This month we’re reviewing the book Building A StoryBrand by Donald Miller. It’s a relatively short book about using stories, and the elements of good storytelling, to create messages that will help our customers understand our products and services so we can help solve their problems.
I’m always skeptical when I read marketing or sales books. Because I don’t want to feel like I’m being given the sales or marketing pitch, and that’s often what these books can devolve in to. And the authors are often very good at marketing and selling, so you get the pitch without meaningful content.
That’s how the book felt like it was starting. It spent a little too much time trying to convince me that creating good stories was the right path. Personally, I’m already convinced (hence why I was reading the book), but the author wasn’t assuming that, and spent the first several chapters driving home the point that stories are critical to brands.
Fortunately, the rest of the book was about a framework for creating stories for your brand (whether personal or professional) and how to use specific elements to make each part of the story resonate with customers, employees, and anyone who hears it.
Listen to the podcast version of this newsletter above
As product people, stories are critical to everything we do. From our companies, to our products, to our individual features, we have to understand the customers and problems, provide a solution, and help everyone see what the potential future can look like.
And that is what this book is all about. We can use stories, and the framework for creating good stories, to create short one-liners that describe our companies and our products in ways that people can understand. We can simplify and clarify our message so everyone can understand.
This is something that we face in product management and software development all the time (as I’m certain anyone in marketing and other areas faces as well)—how to quickly and accurately describe what you do and what you’re trying to accomplish. There is always so much nuance and backstory to everything. But few people care. And we have to remember that.
I liked the approach of using a storytelling framework for creating a brand. I enjoy writing, and am dabbling in fiction as well, so everything resonated with me, even more than just the marketing and branding advice. But all of it is applicable regardless of whether you are a writer or not.
So let’s look at some key takeaways, not just for marketing, but for all of us.
The Customer is the Hero
One of the most important parts of any story is the hero. This is true of a movie, a book, or the story of our product or brand.
We talk often in product management about being customer- or user-focused. I feel like Miller take this idea to another level though. The customer or user of our product is the literal hero of the story. The user is the whole reason the story exists!
We all like to see ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. And that often becomes a problem for companies or products or even features we’re building. We talk too often in terms of the feature itself, or our company, or our product, setting it up as the hero of the story.
But the hero isn’t the company or the product or the feature. The hero is the user. And we need to remember that.
Which leads us to the next key takeaway.
You are the Guide
Miller references many stories with guides in them. It is a common storytelling tool, from Obi-wan to Gandalf, heroes will often have guides who assist them at different stages of their journey, helping them overcome obstacles and obtain their goals.
In our businesses and products, we are the guides. Our customers are the heroes, trying to reach some goal (not necessarily delivering a ring of power to Mount Doom, but something important to them still), and we are the guides offering solutions to their problems so they can reach those goals.
For example, I use several writing tools for all the writing I do. One of which is ProWritingAid, which uses the simple tagline of “A grammar checker, style editor, and writing mentor in one package.” Its whole product is about making me a better writer and sets itself up as a guide for my work. And I appreciate that.
In the book, Miller offers the counter-example of Tidal, the music streaming service. When it launched, it focused entirely on musicians and how it would change the streaming music model to better serve musicians. It put musicians in the hero's role rather than the listener and fan. And it has struggled since it’s founding. Certainly musicians and artists deserve to be paid for their work, and other platforms have rightly come under fire, but we can’t forget who the hero of the story is, and who the guide is.
Simplify the Narrative
Finally, the book focuses over and over on simplifying your narrative so customers can understand. This starts with your website, which a visitor should understand within 10 seconds of landing (something that most websites fail at). And goes to your marketing materials and talking points.
For product teams, we should continually work on simplifying our narratives as well. What is the core problem we’re solving? Who are we solving for? What does success look like?
We should be able to answer those questions quickly and succinctly for ourselves, our stakeholders, and our users. And we should talk about it frequently. We know that we’re getting the message across when others repeat it back to us.
This goes for our high-level product vision and strategy, but also our product features. Having clear problems we’re solving and clear success criteria makes for a clear message. It makes for a powerful story. It also makes for a clear direction and keeps our efforts on track.
There are many good lessons in the book Building A StoryBrand by Donald Miller. While it is primarily a marketing book, the frameworks and principles can be easily applied to product teams and even personal brands.
Creating stories is a powerful tool for product managers, teams, and companies. I’m a huge believer in the power of a good story (if you can’t tell by the fact that I love writing and enjoy telling lots of stories). We can use stories, and the framework for stories, to create powerful messages for our products and our companies. And we can use those messages to ensure we’re reaching our users in order to solve their problems. Because they are the heroes of the stories, and we want to help guide them to their goals.
Other Good Links
10 Lessons from Great Businesses (article) - I’m always looking for good lessons from businesses or products, and this article has a bunch, like maximizing deep work time and persistently recruiting.
This piece is designed to answer these questions, pulling together the ten most impactful lessons I’ve learned from studying leading companies and crypto projects. They are more than theoretical – I have used many to improve my running of The Generalist. I expect to return to each of them many times in the years to come; I hope that they will be useful objects of reflection for you, too.
I’m a PostIt® Note Designer (article) - I feel like we take ourselves too seriously all the time. Product managers, designers, engineers, founders, everyone. I want to rage tweet all the time about this, but have refrained so far because, reasons, I guess. But I love seeing satirical articles like this one.
My design career is astonishing — I haven’t designed a page, brand, layout, concept, or even the primitive navigational or behavioural model. Neither code a simple HTML page with a linked CCS, don’t be silly; that’s beneath me. However, I’m an expert on having a profound opinion on it all.
Experimenting, Learning, and Growing - A Conversation with Lee St. James, Founder of Social Robots (podcast) - I had an amazing conversation with Lee St. James, founder of @social_robots. Some great things happening and some great stories from the journey so far.