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Learn 5 tips you need to tell a more strategic narrative

4 min read
Michael Margolis  •  Mar 12, 2018
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“We need you to present in two weeks at our next internal review.”

No big deal, right? Let’s be honest, there’s nothing more stressful than having to present or defend your work—especially in front of your boss. Or worse, your boss’ boss’ boss.

Depending on how the presentation goes, it might affect headcount, budget, and general confidence. The future of your team could literally hang on your words.

Gulp. There’s no way out of it.Whether you’re a product manager, a designer, or a UX researcher, there’s one skill you need that has nothing to do with wireframes or surveys.

“Whether you’re a product manager, a designer, or a UX researcher, there’s one skill you need that has nothing to do with wireframes or surveys.”

You might be one of your company’s best individual contributors, but if you can’t craft a persuasive presentation, your career will face a severe limitation.

As a Narrative Strategist for 15 years, I’ve worked with thousands of product, design, and innovation leads who need help “getting their story straight.” This has been especially true in Silicon Valley, where the stakes couldn’t be higher for those designing the future.

To paraphrase Plato and Steve Jobs, “The storyteller rules the world.”

But it’s not in my job description

Let’s assume you’re really good at what you do. You’re crushing it at work. You’re all about goaling, the roadmap, and bending the curve. You deliver ahead of schedule. You’re pixel-perfect. You expect to be scored on tactical execution and moving the metrics. You believe your work just speaks for itself. Except it doesn’t. Reality check:

  • The data doesn’t speak for itself
  • The product doesn’t speak for itself
  • The design doesn’t speak for itself
  • The research doesn’t speak for itself
  • The idea doesn’t speak for itself

The story is always up for grabs. And it’s always up for interpretation.

Why? Because everyone else in your company doesn’t live and breathe in the same workstream you operate in. Instead, they’re down their own rabbit holes of data sets, people problems, and oversized expectations. Or worse, they oversee and manage 12 different teams, each with its own complex challenges and infinite stack.

As I describe in a recent Productized keynote, people don’t buy the product, they buy the story that’s attached to it.

Improving your persuasion skills

How you frame and control the narrative is the ultimate boss move. In the world of tech, many of us haven’t been taught how to inspire and influence. The stakes are even higher if you’re working on something disruptive, speculative, or super high-risk.

Despite the best plans, things can go sideways, and what’s obvious to you probably isn’t as clear to everyone else. What can you do to improve your storytelling abilities, especially if you’re not the type to blather on like Erlich Bachman? There are five primary tips I suggest mastering.

5 storytelling hacks for your next presentation

When you’re making an internal presentation, assume your audience knows less than they are willing to admit. They probably don’t know the same acronyms you take for granted. And they probably aren’t thinking about the big picture—why what you do matters, and how it’s aligned with the strategic priorities of the company. Your primary job is to educate everyone in the room in a way that’s inspiring, motivating, and intriguing.

  1. Describe the change
    A story doesn’t exist without change. In fact, change is what makes any story interesting. So be sure to describe the context of what’s changing. Zoom out to the 30,000-foot view. How does a change in your market, industry, or the world, create a new use case or opportunity that didn’t exist before? Make sure you’re describing this change with an aspirational mindset to help foreshadow your project plan.
  2. Find the emotion
    Emotion is the fuel that propels a good story. It’s what gets people to empathize and relate to the subject at hand. To get people to feel something, humanize the problem you’re solving. Describe your user or customer—and their needs—in a way that makes everyone listening want to root for them.
  3. Validate with data
    To strengthen your argument, provide evidence that supports your team’s hypothesis in the form of numbers. These should help you show how a certain change leads to a new use case (and the ability to solve a people problem) that resolves your user’s emotional dilemma. Too often, people lead or open with the data (danger!), before creating context and emotional stakes with the audience.
  4. Manage expectations
    During a presentation, you could still have more questions than answers. Don’t present with false confidence; that’s a recipe for getting torn apart by your audience. Instead, present some of the most compelling questions you’re targeting and how you plan to uncover the answer. If those are worthy pursuits, your audience (including sponsors) will be far more forgiving of the inevitable missteps along the way. Anything worthwhile takes time and repeated efforts.
  5. Make it personal
    Find some way to establish a personal link between you and the product, design, or research you’re presenting. It could a story about your kids, or an anecdote about something that happened to you once. You can’t separate the message from the messenger, so make sure your audience knows and believes how much you personally care and are invested.

Remember, if you don’t tell your story, someone is going to tell it for you. Learning how to become a better storyteller is the most important skill for your career. And here’s the good news, it’s never too late to get your story straight.