How A Game Can Make You A Better Storyteller

At heart, Product Managers should be great storytellers. They should be able to craft compelling narratives to justify a new initiative. Or outline a heroic quest to incite engineers to build that next great product. Or conjure enchanting tales that sales and marketing can use to sell the product.

Not everyone can spin a tale that makes their audience lean forward in anticipation. Storytelling is a muscle, one that requires constant workouts.

Enter True Story

A longtime friend, Kevin Cheng, introduced me to a card game called True Story. On the surface, True Story is an icebreaker game that individuals can use to get to know each other. But, its true purpose is to refine your ability to structure stories in a compelling manner. True Story is a “head fake” learning activity like those Randy Pausch detailed in his “Last Lecture“:

We don’t actually want our kids to learn football. We send our kids out to learn much more important things: teamwork, sportsmanship, perseverance. And these kind of “head fake” learnings are absolutely important. You should keep your eye out for them, because they’re everywhere.

Playing the Game

Each player gets two new cards in each stage of the game, with each card providing a storytelling prompt. Prompts are open-ended, and include koan-like statements, such as:

School Days

Lessons learned
Playground is the real classroom
Show’em what you’ve got

There are three stages in the game, with each stage building on the prior one. Player get two new cards in each stage, and select one card to use according to the instructions for the stage. Each stage guides players to focus on one component in the structure of a good story:

  • Stage 1: Players tell a sixty second story to “paint the scene” on a memory inspired by the prompt card. Players describe the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, sensations, and feelings of the memory.
  • Stage 2: A three minute story where the player expands a memory into a story. The player begins by setting the scene as in Stage 1. Unlike Stage 1, this story continues until something changes and forces them to react. The change could be something in the storyteller, or the conditions around them. The story comes to a conclusion, but without any reflection.
  • Stage 3: A five minute story where the player concludes the story with a self-reflection. Stage 3 builds on Stages 1 and 2, but concludes with the storyteller the meaning of the experience. Ask yourself: what did you learn about yourself or the way the world works?

Observations

I have players break into groups of three or four to play the game. After each stage, we reconvene to discuss some open-ended questions:

  • What stories or parts of a story did you find especially compelling?
  • Why was it compelling? What memories or feelings did it evoke?
  • What unique tricks did a storyteller use to transport you into the setting for their story?
  • What thoughts did the storyteller evoke as you listened?

Stage 1 is the hardest for players to execute. For one thing, telling a story to other people is very personal, even when it’s about the most mundane of topics. Players are vulnerable, nervous about sharing their experiences, and even “doing it right”. The room has the same jittery quality of a high school game of “Truth or Dare”. Some players will even try to bargain for new cards (“Oh, I can’t tell a story about this!”).

Stage 1 is also hard because most people struggle to limit themselves to setting up the story. Players will rush into the thrust of the story without “setting the stage” first. This makes life difficult in Stage 2 and 3. When you fail to “set the stage”, you end up confusing the audience when you backtrack to fill in the missing context.

Once Stage 1 is over, things get easier. Players have heard some examples from other players, and tend to relax a bit. Despite the slow start in Stage 1, players are enthusiastic to get into the remaining stages of the game. The atmosphere in the room turns positive and collegial. And the volume level definitely goes way up during the following stages.

After the game’s conclusion, players usually continue to analyze stories long afterwards. Stories are the glue that bind people together, enabling better relationships. If nothing else, playing True Story might help you build a better team.

Implications for Product Managers

Product Managers should realize that everything is a story. That new project you want to start? That’s a story. The customer need that you’re trying to convince engineering to address. That’s a story. The messaging you want your sales team to absorb? Story. If you can spin an epic tale, driven only by a two word prompt on a card, you can tell a story about anything.

Of course, the important takeaway is how to tell that story.

Stories have structure: a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Omitting those elements confuses an audience. At best, the audience will do nothing. At worst, they’ll resist your proposals because they can’t figure out what the heck you’re talking about.

Both Product Management and storytelling are exercises in empathy. PMs need empathy for the problems of customers, partners, engineers, and management. Storytellers need empathy for the characters, their struggles, and the listeners. They are two sides of the same coin.

In the world of Product Management, much of the focus these days is on data and analytics. But raw data doesn’t tell you why someone did something. Why did the user click on that? What did they think it would do? Why didn’t they click on that? What’s going on in their lives? Their minds?

Customer development interviews help people tell their stories to PMs. But as a PM, your job is to synthesize those stories into a compelling narrative to provoke action. Playing True Story will enable you to craft these stories and inspire action.

Other Sources of Inspiration

If you’re looking for other sources of storytelling inspiration, check out these podcasts:

I’m also a fan of a few writers that do a great job of making business topics compelling to a wide audience. I recommend checking out books written by Steve Johnson, Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Lewis. I also recommend Stephen King’s “On Writing” for its strong advice on the craft of writing.

If you’re looking to play the game yourself, see the end of this slide deck for a few example prompt cards for your use. If you need more, why not head over to True Story and buy the game?

Stop Blaming Users For Bad Passwords

Another year, another vendor study about how users choose absurdly bad passwords to protect their precious online accounts. This year’s study came courtesy of Keeper, while prior years’ reports (for 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011) came from SplashData, a password management service for small businesses. Spoiler alert, the most used password this year is the same as last year: ‘123456’.

Every time I see one of these “studies”, I die a little inside. It’s not because poor passwords aren’t a real problem – they are: proper authentication is critical to defending the mobile and desktop internet applications of today, and the Internet of Things applications of tomorrow. I hate these reports because they blame the victim, the user.

Oh sure, these articles might levy some small admonishment aimed at applications (“the bigger responsibility lies with website owners who fail to enforce the most basic password complexity policies”), but by and large the unspoken message is “look at how stupid users are for using one of these passwords.” These click-bait articles are designed to deliver a dose of Schadenfreude to the reader, and allow them to wallow in smug superiority while they giddily guffaw at gems like ‘123456789’ (“Oh look, some moron actually thought that was better than ‘123456’—what a dolt!”).

Everybody knows bad passwords are a problem. Everybody knows you shouldn’t re-use passwords across multiple sites. Everybody knows you should pick a password with a mixture of characters, but not a dictionary words (except, well, if you’re using a passphrase, in which case you should use dictionary words, but only the right way). Everybody knows all of this, and much more.

There’s just one problem: users just don’t care.

Just look at the stats over the last 5 years: some variant of ‘123456’ has appeared at or near the top of every one of these lists. Who’s the bigger idiot: the user for whom ‘123456’ keeps working and with little or no obvious adverse impact, or the apps and web sites that allow such bad passwords in the first place and ultimately suffer all the reputation damage or regulatory fallout?

These kinds of articles do little to advance awareness of a real solution to this problem, nor do they make much of an attempt to do so. It’s telling that such articles rarely mention the very real advances being made to address the problems posed by passwords, such as:

On that last item: there’s literally no reason to even ask the user for a password anymore. App developers can use both Touch ID and FingerprintManager to build password-less authentication schemes like FIDO (check out the video below). Right now. Today. Like, as I’m speaking to you. There’s even commercial SDKs that developers can just plug into their app to perform this function with minimal additional code.

Instead of blaming the user, how about apportioning some blame to the apps and their developers? How about calling out the applications that allow such ridiculously poor passwords? How about shaming sites that actively disable password managers? How about some link-love for sites like TwoFactorAuth.org, which catalog which sites do and don’t support strong authentication options, and enable users to demand better?

But of course, that’s not the purpose of these articles. The articles aren’t about getting rid of passwords. They’re about positioning a vendor’s technology as a solution to this problem. Yes, a password manager when used properly is better than nothing. Yes, adding SMS two-factor authentication will reinforce poor passwords.

But passwords are an addiction, and these bolt-on half-measures are methadone. Heroine is bad, they say, but let’s not be too hasty about going cold turkey.

It’s time articles like this called out apps and developers to kick the password habit.

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