Control the narrative – become a product evangelist
By Adil Wali , 20th Jul 2011
Product Management

Through a recent newsletter from the Silicon Valley Product Group, I came across a great article by Marty Cagan about, product evangelism, which I see as essentially helping people to imagine the future and inspiring them to help create that future by “selling the dream.”

In that piece, Cagan lists his top 10 pieces of advice for product leaders who want to sell the dream:

  1. Build a high-fidelity prototype (see Some thoughts on rapid prototyping)
  2. Share the pain
  3. Share the vision
  4. Share learnings generously
  5. Share credit generously
  6. Learn how to give a great demo
  7. Do your homework
  8. Be genuinely excited
  9. Learn to show some enthusiasm
  10. Spend time with the team

I really hadn’t given much thought about product evangelism as a thing until I read the article, and then I thought, “That’s really cool.” I’ve always been more concerned about the opposite problem – too much dedication to a product idea where you can get so dead set on a vision that you end up constraining the creativity of the team. (See Ideas are worthless, execution is everything.)

It’s all about controlling the narrative

In general, product evangelism becomes important because everything in life is built on what I call a narrative. You see something happen, or in the case of a product you see a feature that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you so you build a narrative in your head. A personal dialog that justifies what you’re doing, even if you don’t agree with it. Maybe something to the effect:

We had a dumb designer and he came up with this idea. I’m just doing what I have to, but in time I’m sure it will be easier to see that this will never work.

The problem is, the narrative may not be true at all. More often than not, narratives may be based more on mistaken perceptions than on reality.

Within a pure product organization, controlling the narrative is 90 percent of your job. In essence, everyone is very close to the product and its development and knows what’s going on. But if you’re not in a pure product situation – where other groups exist beyond pure product development – there will be people who don’t know what’s going on or why you chose the product you did. The narratives they create may be far from the truth.

The beauty of product evangelism is that you’re creating the narrative for the people around you so they can build a mental model that includes aspects like:

  • Here’s the problem…
  • Here’s the pain…
  • Here’s what we’ve learned…

And in so doing, you allow them to incorporate what’s important in their narrative. So in that sense, by becoming a product evangelist you control the narrative.

The most important aspects of product evangelism

To me, the most important items included in Cagan’s 10 pieces of advice are items 4 and 5 – share learning and credit generously. I think they’re most important because they’re the hardest. You absolutely have to do those things if you want to be a good leader. Unfortunately, it’s what I see the least of, not only in myself but in the people around me. Sharing what you’ve learned and sharing the credit should be a requirement, not an option.

About the Author

Hi, I’m Adil Wali. I became a Microsoft certified professional at age 14 and started my first web development company. That led to a career as a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and startup investor. I got my first “real job” at 33, and I’m now a FinTech executive with a passion for the markets.