Keep Telling your Story

How a release notes nightmare became a rewrite opportunity

Maggie Campbell
6 min readJun 18, 2019
Cisco Release Notes circa 2009

Release notes are a thankless job. Even teams with solid release note practices say release notes are a necessary evil to record what changes happened to your product and when they went out. The current trend on the internet asks software teams to treat the notes like they are a marketing tool and to promote your brand through the exciting changes to your product. In the words of the great and powerful Seth Godin, “Tell your story.” But what a jump from “fixed this broken thing” to telling a product’s story sprint after sprint.

In working through your product’s story, you will find the problems that go beyond release notes. You will find a mythos problem, a personnel problem, a definite enthusiasm problem, or worse. When I start this exercise with clients, I usually have to take their story from “Why do we even need a story?” to “This is where we are going.”

Who’s Story?

First question: “Wait, does our product have a story?” Of course it does:

  • It has a gritty, upstart story where two people had an amazing idea while working in their garage, or at a different dead-end job, or as buddy carpenters, you know the one…
  • It has a seedy backstory where your team needed to pivot to meet the needs of your client base and made some terribly wrong choices along the way
  • It has a public story like your personal Facebook feed where you only share the highlight reel and make your product look like it emerged from Zeus’s head, fully-formed and without blemish
  • It has a fantastical futuristic story where your product revolutionizes-the-world-of-fill-in-the-blank-by-engineering-a-solution-that-bypasses … something

As you become a public brand, you are not always in control of every version of your story. So enjoy these early days. You get to write all versions of the story, and tell it loud and proud.

Therefore, to get this process started, gather your product’s story from as many employees in the company as you can interview. I find it best to start at the top and work down. In a perfect world, I would do these interviews without reading the rest of this article. This is because the more you can listen without a sense of directing the story now, the more truth you can maintain in later steps.

The best design always begins with an open mind and research. Once you gather the opinions, synthesize the disparate facts into a narrative. It should have a beginning, middle, and future-yet-to-be-told. Do NOT fall in love with this darling. Part of this process is murdering this darling, and you cannot do this if you believe you have composed the second coming of Shakespeare. This is just a collection of facts strung together to form one version of a story. Nothing more.

Labor of Love

Right now, you have a collection of dates, release numbers, and a list of features. You may have a sprinkling of “then we took the product to this show and that happened.” Put all the facts in order and then start stringing them together. What outside cause led to this feature? Who joined the team that led to this decision? Did a significant customer change the way you looked at a problem? Did a significant failure turn out to be a way forward that you didn’t imagine?

Tie all the individual components together with as much cause and effect as you can remember. It may be helpful to put some of the product’s events in the context of global or industry events at the same time.

At this phase in the process, do not try to sell any idea or leave subliminal messages behind. Don’t try to make truth happen. Truth resists guidance when telling a story. Instead, truth emerges or becomes apparent as you tell and retell the same story again. Truth emerges from the labor of love you put into stringing each of the facts together. The connections you see in hindsight are the fabric of the truth that will emerge. Let the fabric weave itself.

The story’s truth

Do not ask everybody if they agree with your story. That’s not what I mean.

Rather, what insight does this story offer to anyone listening? Your story has a message. It has a core belief. It has a soul. Find that. Otherwise, you fail at retaining employees, at inspiring new prospects, at building a user-base. This is business today. Stories that have truth and soul and insight not only gain traction but become legend.

Some stories tell so well, we are compelled to retell them again and again. We are filled with authentic excitement when we tell the story of how we met our partner, or the day a child was born, or the day we decided to add a pet to the family.

These stories have been told and retold to demonstrate a core truth about ourselves and a core truth about our relationship with the listener.

These are my values. These are the shared life-changing events. You are important, so I want you to know these details. Many stories evolve to these levels because of how many times we tell the story.

Chances are, your product’s story has these same qualities. When I’m working with a product that’s blazing, I can talk to the president of the company all the way to the social media intern, and they know the story and their part in the narrative. There is a collective sense of how their hard work has created, is creating, and will create their revolutionary new product. These teams have an origin story to rival a Disney Marvel character.

You have direct impact on how your mythology running through your team’s veins. There are talented marketing specialists, copy-writers, or brand consultants who can help you take your story from a collection of dates and release numbers to a labor of love. But no need to stop reading if you aren’t planning to hire someone — give it a try yourself first. After all, it is your story.

Mythology and Truth

What did you discover? Teams tend to fall into these high-level categories when it comes to the truths we discover:

  • We have always been different
  • Stronger, faster, better
  • Our quality will outlast anything else
  • You can trust us
  • We move really fast
  • You can have it all (how ever you define “it all”)

What are the core values your story tells? I assure you, if you try to start with your mission or value statement and then write a story around those words, your story will be inauthentic. It will not be a story that creates a company mythology.

String together the facts first, from all levels of the company, and find that truth. Draw the core belief out of that story. Tell and retell the story with the core belief at the heart of the story. From there, all that’s left to do is continuing telling your story.

And the release notes?

As you rewrite the story now with the lens of your authentic truth, your story inspires your employees either to build trust by double-checking themselves or move quickly without fear. Your story engages your customers in the story, so they believe and rely on your quality or trust they are getting only the best from your team. Your story builds your organization’s mythos, so the story starts to tell itself: those inside and outside the company know and believe that you’ve always chosen the road not taken or found the mystical potion that allows them to ‘have it all.’

All external and internal marketing will reflect this truth. Every CEO speech and every one-on-one with a boss reflects this truth. Every release note that techy nerds read will instill this truth.

What once said “built a new notification system” now says “we released our internal toast system ahead of schedule, so it may need a few adjustments” with confidence because you’ve committed to the “move fast and break things” truth.

A bug release note used to say “fixed this thing” and now will say “The user picker is now in alphabetical order thanks to our quality engineer, Kevin.” This reflects the truth of quality and a sense of humans creating this product for you.

Users today expect a feeling when we they use your product, read about your product, and interact with your organization. Truth will always win with any user. So believe in your truth and own your story.

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Maggie Campbell

Experience designer, content curator, confidence builder, joy cultivator, dog + tiny human mom, chronic over-thinker, deficit levels of attention