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?

Alipay's offices in Hangzhou, China

How Alipay Hacks Its Culture

If you’ve had the opportunity to work with a company in an Asian country (and China, Japan, or South Korea in particular), you’ve undoubtedly observed a marked difference in the role of hierarchy in their culture. These countries feature a high power distance index (PDI) where “lower ranking individuals of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. For example, China has an high PDI of about 80 versus the United States’ PDI of 40 and Western European country’s PDIs of between approximately 25 and 40 (see PDIs by country).

In high PDI cultures, authority is centralized and subordinates are unlikely to approach and contradict their bosses directly; unfortunately, elevated PDI has an adverse impact on innovation. Research on the correlation between power distance and innovation has shown “a strong negative relationship between Hofstede’s dimensions of power distance and GII innovation scores as well as a strong positive relationship between individualism and GII innovation scores.”

Translation? If you can’t tell the boss he’s wrong, then bad ideas proliferate while good ideas stagnate.

However, many organizations are trying to break with traditional attitudes, promote flatter hierarchies, and encourage innovation. I got to see one such effort firsthand during a recent project working with Alipay in Hangzhou (we were enabling Alipay to use the Samsung Galaxy S® 5 fingerprint sensor to authorize mobile payments).

The key to Alipay’s strategy starts with a simple idea: how do people address each other in conversation?

Here’s what “Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands” has to say about how people address each other in China in a business setting:

The Chinese are very sensitive to status and titles, so you should use official titles, such as “General,” “Committee Member,” or “Bureau Chief” when possible.

and:

Most people you meet should be addressed with a title and their name. If a person does not have a professional title (President, Engineer, Doctor), simply user “Mr.” or “Madam,” “Mrs.,” or “Miss,” plus the name.

Every time you talk with someone in your organization, you are being constantly reminded of both their rank and your rank in relation to them. Hence Alipay’s tactic to change the cultural status quo: remove this constant reminder of a person’s rank from daily work.

The first thing a new Alipay employee does when they join the company is choose a nickname (typically a character from Chinese history, literature, or popular culture). From then on, that’s how people know them. No more “Director <name>” or “Manager <name>”; now it’s “Zhu Bajie” (a character from a famous Chinese literature classic) or “One Night” (???).

In practice, what I observed in my time at Alipay seems to speak positively of their efforts. Unlike other projects I’ve worked on in Asia, the project at Alipay was punctuated by a completely different dynamic. There was the kind of constant communication, rapid-fire discussion, and open back-and-forth disagreements that would be strikingly familiar to anyone from Silicon Valley.

What small hack could you put in place to change the culture of your organization?

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