x close
Nothing to display...
14 min read

The art and science of storytelling

Membership content | Product Marketing | Messaging & Positioning | Customer Marketing

Download the deck

[At the time of delivering this presentation, Jeevan was Head of Product Marketing at Cisco Meraki but he has since moved into the role of Senior Director of Product Management at Extreme Networks]

In this article, I want to discuss the art and science of storytelling. I’ll start by highlighting the power of storytelling and why it’s so important, then share the story of a form-factor and complex software feature, and how we in product marketing harnessed the power of good storytelling in each case.

I’ll finish by explaining how to bring more customers to your webinar by sharing how we did just that using, you guessed it, stories.

Storytelling framework
Your story conveys your product’s message with meaning and impact. When done right, they inspire action, make you more memorable, unite your audience and simplify complex concepts.

My name's Jeevan and in this article, I'll talk about storytelling. If you work in product marketing, you know how to tell stories so my aim is to add to that knowledge.

I'll start by talking a little bit about me, then discuss why storytelling. I had a bunch of things in here in the first draft, lots of theory, I went fairly deep and then scratched it all off. I have a couple of stories about this.

Then I decided, let me take hardware form factor and talk about that, how we built a story for that. How we built the story for a complex software feature.

Last but not least, another interesting thing product marketers do - webinars. Let's face it, most of the webinars are probably boring so we do need storytelling for that.

About Jeevan

I am the Head of Product Marketing for Cisco Meraki. If you’re a networking IT person then you would essentially end up buying products from Cisco Meraki. People know about Cisco but people don't tend to know about Meraki.

Meraki was acquired by Cisco Systems in 2012, we were about $100 million or so per year then and right now we've grown to more than $2 billion. Growing incredibly fast.

I'm the Head of Product Marketing order. In order to keep this article simple I decided to focus on one product, which is Wi Fi. Most of you are connected to Wi Fi, checking out your Facebook updates, going on social media, Hubspot all those things. So I thought I'll talk about Wi Fi and dig into this.

Who am I?

I ask myself this question every day but here I'll think about this at a more professional level. This is a little bit about me so you understand why I am building this particular methodology for storytelling.

I'm an engineer by profession, I've got several years of coding, a few patents on the US Patent Office. So I wasn’t kicked out of engineering, I could do it but decided to transition into something different.

I did an MBA in marketing and spent over a decade in product management.

One of the things I wanted to confirm is if your goal in product marketing at some point is to transition to product management - don't. It's not as glamorous as it seems. It's great don't get me wrong but if you can convert one other product manager to product marketing, I would say my article is a success.

Product marketing is actually pretty fun.

My unfulfilled desire

When I worked on the product management side there was an unfulfilled desire in me. When you're in product and engineering, you're talking Bits and Bytes or getting into the code, you're talking about the hardware. It wasn't really entertaining, it wasn't fun, I wasn't able to exercise my creative side.

For example, in my spare time on the weekends or on the flights back and forth from customers I do a little bit of sketching. I drew this picture and one of the product codenames internally was called Hendrix.

Hopefully you feel this is more Jimi Hendrix than Jesus - both of them are really awesome. I had it printed on a hoodie and gave one to each of my engineers over a year ago and the reason why I think it's successful is most of them still end up wearing this to work every day. That's where I judge my success.

I see not only my products shipping and deployed at customer sites, my code is great, but essentially, my engineers are wearing my hoodie.

Inspirational storytellers

There are a couple of storytellers that I find incredibly fascinating.

Richard Feynman

One of them is Richard Feynman, a physicist who won a Nobel Prize. When he taught lectures at Caltech, this guy is so amazing, that he was not only a genius, he was able to simplify everything to the simplest degree.

You might have heard the saying you want to simplify everything so that your Grandma can understand it. This is where Richard Feynman started his lectures for undergraduate students, and his lectures were so amazing that actually all the other professors came and sat in his lectures.

I really like to dig deeper to understand what the product does, understand is this even a competitive differentiator? Is this something that your customers care about? Only then I talk about what the story is. That's really why I find it fascinating.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is another one who's incredibly amazing. You should definitely listen to him, he is a better speaker than I am and a fascinating guy as well. His books are awesome, everything he talks about, the stories are incredibly simple but if you just read a single chapter of it, you would almost feel like this guy's done a PhD thesis behind this particular topic.

An amazing ability to tell stories, or maybe he fakes it really well - either of them works.

Why storytelling is important

This part I thought was interesting because I'll give you a couple of examples of what engineers pass on to me and then I have to manage what to do with it. But first and foremost, why is storytelling important?

Ever since the beginning of time, people have always loved to tell stories. People have loved to draw pictures, tell small stories, sit around the fireplace and entertain everybody; inform everyone.

To use a non technical example, do you remember this particular commercial?

I found this is one of the best examples of why storytelling is important. For people in the audience this was shown at a time when it was a very lopsided game, this advertisement was aired one and a half minute before the end of this particular game.

There were several competing advertisements, like David Beckham taking off most of his clothes and so on and so forth. There were many reasons not to remember this but in the ad metre this was the most popular advertisement.

The reasons for this one are really two things, oxytocin and cortisol. When you're shown a picture of a cute dog oxytocin gets released, but the first thing is cortisol.

For anyone who's not seen this advert, it's based on a farm, you see this beautiful cute little puppy who's friends with a horse. The puppy is going to be adopted and leave, and the horse keeps following the puppy and the puppy keeps coming back to the horse.

Such an 'awww' moment. So amazing in fact that at the end of the day, despite all the other competing ads, you remember it. The bottom line continues to remain.

Remember, you're trying to get some tension into the customers; some tension/stress into the partners that listen to your story. Then you want to set up an emotional bonding with your product. That really is the ultimate thing that I want to achieve.

Is it a story worth telling?

Before I dive into this, to give you a background, we've got at least seven different product lines at Cisco Meraki and a few 100 engineers. As head of PMM, you can imagine at any given point, when we have a launch, there are about 25 things that come and attack me.

I have to figure out does this make sense? Is this a story worth telling? I thought, let's take a step back and figure out is this a story worth telling?

The 3 key characters

Every single story needs these three key characters to be understood.

The customer: victim

The first one is a customer, that's your victim and at the end of the day, you want to make sure your customer likes your product and that they want to buy it.

It's very important to differentiate and distinguish who is the customer - the role is really important.

Just to give you an idea, the customer could be the IT guy who's actually doing the deployment, or your CTO who opened up the purse to actually buy your product line, or the partner who is actually going and installing it.

So who are you trying to tell the story to? It's very, very, very important to keep that in mind.

The product: hero

The second part of it is the product. Of course, your product is the one that solves all problems. Remember, you have to create a tension first, but then you have the product, which is the solution.

Your competition: villain

Last but not least is your competition, which is the villain of course.

Every time you are thrown this new whizz-bang feature from your engineering team or from your product management, remember to take a step back and write these down.

Once you know this, then and only then should you proceed.

Constructing a plot

Now I'll walk through two examples of the methodology that I follow. Like I said, everybody wants to talk about 'look at my cool feature and what it does'. It's almost like nobody cares.

The first one is, what are the benefits? And once you talk about the benefits, who are they for? Is it the cheapest, then only the people that buy it actually care about? If it is the fastest, maybe your IT people care about it and your end users care about it. Is it a differentiator or is it a catch-up feature? So that determines how much time any of you guys spend on this.

As product marketing people, we have to follow this particular bare minimum thing. Of course, when you come up with benefits, you need to understand what the product does, that's almost a given. That's why, to me, it's like I have an ability to understand what the product does, what the benefits are, who the customers are and the differentiators.

Really, we work in partnership with product management. All this sounds great but how does it look in action?

Two examples

Let's take a look at two examples:

A story about a form factor

New access points

We were about to launch Wi Fi access points and what was different about these particular ones is this is going to be the fastest and the best and with a changed form factor.

Now, a different form factor is fascinating to you and you are going to be in love with it but for customers, it's an incredibly stressful event.

Think about this, if you were to go up and change a particular chandelier and install something else, you have to go up and unmount this thing, take it out, and then you have to climb up a ladder and mount a different mounting bracket, then you install your chandelier or your access point. This is very painful.

It might be beautiful, you are in absolute love with it, so you have to tell a story. Without that, it's going to be a struggle.

Access points from our competition

First and foremost, here are some access points from our competition:

One thing you might notice they all look white. This is what our customers see from the competition, they are white squares because it's easy to make.

Now you start digging into how do you stand out from a sea of squares? The first thing is: what do we want to convey?

We wanted to convey two messages, we wanted to talk about our new access points needed to have a function and a form.

The function - The function was, this is the fastest access point.

The form - The form was, they were going to be the best. Premium, expensive, distinct, different.

So fast and best.

When you think about speed, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Hopefully, some of you guys thought about a race car.

Back to my creativity, you guys can understand there was a certain person in my company that did this in their spare time. Certain sketches got wild as you can imagine, and out of control, I even put in the back the nice logo and drew this bridge and everything.

But anyway, this was meant to be a cheesy cartoon. Ultimately, what ended up happening is we built two new access points, modelled after this, that looked like these:

They are the fastest and the wildest growing access points in our product history. It's fine for me to tell a story and even subject my sales engineers to my cheesy cartoon of the car access point but what's actually even more fascinating for telling the story is essentially make others tell your story.

Make others tell your story

We were about to do a big launch and for the launch, I decided to include one of our customers - McLaren (if you know anything about race cars, it's a pretty well-known brand).

Think about this, what was I doing? We were announcing the Wi Fi 6 fastest access point ever and for telling that story, we wanted it to be about speed. This is what our customers saw.

A story about software

So I've talked about hardware and platform, now let me give you an example of software.

Think of benefits not features

To tell stories think about benefits but not the features. If I wanted to bore you to death, I could have said 'this particular technology within the Wi Fi six access points has eight by eight, it has OFDMA, it has so many other whiz bangs and acronyms' that none of you will understand, care about, or remember.

But the one thing you might remember is 'hey it was the McLaren racing car guy who actually talked about fast access points'. Let's think about this.

Here is an engineering slide

These are the typical things that my engineering throws at me and given my somewhat complicated background of engineering and product management I have no problem with this.

What do we want to convey?

I decided, again, what do we want to convey? What's your plot; the benefits, to whom, and the differentiator.

Everything is quite different in this one versus the hardware platform. First and foremost, we started looking at this slide again, and I decided to highlight a few things that make sense.

I only cared about the benefits - to help conserve power, help conserve battery life, reduce contention, increase the airtime efficiency, and then up to 67% lower power consumption.

Aha. I got exactly the key words I was looking for, what are the benefits? How much? Who are they for?

As a story with my illustrations...

I told you I draw cartoons, but sometimes when I don't have time I do the second best thing which is Google search for images. Remember, they don't go out into the world, you are the only guys that are subjected to my cartoons and my Google searches. So I didn't worry too much about copyright infringement out here.

But using these primitive cartoons, you can actually see the benefit of this, you are waking different people up at different time. Therefore, everyone can continue to get their beauty sleep. These are the simple cartoons that I subjected my sales team to.

Once I did this, I transitioned on to getting our design team engaged, they actually make this publicly consumable. The end-story we told our customers was essentially a simple cartoon like this as you can see.

This form factor is of the access point, we showed two different icons of smartphones and then we showed the battery life. At the end of the day, we used the term target wake time, we said 67% battery life which means that if you're carrying an iPhone around, you don't have to charge it twice a day, you can conserve your battery 67% of the time.

This is a benefit of this particular capability. That's an example of software.

Advice on webinars

Let's face it, webinars are boring, they’re typically about product features and so on and so forth. I want to briefly share how we've tried to change that.

If you remember, I said Cisco Meraki is about networking products. Everybody has networking products. What's the differentiation for Cisco Meraki? It's really simplicity.

Everybody has 50 slides that talk about simplicity, 'here is how my product is simple', what we do is slightly different. We decided to make webinars interactive.

Using stories to bring more customers to your webinars

Essentially, if you've watched Netflix Bandersnatch, what we ended up doing was creating a new webinar that says it's a Mission Impossible.

Our product marketing manager who looks slightly less handsome maybe than Tom Cruise is going to set up a wireless LAN and he's going to set up WLANs, configure a board, configure your switch, and you guys can actually go ahead and vote for it in real-time.

So anybody that joins in can actually make their product marketing manager install, configure, set up your network and to change things.

Now this of course takes a while to do, the setting up takes a long time so you definitely need to partner or be on the case of your digital marketing people to make sure you get the right amount of users.

But this is one example of this that I thought was pretty fascinating. We got pretty much the highest number of views per webinar that we had with this kind of concept and it was incredibly hard.

It took a couple of months to actually set it up and get it right and make sure it is foolproof, because as you can imagine, with the demo gods, it'll go wrong while you're about to do a demo. Doing a demo with a few thousand customers online could be even more exciting.

Thank you.

Download the deck

Want to learn more?

Taught by Elliott Rayner, Storytelling expert, and Chief Marketing Officer at ARION, our Storytelling Certified: Masters course has been designed to equip you with the knowledge and skills needed to understand the science behind telling a story that sells.

By the end of this course, you'll be able to confidently:

📚 Construct an actionable storytelling framework

📚 Structure your product story like a pro

📚 Connect better with your customers through an authentic product story

📚 Communicate to your audience with confidence and passion

📚 Use your purpose to ensure your story remains consistent

📚 Have an impactful change on your product’s story and success

So, what are you waiting for? Enroll today 👇

Storytelling Certified | Masters
Understand the science behind telling a story that sells. Master the art of story-selling.

Written by:

Jeevan Patil

Jeevan Patil

Jeevan is currently Senior Director of Product Management at Extreme Networks, with expertise in storytelling, pricing, adjacent market analysis, and competitive differentiation, just to name a few.

Read More
The art and science of storytelling