How Watching HBO’s Chernobyl Can Help You Become a Better Product Leader

Product leaders are actually storytellers. It starts with knowing what you want to say, no matter how complex the real story is
Image by HBO

On April 26, 1986, reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, causing the world’s worst nuclear disaster ever.

Some 23 years later, HBO created its award-winning miniseries on the events, attempting to shed light on the less-told stories of Chernobyl. Throughout the miniseries, it remains unclear what actually caused the explosion. The operating staff of the power plant keeps saying, “This shouldn’t have happened.”

In episode 5 (the last one), the answers are finally revealed, and we all understand what happened there, and how the reactor exploded despite all the safety mechanisms.

Now, it may sound to you as if I am an expert in nuclear reactions, or as if I have read and dived into the story at a much deeper level. Neither is true.

The reason I’m able to talk about reactors so naturally, and more importantly, claim to understand what caused the explosion, is because episode 5 of Chernobyl is a masterpiece.

Think about the amazing thing they did (no spoilers, I promise): They were able to explain, in simple words anyone can understand, how nuclear power plants work, how this specific reactor works, and what was the chain of events that led to the explosion.

Have you ever been told, “[Your product] is not rocket science”? Well, in Chernobyl’s case, it was literally rocket science! And they did what it takes to make us understand it in less than an hour.

As product leaders, we need to explain our product to the world all the time. This might be one of the most unspoken sides of product leadership. We are so immersed in our product that we tend to forget not everyone else is as knowledgeable about it as we are.

Explain your product top-down

When you try to explain your product to someone else, and you are still immersed in the details, it is very difficult for the other person to keep track of what you are saying. It is like describing a cute cat’s photo by explaining which pixel has which color.

Cute cat’s photo by Dids from Pexels

It should be the other way around: First, say it’s a cat. Then, say it’s cute, and describe what it’s doing and where. Only then we can start talking about the details.

Most people understand better when they learn things top-down, not bottom-up. This is simply how our brains are wired — give us the bigger picture first, and then dive (gradually) into the details.

Consider your audience

How big should the bigger picture be? Where should you start?

For more than 20 years, I’ve been using this piece of advice I got from one of my early career mentors: Whatever level of knowledge you think your audience has, assume two levels less, and start from there. So you need to see what your gut feeling is, then put a very serious buffer on top of it.

This, by the way, helps overcome more than pure knowledge gaps. Think about the many times you need to explain your product to people who already know it, and they still have a hard time understanding what you mean. It usually happens because there is a “memory gap” (they know it but don’t remember all the details as well as you do) or an “attention gap” (they know everything, but they were just out of another meeting, and they don’t have the proper context when they listen to you).

Help them clear their minds and follow your story by starting with the bigger picture, which is easier to understand. Remind them we’re talking about a cat. A cute one.

Know what you want to say

Sometimes, the problem is much bigger. Sometimes, even you don’t know it’s a cat you’re talking about. It could be because your product is so innovative that no one gave it a name yet (if you say, “Cat,” no one knows what you mean; you have to talk about a hairy creature with pointy ears who says, “Meow”). But from my experience, you don’t know it’s a cat either (or what’s important about this creature and worth highlighting).

In happens in many deep-tech products: The details are so important that you are diving deeper and deeper until you lose sight of the bigger picture. You have to stop and swim back up.

Here is a nice exercise to help you find your way:

  • Write everything you want to say. Use your own words, all the details you want to include, etc. Take as many pages as you need.
  • Then, write it again. This time, limit yourself to one page.
  • Then, write it again. This time in a single paragraph.
  • And then a single sentence. And a single word.

Note that it’s important to write again, not simply to select text from the previous text. It’s not a summary of the previous section. It’s the whole story, only shorter. Writing it from scratch is the only way to keep it complete and understand intuitively what is really important to include.

Now, of course, your presentation won’t be a single word or even a single paragraph. But you now know where to start and how to gradually reveal more details. You also know which details to include, and which ones are less important. Omit the less important details to keep the time boundaries and avoid confusion.

This whole thing takes time and brain cycles, but it’s one of the most important time investments you can make. Product leadership is all about communication, and it starts with knowing what is most important for you to say.

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