We live in an age of distraction. Attention is a scarce commodity, which makes storytelling more valuable than ever. Good storytelling, after all, is the art of attention management.
Storytelling—or rhetoric as the ancients called it—has always been my most valuable asset as a product manager. A product manager’s first job is to persuade a group of smart and opinionated people to follow a particular strategy. The key word here is persuade. A strategy is not provable, so product managers have to convince people to follow a plan, even though we can’t be sure of what the future holds.
If you’re a product manager looking to improve your storytelling skills, where should you turn? There is no obvious answer. If you wanted to learn Python or repair your refrigerator, you could easily find plenty of online courses and videos. But when it comes to improving storytelling skills, I’ve never come across anything particularly helpful. Why is that? One compelling explanation for our lack of rhetorical resources can be found in Plato’s dialogues.
Socrates: Enemy of Rhetoric
Socrates was famously dismissive of rhetoric. In Plato’s Gorgias, he described it in the following way:
I think there’s a practice that’s not craftlike, but one that a mind given to making hunches takes to, a mind that’s bold and naturally clever at dealing with people. I call it flattery, basically.
Gorgias, 463a, Zeyl
Socrates didn’t share our modern admiration for the art of persuasion. In fact, as the excerpt above shows, he didn’t consider rhetoric to be an “art” at all. The Greek word for art in this case is technē, which is a type of knowledge concerned with creative, rather than scientific pursuits. It’s closer to our word for craft. Aristotle described technē as “a characteristic of producing under the guidance of true reason” (Nicomachean Ethics, Ostwald, 1140a20). In calling rhetoric “not craftlike,” Socrates highlighted this lack of an underlying theory or “true reason.”
The idea that rhetoric lacks an underlying theory helps explain why we struggle to find good resources for learning storytelling. Most resources—and certainly all corporate presentation trainings—are mere lists of “tips and tricks” that lack any sort of scaffolding to hold them all together. Ironically, this makes them not only unhelpful, but also poor examples of the very thing they’re trying to teach.
Towards a Theory of Storytelling
In the spirit of offering something more useful, I’d like to introduce a series of posts devoted to uncovering a theory of storytelling with product managers in mind. This theory should answer questions such as:
- Why is storytelling so powerful in the first place?
- How does giving a presentation in a business setting differ from literal storytelling?
- What is the most important quality of any presentation?
- What kind of written and/or visual content in the form of slides is most persuasive?
- Why do some presentations feel electrifying while most feel boring?
Despite my low opinion of the “tips and tricks” format, I won’t avoid them entirely. Anecdotes and tips are suited to blog-length content. But I will not rely on the tips alone. Every specific tip that I provide will serve as an individual brick that will eventually form a larger structure—a theory of storytelling.
Rule #1: You Only Get One Triangle
I’d like to inaugurate this series with a great example that came up in conversation between me and a couple of colleagues just a few days ago. We were reviewing a presentation that made great use of a classic visual framework: a hierarchy visualized as a pyramid (Figure 1).
A few slides later, a different framework appeared that looked similar to the hierarchy. It was a triangle with an idea located in each corner. The metaphor on this slide was that there was a tradeoff between the ideas represented on the corners (Figure 2).
My colleague Andrew Moore was the one that spotted the problem. The two frameworks are too similar, which could lead to confusion for the audience.
Communication is hard. The speaker is in possession of a particular subjective experience and they are trying to get you (a different subject) to have the same experience. How can the speaker be sure that they are succeeding? Are we really thinking the same thing? Are you feeling the same way about what we (think we) are thinking?
The foundation of my theory of storytelling is that it is first and foremost about managing and directing attention. When we can attract and control our audience’s attention, we can be confident that both sides are thinking the same thing about the same thing. One of the ways great speakers do this is by eliminating potential sources of confusion, such as two similar looking (triangle-shaped) frameworks that communicate two different ideas (hierarchy on the one hand, and tradeoffs on the other). We have arrived at our first rule of storytelling: You only get one triangle.