Sometimes when I’m reading bedtime stories to my five-year-old, I glance at her and wonder Is she following this? We recently made the jump to “chapter books,” starting with some that have illustrations on every page. She often stops me and says “Let me see.” She’ll grab the book and pull it up to her nose to study the pictures.
Pictures seem to be at the core of how we understand anything. People often say “I’m a visual learner” as if it were a matter of personal style. (Where are all the audio learners? Taste learners?) I’m no neuroscientist, but it seems to me that everyone is a visual learner.
The fact that great writing is rich in imagery is not some accidental aesthetic quirk (like the fact that pavement always appears wet in movies), but an insight into how our minds work. I first encountered this idea reading Steven Pinker, but Aristotle gave me a renewed appreciation for it.
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.