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Storytelling and driving accountability with data

Product leader, James Gunaca, discusses how data-driven narratives, tailored context, and audience understanding can transform product managers into effective storytellers for better outcomes.
James Gunaca

Head of Product / Group Product Manager

The art of storytelling is a skillset you won’t normally find listed on job descriptions for Product Managers. And yet, storytelling is a vital skill to engage in every aspect of life. By harnessing our creativity we can understand a situation, the changes that have been exerted upon it, and the outcome of those changes. Product Managers have to tell stories all the time.

They have to be able to shape a story based on the data they have, understand what the context is, and tailor a story to their audience. These stories can be told verbally in a meeting, through a presentation, or in a written document. What typically separates a story told by a product manager from a story read in a book, viewed in a film, or heard in a presentation, is that the story is often used to drive an outcome.

Data as the foundation

In these stories, data plays the most critical role in shaping the story and leaving an audience with the information they need to move forward. The data in a story is more than just the metrics or KPIs, it’s the who, what, when, why, where, and how—these are the building blocks of every story. More specifically, the data are the facts. The underpinning of each story told by a product manager—be it in a product vision, a strategy document, requirements, or just a regular business review—has to be rooted in the facts. Being precise and factual helps remove ambiguity and relies less on opinions to support a conclusion.

Pro Tip: Don’t fall into the trap of having a guess be perceived as a fact. If something is a guess, consider whether it helps your story or not. If you don’t have the answer at hand, but know where to find it, offer to come back with the exact number instead of going solely from memory unless you’re certain.

Keep it contextual

Without context, data on its own is just data left to an individual and their own interpretation. If I told you “I ate 23 burritos” you would think that’s excessive. The missing context and data is that I ate 23 burritos “in the last 3 years”. Maybe that still seems like a lot, maybe it doesn’t, but without context the interpretation can be different. Sometimes the context isn’t just about the data, it could also be about where a story is being told. Sharing a 2-page summary of a product outage in a meeting with an engineering team so you can partner on building a plan to mitigate such outages in the future is probably more helpful than sharing that same summary when replying to an email answering the question “what went wrong?” from a senior leader.

Know your audience

Tailoring your story to an audience can differentiate a good product manager from a great one. Summarising key business results for last month for your engineering team should probably be different from how they are summarised to a Director, VP, or above. Similarly, communicating a product vision or strategy should be tailored to the audience based on the outcome you’re after—whether that be securing additional resourcing from a senior leader, or motivating a group of engineers you’ll be dependent on to deliver on that vision.

As product managers, we are accountable to our customers and our stakeholders. Sometimes we also have to hold others accountable too. We hold ourselves accountable when sharing facts, including what we know to be true, and what we don’t. Accountability is even more important when telling a story about something that went wrong. What’s more important is what will happen next, who will take the action, and when it will be done.

Let’s look at two examples

Two regular scenarios where a product manager will need to tell a story are when summarising results or explaining how something went wrong. Usually these can be called out in as little as a single sentence, typically in a weekly business review.

Example 1

We generated 21K sales last week
- Product Manager

Is 21K a good amount or not? How many sales were driven the week before? Was it 40K sales? If so, that’s a substantial week over week decline. Or was it 10K sales the week before? In which case, it was a substantial increase. On its own, this data tells close to nothing. Your audience likely has no idea if this was a good week or a bad week unless you tell them.

We generated 21K sales last week, +10% WoW and +18% YoY for Week 38, driven primarily by a spike in conversion of sign-ups after launching our new landing page.
- Senior Product Manager

This update provides more data and more context. It highlights the short term variation, gives a long term trend comparison, and explains the why behind the change.

Example 2:

Our feedback collection mechanism failed. We’re looking into it.
- Product Manager

In this example, there is very little data—something happened and an action is being taken. But there is so much more missing; especially given it’s an issue that directly affected customers. When did it break? Is it fixed? When will it be fixed by? These are obvious questions that can be addressed up front.

On 7 April, our feedback collection mechanism suffered a 6-hour outage, resulting in ~200 failed customer contacts. The Customer Feedback team is conducting a deep dive to find root cause and will share an update on 14 April.
- Senior Product Manager

With this update, we can now understand a lot more about what happened, what the impact was, what action is being taken, by whom, and by when an update will be shared.

Pro Tip: When committing to take an action, you are more likely to complete that action by setting a deadline to get it done. Set a deadline for yourself, or you can expect one to be set for you!

To sum up

We are constantly writing a story about our products, our customers, and the results we drive. We regularly have to share that story, or parts of it, with others. We are also held accountable for the success of our products and by being better storytellers with data, helping drive accountability, we will build trust with our stakeholders and leaders as well as deliver better outcomes for our customers.

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