power of storytelling upleveling your work. Here are 3 tips to get you started:

Memorize your narrative

First, you have to memorize your narrative. It doesn’t have to be memorized word for word, but you have to be comfortable telling the story. It blows my mind how rare it is to see a marketer memorize their narrative, or you’re watching a webinar and it’s so obvious someone is reading notes. You don’t read notes – you are a storyteller. Take a deep breath and talk from your heart, not your corporate head. Countless times, I’ve been on a Zoom call and somebody asks me about Slack’s product narrative, and before I know it I am telling them the whole thing. I know it by heart. I love to talk about it because it’s funny, and vulnerable, and I know it will relate for you. 

Memorizing your product narrative helps you know how long it is. The best storytellers stay under eight minutes. You shouldn’t be rambling on and on. You should know the beginning to end and the pacing of your narrative.  

Do the cold plunge

Second, you have to do the cold open. You have to jump off the hundred foot diving board straight into the pool and tell your story. What do corporate people do instead? They steal their own thunder and tell the audience their name, their job title, what they do at their company. Nobody cares. Always start with the story. You’ve worked on creating a killer opening, now it’s time to deliver it! 

If you are in a line up of other speakers, ask the speaker before you to introduce you before handing it off to you. I once presented with Slack’s CMO, and I asked her to introduce me because I had to do the cold open in front of 400 sellers. I wanted to show them if I could do it, so can they. If you absolutely must introduce yourself, introduce yourself with a story and humor. I would often introduce myself by saying I was the local anthropologist and I spent my days talking to customers about what was working and not working with their Digital Headquarters.

Don’t be afraid of silence

Think of the core messages you want your audience to remember from your narrative. Each of those moments needs to be wrapped in pauses, before you get to your big idea, and after. Silence is an incredibly powerful tool. It creates the space for our audience to sit and absorb the moment. It also creates suspense. Making them a little bit uncomfortable and reminding them that you are guiding this narrative. 

Instead, what we usually do is just race as fast as possible to the end. We almost slur our words,tripping over ourselves, skipping slides, just trying to keep our audience’s attention. Rushing is not what keeps our audiences attention. It’s the whole of storytelling, all of the bits and pieces you’ve crafted in between the facts. Don’t be afraid of your own narrative, give the audience the space to process and digest the new concepts and volume of information you’ve disseminated on them. 

The ending of Slack’s product narrative was the most personal. I would deliver it really slowly, making sure that each person felt I was speaking to them and that it was for them. 

In summary, you can do great storytelling just like Steve Jobs. There are three levels to you getting there:

  • In the beginning stage, master your beginning and ending, create scenes, and use the Triple S Threat

  • In the intermediate stage, build on what you learned by activating universe building, transitions to guide your audience all the way to the end, and how to convert data into storytelling

  • Finally, as an advanced product storyteller, use vulnerability, humor and put it altogether by bringing the presentation to life with your unique way of telling it

Now that you know how to deliver good product stories just like Steve Jobs there is nothing stopping you. 

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