In this piece, I'll be explaining how to use storytelling to appeal to prospects, connect with customers, and take your product marketing team to the next level.
Fairly recently I went through an existential crisis of sorts when I came to the realization that I wasn’t a very good storyteller - something I’d previously prided myself on - and neither was my team.
What did we do? We turned Narrative Science into an organization obsessed with storytelling and embedded it into the fibers of our very being. In this article, I’ll go through the framework we used, explain the five key lessons we’ve learned along the way, what worked, and what didn’t, and the results you could achieve.
My name is Anna, and I'm going to tell you a story about when I had to rethink my entire career.
About eight months ago, I was sitting alone in a conference room with my head in my hands, rethinking everything I thought I knew about product marketing.
At that point, I had been in product marketing for about five years. Not a hugely long time, but pretty long for a fairly new sector of marketing and certainly long enough that I felt like I should probably know what I was doing. For me to rethink something that I built my career around, it had to be something very significant. That day was the day that I realized me and my product marketing team were bad storytellers.
That's what I'm going to talk about today, how I figured out that we weren't very good at storytelling, how we turned that around, and the profound effect that storytelling has had on our product marketing team, on our marketing team, and on our company as a whole.
A bit about Narrative Science
In order to tell this story, I need to give a quick bit of context about where I work.
I work at a company called Narrative Science. We're located in Chicago, and we build data storytelling software. What our software does is it takes data, analyses it, and writes stories about that data to tell you what you should care about within that.
As a result of building out products that write stories, we have a lot of people at our company that think about storytelling all the time. Across engineering, across product, across sales, across marketing, across everybody - people think all the time about how we can get our systems to tell better stories.
Why do we do that? Why are we committing our lives to evangelizing data storytelling?
There is nothing more human than storytelling
It is because we know that humans have always communicated in storytelling, you can trace storytelling back to the very beginning of time. In fact, our brains are actually hardwired for stories.
If you hear one fact, and another fact, your brain will automatically try to connect those facts. That grey matter in between those facts is what becomes stories.
Stories inspire us, stories motivate us, and we know that this is the best way for humans to communicate.
I want to ask you a question...
Enough about Narrative Science, why should this matter to us, to product marketers? I thought I'd start this with a few rhetorical questions.
- Have you ever been responsible for some type of messaging and positioning in your company?
- Have you ever created some type of a messaging framework, jobs to be done, personas, etc?
- Has that messaging framework totally failed?
For us, what we found with a lot of these messaging frameworks is that people were taking it and using it in ways we never intended. As we started to roll out messaging frameworks to the sales team, to the executive team, people either weren't using it, or they were using it in ways that we never intended.
We started seeing campaigns rolling out or sales pitches, and you're just clenching your hand saying, "No, that is not where we wanted the messaging to be used for".
That's what I want to talk about. That is the world we were living in about a year ago.
Where we were
Narrative Science was going through a transitional time, we came up with a new product that had even more advanced capabilities around writing data stories like a human would. This caused us to rethink how we talked about that product, but also how we told our company story, in general.
You name it, you name the framework, we tried to use it, we put this new messaging into everything that we did. We tried to roll it out to the sales team, we gave it over to our Demand Gen team, and we really wanted to see how it would go. Honestly, it went fine.
It wasn't going badly. People were using the messaging, it was going into what we were doing. People were using it okay. But what we found is we really were thinking about the story we wanted to tell about the company, what we believed about storytelling, what we believed about how people communicated.
Were we good storytellers?
It caused us to think about if we were good storytellers, if we as a product marketing team, if we as a marketing team, were good storytellers. We didn't quite know how to figure this out so like any self-respecting adults, we looked to the best storytellers in the game.
We looked to the best
We went and researched Pixar to figure out how they determine how to tell a good story. With some quick research, we found a list that Pixar put together of 22 criteria to make a good story.
We took that criteria and we ran it against a few of our biggest marketing assets, our sales pitch, our product video, a few of our product assets, and a few of our campaign assets as well.
It turns out, we completely failed, we took the 22 and didn't hold up to any of them. We knew something needed to change.
22 criteria = too difficult to scale
If we believed that storytelling was so impactful to people and how they consumed information, we decided that day that we had to become better storytellers. But 22 is a lot of criteria to use every single day.
We knew that anything we put out for marketing and sales, we wanted to be in the format of a great story. But 22 is too many so we had to sit out and find a new framework that we could use to determine if we were good storytellers, for the rest of the time.
Luckily, we found an easier framework
Luckily, as I said, we work at a company that loves storytelling. My friend Nate Nichols, is the head of artificial intelligence at Narrative Science. I'm not exactly sure that's his title, it's super long, but he is responsible for all the AI within our systems. He's responsible to make sure that the stories that come out of our products sound like a human.
Because of that, he studies good stories a lot and he actually was playing around with starting a storytelling workshop for the people at Narrative Science. We knew this was happening and we went to Nate and we asked him, "How do you find out if something is a good story?"
This is the framework he gave us and it became something that we could use to measure ourselves as we started this journey to become good storytellers.
A quick caveat, before I walk through this storytelling framework, Nate did not invent this. This is not something he came up with. This is a tale as old as time, a storytelling framework that has worked.
You can see here, you start with a hook. What that means is you start with something unusual, something unexpected, ask the audience a question, whatever it may be, you need to have something to draw in the people you're telling your story to.
At Narrative Science, we have two big things we like to remember with hooks.
- One is to be provocative and be unexpected.
- The second is to make sure you write out multiple hooks, for every story you want to tell. We try to write about 10 for every story we tell, to make sure that we are being as unusual and provocative as possible to pull people into the story we'd like to tell.
Describe the old world
Second, describe the old world. For us in marketing the stories we want to tell - we want to convince somebody to do something, we want to talk about our product, talk about our features, talk about our company.
In describing the old world, you have to outline in very specific detail how the world was before your product. What was life like before they used your product?
Paint the new world
Then turn around extremely quickly and paint the new world.
- What can your product, what can your company bring people to make their job better? What can they do more of?
- What can they do better?
- What does that really mean for them?
- If they go home early, who are they seeing?
- If they are able to do their job better, what does it mean for their career trajectory?
- Why do people truly care about the product you're able to provide?
Call to action
Last, call to action, what do you want them to do?
Concrete > abstract
For this piece, two main things to keep in mind is concrete is better than abstract, be specific in the ask.
Sooner > later
And sooner is better than later, ask them to do something as soon as possible.
This is the framework we were using and we decided that day that we are going to roll this out across the entire company. Every single thing we did in marketing and sales through our executive team was going to be within the format of a good story.
This was a big journey for us, a huge paradigm shift in going from product marketing messengers to really good storytellers. Today, I'm going to talk about the five lessons I've learned as we've rolled this out across the company.
Top 5 lessons learned on our journey to becoming a storytelling company
Lesson 1: authentic stories start with people, not products
In product marketing it can be very, very easy to talk about your product all the time, what it does, why it's amazing, why it's better than your competitors, why it's great in situations, but you can really lose the people behind the product.
Write your story
That is the story you need to tell. For us, we're lucky because we use our product. To start with this, we actually sat down and wrote our story of why we loved our product within that framework.
We wrote a hook, described our old world, described the new amazing world we had, and then wrote a call to action. Then we asked a few people within our team and right outside of our team to do the same.
Road test it
We took that on a little road testing to some sales calls, put it into some campaign messaging and the response was pretty amazing. Even if I was telling my story, laying it on the table as to what this product meant for me, if they didn't have the exact same role as me, they started to see it as a much more authentic story.
They started to identify with me more than any messaging framework I ever put together. We found that the messaging framework actually became so generic that it was a story for nobody, as opposed to a story that was specifically about a person.
Lesson 2: you have to prioritize storytelling
For us, this was a big decision we needed to make that we were going to commit to this future and the mission of our company to be good storytellers.
In product marketing, you're spread across so many different areas, you have to be with the product team, you have to train the sales team, you name it, product marketing spends time in it at a company.
Shorten your to-do list
We knew that we had to sit down and cross some stuff off our list, in order to make sure we were doing this right. We sat down, and we determined that we wouldn't put out as much product content, we decided that we wouldn't be testing in new markets, we were cutting back on some sales training.
You might be thinking, those are really important things, I could never cross that out. But for us, if we really wanted to commit to the mission of this company, there's absolutely no better way for us to spend time than to figure out how to tell our story really well and to have every single person in the company doing that as well. That brings me to lesson three…
Lesson 3: get buy-in
It's one thing for you to tell a great story about your company, it's another for the marketing team to do it, and it's a much bigger task to have the entire company doing it in this way.
For us to convince people that storytelling was important and how to tell the story, we had to do it in a very specific way to get buy-in.
- First, we went to our executive team, we took that framework that I outlined earlier and lay that out on the table first, those four steps.
- Then we took examples of companies that have told a story within that framework really well.
- Then we wrote out our company's story in three different ways. We wrote it out as if we were the CEO, we wrote it out from our own perspective, and we wrote it out as if we were a salesperson in a sales meeting.
This made it clear exactly the framework we were using, why we were using it, and what we wanted people to do with it.
By laying it out in three different ways, it made it clear that these words that were written were not the exact words we wanted people to use, we wanted people to tell the story in their way within the framework.
What happened is, we actually started to get thematic feedback rather than semantic feedback. Instead of hearing 'change very to extremely', instead of changing sentences around, people were starting to give us feedback on how we were painting the old world.
If we were describing the new world adequately enough, people were getting into it, explaining how and why they love the product, or how they had heard customers describe how much they love the product too.
Lesson 4: good storytelling takes time
It takes a lot of time.
After we got buy-in from our executive team, we had our CEO stand up at an all-hands and tell the story about the company, in his words within this framework. Then we started to go to everybody in the company and ask them to the same thing.
It became very clear that good storytelling does take some practice, it takes time; people have to take time to learn how to do this right.
Set time aside
What we decided to do is carve out specific times within the company where people could work on being good storytellers. Nate started the workshop, we actually have a storytelling workshop at our company that everyone in the company will go through, we do it every quarter, where a dedicated 10 people go and learn how to tell a good story.
We implemented mandatory roleplays across our entire go-to-market team. Marketing, customer success, and sales, all do probably around five to 10 hours of roleplay every single week.
What we do is something called ‘ambush’, so basically, you go to somebody within the team at any time, as long as they're not on the phone with a prospect, and you start asking them questions and force them to tell the story of the company back to you within different scenarios.
What it does is it forces people to learn how to flex the story based on where they are, and not parrot messaging that you had given them in a way that sounds robotic.
Lesson 5: don’t be afraid of your own voice
This is probably the most surprising to me. As you think about telling stories in a way that's true to you, using your own voice, it can be very scary.
As I said, I thought a while ago that I was a pretty good product marketer, good at messaging, and it hit me pretty hard that I was pretty bad at storytelling. The reason was that I wasn't letting my own voice shine through.
That was not true of just me - as we started to roll this out across the company, at every level in every department you started to see hesitation. People were saying:
- 'Well, I don't exactly know how to say it',
- 'Can't someone in sales say it better?',
- 'I don't know if people want to hear about it in the way I would phrase it'.
It doesn't matter who they are, people are afraid at first to say it in their own voice.
Train your people
What we did is we started to train people on telling our story better and telling stories in general, what we did was encourage people to not only talk about what was great, what worked, what they loved but also to talk about what did not work.
What worked and what didn’t
In that spirit, I'm going to talk about a few things that really worked for us and a few things that didn't, over this storytelling journey.
First, I touched on this a little bit, but messaging documents. We tried this, tried every trick in the book, and no matter what we did, people took these and used them in ways that they were never intended.
They used them way too literally and were trying to parrot things in their head, as opposed to telling stories in their own voice.
Powerpoint pitch decks
The second is kind of the same vein is PowerPoint pitch decks. It's not like we didn't try this, we did, we had one for our new product. But at this point for our new product, we don't have a pitch deck at all.
The crazy thing is no one asks for one. Our sales team does not use one, they go to every sales moment for them, whether it be a meeting or a conference, and they tell the story within the framework they know, but they change it every time.
They talk about their story, talk about customer stories, and they talk about stories in the way they would resonate with the person they're talking to.
Playing it safe
Last, this one is a little bit less specific, but playing it safe. Every step of this journey, from the very beginning all the way through training the company into where we're at now, there always is an easier route.
- It would be easier for us to put our messaging into a framework and send it up.
- It would be easier just to put together a pitch deck, hand it over to the team, hope it goes well.
- It would be easier to tell our story without having to use our own voice.
But for us, we found that chasing the uncomfortable, chasing what we knew was different and would make people uncomfortable, is where we found success within the storytelling journey. We found that if it is a little bit uncomfortable, it's probably a good idea when it comes to storytelling.
But just like anything else, becoming a good storyteller is a journey, I would say we're on mile two of the marathon. But I really couldn't be prouder of how the team has really embraced this storytelling in our company.
We're starting to see results.
Where we are
We've seen a double-digit increase in engagement within our campaigns that use a storytelling structure.
We've seen increased engagement with our website, as we started to change certain pages on our website to reflect this structure.
We started to see sales have higher success in their meetings.
But most importantly, we started to see a real change in the culture of the company, people started to feel like they were a part of our story, they're a part of our future, and that they were able to use their voice in how they explained it and what we did.
This is something I had never seen before in Narrative Science, and I had never seen at any company I'd been at before. This has been one of my favorite parts of this - watching people across engineering and sales and marketing and the executive team start to tell our story in their own words and watching that resonate with people.
A call to action
Like any good story, this article is going to end with a call to action. What I would like you all to do, product marketers, I have a challenge for you.
Write your story
What I'd like you to do is write out your company's story this week. You could write it on paper, you can type it out but use the framework. Use a hook, paint the old world, really talk about the new world, and have a call to action.
Write it as if you were just telling your best friend at a bar, why you work at your company, write it like a real human.
Once you have that written down, what I want you to do is take it and put it next to whatever current messaging framework you have.
That's it, just look at the difference and see what you think. If anything, I think this is valuable for you to think through the story. You can rip it up if you'd like. But if you would not like to do that, and would like to talk about it more, I would love to hear from you.
Let your people be people
As I said, at Narrative Science, we're pretty obsessed with storytelling, we talk about it all the time. We also recently wrote a book on it in Narrative Science.
For the past 10 years, we've been investing everything we have into learning how to tell really good stories, so we took all that experience, packaged it up into a very short free hundred-page book on how to tell a good story, how to implement a storytelling culture in your company, and the effect storytelling technology can have on your employees.
With that, I would love to hear from you. Please write your story.
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