Storytelling for Engineers... Designers & Product Owners

All of us have watched a Ted talk and got inspired from by a presenter. We've probably also experienced the opposite, listening to someone who was presenting a topic that just doesn't relate to our area of expertise.

Presentation

IT'S not for everyone

Public speaking is not for everyone and that's okay. It shouldn't be forced on someone who suffers from anxiety and no one should be judged for declining an invite to speak on projects they've lead. That said, if you do not have issues presenting in large or small groups and you are on the track for people or project leadership, then you have to be a story teller, which requires understanding your audience.



PERSONAS & STAKEHOLDERS

You build products for user personas and implement features to solve user frustrations. When you're presenting work as an Engineer, Product Owner, Designer etc. you're communicating your journey for the purpose of transparency and to get "collaborative buy-in" from your cross-functional stakeholders.

Persona template

Let's be honest, Engineers have tech debt that they want to resolve, Designers and UX Researchers observe repetitive, longstanding user issues that they want to eliminate and Product Owners need to get executive approval on their product strategy and roadmap. In this case, your stakeholders (including executives or C-levels) are "stakeholder personas".

Get to know them like you would a user persona. Research what their Jobs-To-Be-Done are, get familiar with their blockers and goals – Learn about what inspires them and keep in mind that the "stakeholder personas" you're speaking to are just people, like you. They want to laugh with you, and they want you to do well.

I can recall three scenarios where a Designer, Product Owner and Engineer in different moments struggled to present their work in front of internal stakeholders. Their work and ideas didn't resonate and not for the reasons you might think. They're speaking skills, passion and knowledge on the topics were fantastic, so what was the problem? They forgot to highlight the benefit their work would have on the various stakeholders in the room. Instead, they spoke only about the benefit that solution meant to their discipline and yes, others do get excited by your passion but executives have a bottomline that require facts, figures and metrics.


The basics of storytelling

Whether you're giving a technical presentation, selling a solution or pitching a new internal tool, you should refer back to these principles.

Chip and Dan Heath wrote Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and other die. In it are some principles to guide your presentation in a successful direction. I'll also provide some presentation examples that have worked for me and others in the past.

  • Simplicity – Strip your idea back to the core. For example, try using a lean canvas to identify key insights related to your work. This will help you prepare a cohesive, story-driven slide deck. Also, try structuring your presentation using the STAR method – Situation, Task, Action, Result.

  • Unexpectedness – Grab people’s attention with the unexpected, go against the status quo. For example, use a funny GIF next to your content to make your data memorable or interact with the audience by quizzing them on their assumptions vs real-time data. And don't forget to check in with the audience on questions they might have – You don't want to ramble through your presentation. Give the audience time to catch up.

  • Concreteness – People remember what affects the senses. Abstract words, concepts and ideas should be framed in a concrete way. For example, I was advised to end my presentations with "takeaways" using statements, not sentences ending with question marks. This way, you're displaying more confidence in your work and the audience has a clear idea of your next steps.

  • Credibility – People respect authority, you have to generate it if you don’t already have it.

  • Emotions – People remember ideas that impacted them emotionally. For example, connect some of your ideas to how specific stakeholder's might benefit from them. Highlight how the idea(s) unblock them.

  • Stories – A message can last years when it's wrapped up in a good story. For example, highlight some user quotes and persona faces to get your audience to realize the real-life impact.

Agenda slide

Make sure your presentation is laid out to tell a short, simple, cohesive story from start to finish even if your talking about Elastic AI. Start with your company's objective and a key result. This establishes relevancy. Communicate the user problem your idea or work is resolving then back that up with data-informed insights like metrics or user quotes. If the data gets boring to read or starts looking like an unmemorable sea of text, create some unexpectedness by using a GIF or interactive element to engage the audience.

Back that up with user quotes to establish credibility, then relate the solution to solving internal issues that stakeholders are experiencing to grab their emotions and end your presentation with concrete takeaways and clear next steps.

Sometimes it's best to reserve the Q&A at the end of the presentation. Some stakeholders might ask you questions like, "How do you expect our department to help?" or "What do you need from us in order to move forward?" Keep in mind that these questions are not meant to interrogate you but rather, they're perfectly natural and a good sign that others are excited by what you're proposing.


Resources

A good presentation is about data and story from Forbes contributor, Kate Harrison

10 Useful Product Thinking Lessons for Engineers

Mr. Klipfel – My 9th grade Literature teacher who taught me that I can replace my public speaking anxiety by using jokes to interact with the audience.

Cedric Deniau – Former CTO at Crealytics who told me to stop crossing my arms so much and to end my presentations with statements, not questions.