The best PMs are storytellers

Katie Cerar
Jul 9, 2018 · 5 min read

As a PM, crafting and controlling your story can pave the way for a successful project.

Or: why “my project just isn’t sexy” is bullshit (and your job as a PM is to make it sexy).

“This project just isn’t exciting. Like, it’s boring. You have such a cool project to work on. I want that.”

Misguided, you are.

Some projects seem inherently more sexy than others. There are ones the whole company will celebrate, and there are others that quietly splash down without anyone making noise.

Here’s the thing…

  1. Sexy projects are made, not born.
  2. You will be more successful if you can convince yourself and people around you that your project is sexy.
  3. If you can’t make a project seem sexy to yourself or other people, it’s probably not worth doing.

Your J-O-B as a PM is to figure out what about your project is so important, and then convince every person around you.

If your project is worth doing, there’s a problem in there that you can fall in love with. And the most successful PMs find a way to make sure everyone else falls in love with that problem too.


Sexy projects are made, not born.

Why are they so amazing?

For many of us, we covet them because there are compelling stories a: a reason for existence, a clear vision for the future they’ll create. Maybe even an origin story.

Those stories don’t exist by accident and they definitely are not innate to the work.

If you’ve been with the project long enough, you can remember when someone first told you the story. Maybe it was when the project started, or it came up at a meeting, or maybe over coffee.

Now, think about projects that are absolute snoozefests. What’s the story you’re told about those? Yawn.

The stories we tell change how we feel about the project.

Choose your destiny.

Think of storytelling as a modifier. Each project has an innate level of excitement, but the story can positively or negatively multiply that base level.

This is your secret weapon.

You can take an innately less exciting project and make it far more exciting than one that started with an advantage.

Look Ma, I’m winning.

Remember the project that made a lot of buzz, and made you mad because your project was totally way more important? I’d venture to guess they told a better story.


What’s in it for me?

If you can successfully tell a story that resonates with your team and your surrounding community, you will:

  • Control how others think about the purpose (and relative success or failure) of your project
  • Frame conversations and decisions that are made about your project when you aren’t there
  • Empower others to think about your project for you, and discover interesting connections or directions you might never have considered
  • Help those working on your project understand what they’re trying to achieve and why
  • Give worth and value to the effort and time each of those team members is giving
  • Make others want to work with you on your vision

Projects that are thought of as exciting and innovative gain returns with compound interest.

First, they have attention. Attention brings, above all, more brains to the table. Your story is examined over and over again. If your story stands up, you’ve got a lot of valuable feedback and validation. If someone is calling bullshit, that’s some very good feedback, indeed.

Those brains, if you’ve won them over, are also going to start drawing connections to other stories they’ve heard. By better understanding the point of what you’re trying to achieve, and by being excited about it, they’ll be more able and willing to find ways to collaborate or contribute.

They’ll also be your advocates when you aren’t around. The same brains that gave you feedback and thought of unlikely connections will also repeat your story in unlikely places. They’ll correct the more interesting interpretations of what you’re trying to achieve (as is inevitable), and pass on the excitement and the story of your goals.

You’ll also gain a more motivated and willing team. I started this whole post with the example of my friend who’s project is “boring”. If your team is full of people like that, good luck hauling them over the finish line with you. But if your team gets it, really gets it, they’ll want to move mountains.


What if there really is nothing sexy about it?

Disclaimer: I know we don’t all have this luxury. But if you do, this is the litmus test of all litmus tests.

I can hear it now. “But you don’t understand. This project is REALLY not exciting. There’s no story”.

Cool. Kill it.

If you cannot tell a compelling story about something you’re putting precious time and energy into, then just don’t do it. We spend countless hours debating prioritization methods and how to optimize time and resources. None of that particularly matters if it’s in the context of a project that’s not worth doing.


But… how?

  • If you can’t fall in love with the problem, no one’s going to believe you. So that’s step one. Take the time to really explore your problem space, learn, talk to users, and find what speaks to you.
  • Pay attention to the stories we tell about why the project came about in the first place. Is that a compelling story? Often it’s not. If it’s not, stop repeating it.
  • Look at other similar projects that everyone loved. What kinds of stories did they tell? What are the parallels to your own work?
  • Tell everyone. Test messaging, see what people take away from your conversations. Tweak and change until you have something compelling. And then keep repeating it.
  • Which also means: go visit people. Talk to people that are outside your team or org, and tell them your story. Make advocates in unlikely places.
  • Put it down in words. Sometimes documents (especially with lots of pictures) can be a great medium for storytelling.

Above all? Be purposeful. Even if you get it wrong, at least you were in control of that mistake. If you don’t shape the story around your project, someone else will. And they undoubtedly will not think your work is as sexy as it deserves to be.

It’s a skill to hone over time, but I promise you this one’s worth it.


Reiterate shares insights into the craft of product, so the rest of us can learn and get inspired. Follow reiterate for more pieces like Katie’s.

Reiterate

A product management publication sharing insights into the craft of product, so the rest of us can learn and get inspired.

Katie Cerar

Written by

Senior Product Manager, automation @ Shopify Plus. Great hobbies like lifting heavy things, cat wrangling, and coffee drinking. Recovering UX Designer.

Reiterate

Reiterate

A product management publication sharing insights into the craft of product, so the rest of us can learn and get inspired.