This week on Product Love, we revisit a conversation I had with John Weeke, formerly of Insightly, and currently a product marketer at Qordoba.
John has earned the label of “storyteller” in his career given his background as an award-winning filmmaker. From studying film at NYU to teaching English in South Korea, he now finds himself in Silicon Valley, where storytelling is very en vogue. Software companies are rushing to build creative narratives around their products to make them more digestible, and John believes storytelling is probably the best platform to shape a customer’s experiences. “Storytelling is the structure we use to make decisions to experience reality,” he says.
To him, it’s best to imagine your customer as the hero, the protagonist of the story who embarks on a dangerous quest to find the solution to their problem. In myth, the solution might take the shape of a magic elixir or ancient sword but in the one John is now writing, the solution has to be in your product.
By integrating the structures of our favorite stories into our product experiences we can make them larger than life for our customers. In this episode, we delve deeper into how to make your product story empowering to all users, as well as John’s favorite product (spoiler, it’s Airtable).
I am now happy to share a lightly-edited transcript of that conversation. Whether you prefer audio or love reading, I hope you enjoy it!
You can check out the original post here and stream the audio version here or subscribe on iTunes today.
Eric Boduch: Hey, welcome lovers of product. I am with John Weeke. He’s a storyteller at Insightly, along with working in the product organization. He’s also an award-winning filmmaker, a tech-product evangelist, and we’re really excited to have him on the podcast today. We’re going to delve into this concept of storytelling, and how it applies to the product community. With that, welcome, John.
John Weeke: Hey, Eric. How’s it going? Thanks for having me.
E: It’s going great. Glad to have you. Let’s kick everything off by getting a little overview of your background.
J: When I talk about my history, I tend to focus on these three big shifts that have happened in my life. The first one, 30 years ago I was in San Francisco, I was a three-year-old, actually, and in an apartment in North Beach. What happened, 1989, you might remember, the World Series was going on, and there was a massive earthquake. 7.1 magnitude. And that was my very first memory, actually. The first thing I can remember is being in the corner of this little apartment and being in my mother’s arms next to my sister and just incredible violence and noise. And yeah, I call that kind of a pivotal moment, because from there, our family actually decided to move to the east coast, and it was the end of my life in San Francisco. Really changed the trajectory of where I would end up from there, besides shaking me into consciousness, so to speak.
The second one was 20 years later. Another big shift, but a global shift this time. At the time I was at NYU film school, I was just about to graduate, you know? Imagine NYU film school as a typical film school as you can imagine. People wearing fedoras and skinny jeans and saying “I’m going to be the next Spielberg. I’m going to be the next Spike Lee,” right? So, graduated at the end of 2008, and as you probably also remember, that was another momentous shift in the world. There was the great recession. So, graduating into the worst job market in 80 years, and then from there trying to figure out all right, what are you going to do for the rest of your life?
If that hadn’t happened, might have been somewhere completely different today. But, as it did happen, I decided I needed to start paying back those loans, right? I needed to find a way forward in my career. And so ended up doing something completely different, and moving to Seoul, South Korea, to teach English for four and a half years, I was there. Ended up, after a couple of years teaching English, starting a video company there, to make corporate videos, documentaries for Korean companies who were trying to tell their story to the global audience. Learned a lot there about sales and marketing, for the first time. Leadership, things like that. Things that they don’t teach you in film school.
And that’s when my final of the big three shifts happened, and it was a more personal one. I had a death in the family, a very close loved one back in California, and I realized that it was time to make another change. So, packed up, repatriated back to the United States, and found myself in the world of tech. I’d known nothing about it, except for literally one episode of Silicon Valley. This is in 2014. And just jumped right in, trying to learn about what these different acronyms mean. SaaS, B2B, that sort of thing. Began using video, began using storytelling, marketing, in order to engage, in the end, B2B SaaS companies, and to help them tell their stories.
E: Wow, that’s a very interesting set of stories. I remember the World Series right around the big quake that happened out in San Francisco, so that’s definitely anchored in my mind, in and around baseball. And then Silicon Valley, as your exposure to technology. I’m not sure that’s the best way to get exposure. Definitely gives a very nuanced, let’s say, viewpoint into the tech scene. But that all drove you to storytelling, something you’re very passionate about. So, why are you so passionate about storytelling?
J: Yes, I’ve developed this label in the company throughout the last couple of years as The Storyteller. And when you go to film school, NYU, you talk to anybody, what are you about? Are you more of an editor? Are you more of a shooter? No, no. I’m a storyteller, right?
That came with the territory of my education, my background, and my desire to communicate with people around me, and really be able to connect with them. Now we’re caught in this area, this time, right now, specifically in product and marketing in Silicon Valley, in the software world, where this is a hot topic, right? Storytelling. And so one of the, I don’t know if I have an issue with it, but one of the questions I have about it is, what does it mean, right? You ask different people “what is storytelling, to you?” You get a whole bunch of different answers, right?
But in the tech world and business, it seems like oftentimes storytelling is thought of as this bow, right? You develop your strategy, you decide what you’re trying to do, build your product. We need to put a bow around this. We need to wrap it in something that’s going to make it more digestible to our customers, so that it can be easily understood.
Or you think about storytellers, great storytellers. You think about that guy who, in a meeting, or at the bar, even, sits down, “well, this reminds me of one time …”, right? And he engages you with a story that you like to listen to. But the question is, is that storytelling? What is it, exactly? I think we’re at this moment of confusion, collectively, about it. But we all seem to be understanding that it’s more and more valuable.
So, I’ll tell you my definition, if you want. My definition is a little bit broader. So, rather than thinking about it as beginning, middle, end, or something that Disney’s very good at, I think about story as simply the operating system of the human mind. Bear with me, I know that it’s kind of out there. The idea is that we’ve got these brains, right? They’re so powerful, there’s so much going on in there. All of the connections that we build, with all the computers in the world, still don’t rival a single brain in connectivity. And the question is, what is their operating system?
I like to use a lot of analogies with technology. And so the brain, it’s got a lot of power there, but what is the operating system? What is the thing that allows us to consistently make good decisions and achieve things, whether it’s individually or collectively? Well, you need something to run on. And so, to me, talk about story? I take the broadest possible definition. This is our set of beliefs to understand what is good, what is bad, what’s the in-group, what’s the out-group, what are our objectives, what are our goals, what are our morals?
If you’ve read, possibly, the book Sapient, by Yuval Harari, a great book that came out a couple of years ago. In his book, he talks about the cultural revolution. So when we go through history, you know, you are taught about the agricultural revolution, right? 10,000 years ago, that’s what transitioned us into modern humans as we know it. Before that, hunters and gatherers. Neanderthals, basically. But in this book, he talks about the actual, in his mind, the actual first revolution, and that was the cultural revolution, 70,000 years ago, instead of 10. And in that, he argues, that was the time when we were able to make a shift between seeing the world as what it is, and seeing the world as kind of fictional ideas, or collective ideas about what the world means to us. And so thus laying the basis of our cultural operating system.
I know it’s zooming out a lot, but when we zoom back into the world we’re in today, I believe that it’s no longer a small, competitive advantage, it’s just the reality that we live. Instead of seeing the bits and bytes that are in front of us, the actual reality, everything is filtered through these concepts of belief culture, and we’re constantly telling ourselves stories. About ourselves, about the people around us, about what we’re trying to achieve, about our pasts. And as the story’s continually being updated, it helps us to make good decisions. It helps us to be consistent, day in and day out. And more importantly, even, it helps us to work together.
So storytelling, then, is the structure that we all use to make these decisions to experience reality. And good storytellers understand this, and are able to use that for leadership, for guidance, and to help people achieve their goals.
E: That’s really interesting. In another book we chatted about earlier, in an earlier conversation, was Hero With A Thousand Faces, right? And there we’re talking about a common structure that’s been used and reused, so to speak, or has been seen in thousands, maybe, of different stories. How has that book Hero With A Thousand Faces influenced you as a storyteller?
J: Oh, yeah. The writer is Joseph Campbell, and he published the book in the ’70s or perhaps ’60s. And this is, when you go to film school, they hand you this, day one. It goes through what they call the monomyth, this idea that Joseph Campbell, he studied mythology all around the world, studied dreams, Jung, psychology, all these sorts of things. And based on his research, what he posited is that all stories are the same. He discovered, in my opinion, he discovered the key to the operating system of our human communication and self-understanding and consciousness, in a lot of ways. What he did is he laid out, it’s a curse and a blessing, what he did. He laid out the structure of the monomyth, based on the hero at the center of a journey, and the steps that he or she goes through in order to come back home after his journey is done. So the book is published in the ’60s or ’70s, and it was incredibly influential to one director, in particular, named George Lucas. He actually took this book, looked at the structure in it, and wrote the script to Star Wars: A New Hope, based almost to a T on the different steps in the structure.
And the success was obvious, right? It’s the biggest blockbuster of all time. And really, as we’ve come to learn, in the film world, after that structure that Joseph Campbell kind of dissected, and then George Lucas turned onto the big screen, it is the structure that allows blockbusters to become blockbusters.
It is the structure that allows blockbusters to become blockbusters because it resonates. It is the monomyth. It resonates with the deep understanding that we have of ourselves, of our society, and this whole idea of existence. Just to break down the idea, I do recommend reading the book. It’s a little bit dense. It goes into a lot of references and things like that, but just the basic structure of it, the basic idea is you’ve got your hero, and this hero undergoes a giant shift in their world, right? Something happens. When you’re looking at Frodo, for example, he finds out that the ring that he’s been carrying is going to destroy him and The Shire and the entire world, right? This giant shift and he’s no longer able to stay where he is. To think of, let’s see, another movie, Harry Potter, right? He’s in his regular world with his … Is it step-family? I don’t remember … with his cousins, right, cousin Dursley, and gets this call to adventure, this shift that says, “You are a wizard. You can’t stay in this normal world because you’re simply not welcome here anymore.”
It starts with this. The hero then has to answer the call to adventure and has to go into the other world. The other world is … it’s kind of like the Upside Down if you’ve watched Stranger Things, Eric. The Upside Down, it’s like the real world, but it’s the opposite in every way. It’s dangerous. It’s full of enemies, possibly, things that need to be accomplished, and friends too. The entire goal of the hero’s journey is to go into this other world to make friends, to cross thresholds, and to find the thing of value that he or she is looking for that will help to restore balance to the world when returning, crossing the second threshold back to the regular world, and getting us a synthesis.
Really, to break it down, it’s all about thesis, antithesis, synthesis. This is the basic structure with a bunch … I won’t go too deep into the specifics about, but it has a bunch of steps that are present in many or most stories, and that is the basis on which we digest, not only entertainment but all sorts of things. It’s how we experience our own lives. It’s how we experience groups, companies, so using this is very powerful, not only for film, but also for the world we’re in currently of software.
E: Talk to me a little bit more about that. Why should product managers, product people, why should they care about this storytelling?
J: This is the fascinating thing that I realized pretty soon in exploring the SaaS world, B2B in my case, but I think it applies to anything really. When a user, when a customer is adopting a solution, this is how they experience it or this is how they want to experience it. They see your marketing, your solution as a call to adventure. By signing up, by giving it a try, they hope to go through a transformation based on the shift that they’ve experienced. They want to go through a transformation, and they want to find it within your product, this kind of magic elixir, as they say, this golden key that they can bring back with them and find their worlds transformed. It’s really important, and this is where we get caught up sometimes because … Where I think we need to make the next leap is that this whole idea of the call to action, and the brand, and the offer, the value prompts … To me, these are not the domain of marketing exclusively. It needs to be the entire company. Everyone who’s building for the customer needs to be focused on and understanding of the structure of story that users, customers, go through.
E: It’s one thing to embed story into the brand experience, but you’re taking it to a whole deeper level here. Talk to me about actually integrating story into the product experience itself. Let’s go a little bit deeper there and why you think it’s important that a story just doesn’t permeate the brand identity but the actual product experience and the customer journey.
J: That’s the question, right? Let’s talk about the world as it is today in the majority of software experiences. You engage with some marketing. They seem to understand your problem. They talk about the shift in the world that’s going on that you need to respond to, and you answer the call to adventure, right? You are the hero in your own journey. You answer the call to adventure. You get into the product and, from there, the story ends. Here’s the product. Here’s the key. Here’s the magic elixir that we’ve given to you. Maybe there is some nurture, onboarding emails, or maybe there’s a video or a walk-through guide that you can watch, but it feels like a letdown in most cases. Unless you are the most dedicated of heroes, it feels like you’ve gone into this other world, this Upside Down, and then you’ve just been left there.
I believe that it’s important for the experience to continue and follow through so that you feel, at the end of using a product and adopting a product, really making it valuable for yourself or your company, that you need to have the same sort of structured experience that you get watching a movie. If you do, you should, hopefully, get the same feeling at the end of it. Whether it’s a week to adopt or six months to adopt, you should feel at the end of it like, “I did this. It is resolved. It is now a part of me.”
Obviously, the implications for this are great in terms of customer attention, and success, and shortening the sales and adoption cycles, all these sorts of things, but I believe that a lot of the answers that we’re looking for when it comes to developing products, making sure we’re growing, adoption is where we want it to be, it comes done to structuring, not only marketing, but the entire experience of using the product around these same tenets that Joseph Campbell established 50 years ago.
E: Can you share some examples? Let’s talk about some brands and products that you think have created a great story.
J: I mean we could talk for a while about all these brands that are doing a good job. My favorite brand these days, I don’t know if you’re familiar, is Airtable. Have you heard of them?
E: I have.
J: Yeah. I think they just raised a giant round, over $50 million, and I’m a personal big fan of them, which is a little bit weird because the company I work at is almost a competitor, almost a competitor but, personally, I love this product, and I’m not ashamed to say it. The reason I love it so much is because it empowers you. I recommend you, anybody, to go through the experience of it.
The key thing that it does differently than the majority of B2B companies is that it treats you like you’re the hero, which is to say, in the marketing before you even sign up, it gets you to explore the challenges that you’re going through and puts the power into your hands as to what you’re trying to achieve. They are there when you go through the onboarding experience, when you start using the product. They do a great job of using, of engaging you, providing you with the right information that you need at the right time so that you can get to know their product, but they really leave it all in your hands, and so the experience of using it, at least for me, I would love to hear from anybody else who’s used it, is that, by the end of it, you feel like you’ve achieved something. You feel like they’re there for you, they’re supportive of you, but you’re the creator. You’re the protagonist of this story.
E: What else? What other example do you love?
J: The other one that’s interesting to me or I was super into last year in terms of their fusion of marketing and product experiences is Slack. They had a pretty big challenge, as you know, because they weren’t simply trying to jump into an existing market. Their strategy was to reframe, entirely, the challenge of working at work.
E: I know. Slack, for me, has definitely changed the way I operate, right? When I think about it, my email has gone way down. I have an almost Pavlovian response to the Slack sound where I feel compelled to check it out and take care of it, so people get responses a lot more than the email, but the questions tend to be a lot shorter, right? It’s just quick bursts of interactivity. People tend not to write long, meandering Slacks like some people have the propensity to do in email, and so from that experience … There’s something about the medium that drives people to concise thoughts and concise questions as opposed to the open form, I think, of an email, which feels more like a letter, which can get wordy and verbose, so …
I mean it was truly innovative. It is innovative in terms of how people operate with each other. When it comes down to story, that’s what we’re talking about is innovation. Every story, the hero starts out one place, and you need them … They need, for themselves, to get somewhere else, and the entire question of a story is how do you get there, get the thing that you need with the help that you’re looking for, overcoming the obstacles that are in your way, and successfully synthesize that with the world where you live?
Slack has really changed the way people operate on a day-to-day basis all around the world, it’s incredible, in a very short span of time. That is innovation. That’s innovation, and that takes a great fusion between a marketing story and a product that backs that up and gives them the result of the experience that they’re looking for rather than just kind of letting them down once they’re in the product.
E: Absolutely. Let’s talk now about how product managers, the types of people we work with every day, how should they look at integrating story and storytelling into their products?
J: All right, well, my experience, I have an N of two, right, two different companies, similar, B2B, SaaS space, startup, growing quickly, trying to get those features out the door, so my … Take it with a grain of salt but, practically speaking, here are the things that have worked best for us.
The first thing to keep in mind, and this is not new, but it’s worth reiterating from this perspective, is the users are the heroes of their own journey. There’s a lot of companies like Microsoft … I’ll call out Microsoft. Any time you engage with them, it feels like, “We’re the hero of this, you’re just playing in our sandbox. Okay, let me make this work for you.” A good metaphor is a parent. The parent who’s always tying their kids’ shoes or feeding them versus the parent who’s like, “Hey, you go get this. You make this happen. I’ll be here. I’ll be here.
Hey, you go get this. You make this happen. I’ll be here. I’ll be here if you want, but you need to be the protagonist in this story. That’s number one. There’s a lot of practical ways this can be applied from onboarding to simply how we message it, to how the product is designed to make sure that they are taking intentional steps rather than being force-fed what you perceived to be the solution.
Conversely, with that, the user has got to be the hero, so your role is literally like the mentor. This is the best-defined archetype in film, in story, in psychology, the mentor. You can think the Gandalf, right. The Gandalf, the wizard, the boxing coach who is there to help the champion. This mentor, or the most classic one, of course, is Yoda. Right, Yoda helping young Luke Skywalker to learn how to be a Jedi. It’s important to consider, as you’re building the product, designing it, making sure that these experiences flow with each other. What type of mentor are you trying to be?
Are you trying to be the one who’s telling the user, “All right, you should do this, and this, and this. Then you’re going to achieve success.” Mentors don’t do that, right?
Mentors inspire. They provide orientation as to why this is the right thing to do, but Yoda would never say, “All right, you need to hold the lightsaber in your hands like this and swing it like this.” There’s a level of detail, I think. Oftentimes, we get stuck trying to say “All right, because this user action generates this much revenue, we need to go in there, and say, ‘You must do this.'” But if it’s not backed by your users feeling like heroes, like they are taking the step proactively, then they’re going to lose context. They’re going to lose that drive, that heart that they need in order to feel like they are the in charge of the story, and to really bring it to a synthesis.
There’s a couple of other things structurally. I do recommend going deep into story structure. It’s not necessarily to read A Hero with 1,000 Faces. You can watch YouTube videos about this, just to map out the different steps to the customer journey, but the three key steps that it’s important to have in your product in my opinions is crossing the threshold into this other world, which is your product. Treat that as special. Achieving the magic key, the magic sword, whatever it is that they need in order to make themselves successful. Third, crossing the threshold back into their old world.
You think about typical, let’s say a typical SAS product. You’re signing up for a free trial, that is your first threshold. We do spend a good amount of time on this, saying, “Hey, here you are.” I think it’s worth emphasizing the difference between the old world and the new world. It could be visually. It could be through onboarding, some tips or something like that. But if we just treat this as a special moment, a special moment in time where here you are in this new world. Think Wizard of Oz, right, Dorothy. She’s suddenly in color. Can you create that kind of experience for your customers where they get into your product, and everything suddenly is in color? Everything is loud. Yes, it’s scary, but to make it really psychologically clear that they’re going into a new space is very important.
Secondly is achieving the magic elixir, the magic sword, whatever it is. This specifically comes down to feedback. How do you tell them that they have gotten the magic that they are looking for? It could come, Slack does a really good job of this, having a really good analytics dashboard for their users. Are their users using it? How many messages are they sending? What is the average engagement time? Things like that, but a lot of the time we’re left wondering. We can’t leave our users wondering, as the hero, did you achieve your goals? Did you get the thing you need? Really focus on this moment of, all right, here’s the thing that you needed to get. You got it. Congratulate them for it, right. Make them know that they have gotten the secret sauce that they’re looking for.
Finally, and this is something that I think is completely ignored, and honestly, we haven’t figured it out either is crossing the threshold back into your old world, right. It’s not just enough to go into your software and get some value from it, but how do you truly integrate that as a whole product into everything else your company does? I’m focusing on B2B, but you can probably assume some B2C comparisons too. How do we really focus on this moment of yes, it’s not just only on the products, but it’s through your own life. Provide that feedback into making that real for them.
E: Yeah, I can see that, the providing back into their old world like in the Pendo case where they learned some great insights about their product, and providing it back in the form of dashboards and charts that they can share throughout the organization gives them that treasure, so to speak, to bring back. Maybe that’s a long way to push that analogy, but-
E: I know. I can see it though. I can definitely see it that in our case, getting that data and driving from that data some insights that are going to change the outcome of their product, the success of their product in the marketplace, then sharing that back through the organization, empowering the other people to act on it, whether it be marketing, sales, etc. I can see that filing this monotype, right?
J: Oh, absolutely. That is a key component to it. Some products are more lent to that than others. But Pendo, I’ve got to say, does it really well. It gives you that asset that you need to send back to your team, and remember, the hero is never just a hero in their own world, right. A hero is a hero in relation to the people around them. Your key buyer, your key customer, champion, whoever it is, you need to make sure that they’re the ones on this journey who are able to come back into their old society, and say, “Look what I have.” Right, there’s always that aha moment in any movie where you come back. The hero is there, and they go, “Look at this magic sword that I brought back.” They feel so good about it. You need to make sure that your users have the same feeling when they reintegrate what you’ve offered them into their society.
E: Tips for product leaders who maybe haven’t thought about their products in this way? Any thoughts where they can get started. I mean, it sounds like it’s an endeavor, right.
J: It’s a journey of its own.
E: Absolutely. But it has a huge amount of value, I think, for product leaders to think about it this way. Where could they get started? How do they get started?
J: Yeah, customer journey mapping is incredibly powerful. I’m glad we’re all thinking and talking about it. I think that’s step one for all of this, to map out that customer journey. A, where it is today, and B, where you want it to be. Make sure that you’re keeping in mind the structural power of the monomyth. Everybody has got their own way to do it. You can get some software that lets you drag and drop stuff around. I’m a big fan of Kanban boards, Trello, Airtable is great for this too or just old-fashioned post-it notes, and get it on the wall, and just think about it as all right. Here’s our user in their old world. As marketing often does, what are the challenges? What is their call to adventure?
Then as they go into the other world, what are the moments that you really want to highlight? If you’re able to do some customer journey mapping directly against Joseph Campbell’s monomyth structure, I think there’s a lot of value to be gained from that. It’s a really creative process. Brainstorm, bring all the PMs, anybody who is close and engaged with the customer just to look at it. What are the moments that we really want to emphasize? What are the ones that are critical for the story in order for them to feel like we want them to feel? If we map it out around customer touchpoints, and emotions, and things like that, within these frameworks, that’s the way to go.
J: Of course, it’s valuable to go deeper on story structure. I think it’s beneficial not only to product management or marketing, but just to communicate well, just talking about how to sell an idea to somebody, and have them remember it the next day. These sorts of structures are valuable for that too, so check out some of these books or really just watch YouTube videos and things like that.
E: Yeah. I mean, I think starting with the customer journey, documenting that, mapping that out is probably a great place for someone to get started because even if they don’t get as far into the storytelling, they still have a valuable asset, and they’re going to learn a lot from mapping their customer journey. Let’s take this in a slightly different direction now. Let’s talk about you personally. Do you have a favorite software product out there, and why is it your favorite?
J: Already brought up Airtable obviously. Using it not only for professional reasons, but for personal reasons. They’ve really, yeah, they’ve done a great job at helping me to feel like I’m in control of my own destiny, that kind of thing. In a way that other software hasn’t. On a consumer mobile front, this doesn’t relate to story so much, but Robinhood, what they’ve done with their product, their usability is second to none in my mind.
E: Final question for you, which I ask all my guests, three words to describe yourself?
J: Story, obviously is important to me. Thoughtful, but easily distracted, and always hungry for more.
E: Love it. Love that description. Well, thanks John. This has been great. Thank you very much for coming on Product Love.
J: Yeah, thanks Eric. It was great talking to you.
E: Thanks John.