Twelve Communication Secrets for Product Leaders, Part 2

or, Appraising the Elephant

As a product leader, facilitating great team communication can make the difference between success and failure. In my first post on Communication Secrets, I set up a simple framework for improving communication for your team and shared some tips for keeping your communication reciprocal. Let’s dive into some communication tips about mediums and context:

Mediums matter

Our ideas are buried underneath layers hair, skin, bone and blood, existing only as ephemeral connections between synapses in a clump of grey goo. Until we can link our brains together, we’ll have to settle for some highly imperfect tools to communicate our thoughts. It’s all too easy to think that someone isn’t listening, or that someone else is wrong, and to forget that the tools we have to communicate — emails, text messages, even words themselves — can get in the way. Keep the following tips in mind:

Most mediums strip away content

As an idea makes the jump from one mind to another, most mediums strip away some essential elements of the idea.

You may have heard of the clumsily-named 55–38–7 Rule, attributed to a study performed in the sixties by a scientist named Mehrabian. In his study, Mehrabian demonstrated that only 7% of communication came through the words that a speaker chose, while the speaker’s tone of voice transmitted 38% of the content of an idea and the speaker’s facial expressions and gestures delivered fully 55% of the idea. Now, while the precision of those percentages may be up for debate and the scope of the study may limit the rule’s relevance, it’s clear that words alone are not nearly as effective as words combined with the sound and motion of the human body.

Many mediums for communication — I’m looking at you, Slack and email — strip away sound and motion and leave only words. Others mediums, like the phone, maintain verbal tone, yet still hide expressions and gestures. Even video chat can’t provide us with a way to make meaningful eye contact.

To make great communication happen, try to be the first to suggest jumping from a lossy medium, like Slack, to a higher bandwidth medium, like a phone call. It’s a great way to avoid a lot of accidental miscommunication.

“Let’s talk about this face-to-face.”

Language sucks

Language, at its core, is a cobbled-together, kludgy mashup of strange signs and rules that have been evolving for eons. Language shapes how we think and how we communicate, and at times, it seems like a miracle that mammals have evolved any way to share ideas. However, if we look at the design of language, its tricks, its imprecisions, its malleability, we realize that clarity is not among the foremost values of language.

I’m not just talking about some of the stellar grammatical traps that language has gifted us (for example: there, their, and they’re). I’m talking about the simple fact that different words can mean different things to different people. If I ask you to think of an elephant, we’re probably on the same page. If I ask you to think of the concept of love, it’s very likely that we have in mind something… similar, but not the same.

What about the word success? Does that word mean the same thing to you as it does to all the members of your team? Success is a critical concept and your whole team has to share an understanding of its meaning.

I often find myself hacking away at words, using them when they’re at least partially relevant to what I mean to say, but then carving out less-useful implications to get to clarity.

“This isn’t exactly the right word, but something like…”

Whatever the case may be, take care with your words and make sure they mean the same thing to everyone on your team.

Three letter acronyms (TLAs), pronouns, and jargon are the devil

Here’s an example of bad communication:

“Grab him, circle back, and get it done by EOD.”

Yuck. Let’s unpack that statement:

“EOD” — Acronyms are sometimes useful, especially when people working in the same domain can use them as shorthand to communicate more efficiently. Across domains, however, TLAs like CTA and ETL and OOP and COB can just create confusion. Usually, it’s better to just write it out.

“circle back” — like TLAs, this kind of meaningless corporate-speak only serves to create an impression of knowledge or skill, when in fact it is frequently just so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. When words have little content and turn people off, they prevent effective communication. If there’s a clear and plain way to say what you mean (“discuss it again”), say it.

“him” — who? Who is him? Are you going to remember who “him” is next week? Tomorrow? Hell, when I’ve written this sort of thing before, I’ve forgotten who “him” was in ten minutes. Specific nouns are your friend; I often try to write like I’m the main character from Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento, a man with no long-term memory. We’re all often juggling several tasks at once and when I assume that I’ll forget what I mean, I’m better at communicating clearly with my team.

Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself

When I was a rookie product manager, I was proud when I synthesized oodles of information and delivered a persuasive presentation to my team. To discover the next day that less than 100% of my team managed to remember less than 100% of what I said, I was heartbroken. It felt personal: it felt like no one listened and no one cared what I had to say.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. I’ve learned that, as we’re all very busy, one of the most valuable things a product leader can do is to repeat things consistently and clearly to the team to make sure that they’re at the front of everyone’s mind. This is especially true for topics like goals, such as progress on metrics, and routines, like stand-ups and retrospectives.

Say it with me:

“Repetition is the key to communication.”
“Repetition is the key to communication.”
“Repetition is the key to communication.”

You can’t escape context. You need context.

The gap between what’s on your mind and what you say creates an incredible amount of opportunity for complexity and contradiction in communication. Sometimes, the interplay between what you choose to say and what you choose not to say creates meaning. Other times, the context around your communication creates meaning. Emotions, experiences, the events of the past day, week, month, year — all these forces work together to add layers upon layers of meaning, some welcome, some not.

Consider this question:

At its core, it’s a simple question: the speaker wants to know about the listener’s progress on a presentation. Given the context of the question, however, it may not be so simple. The person asking the question may be a superior, frustrated with an employee’s lackluster performance — the message here becomes “I’m frustrated but still supportive. You’re on a short leash and you’d better deliver.” The speaker may be excited about the presentation, supportive of the creator, and eager for a sneak peek at its contents. The speaker may know that the presenter has been struggling with the presentation and wants to help. The context for this question changes its meaning dramatically.

At times, the meaning that context creates is welcome: quick conversations can be loaded with significance without verbosity. However, at other times, context can really muddy the waters.

Consider every interpretation

Actively considering how everything you say and write could be interpreted is a big ask. I really am suggesting cultivating the habit of thinking about what you’re trying to say, how you’re saying it, saying it, and how the receiver might understand it. The old phrase “Think before you speak” remains relevant.

It’s not easy to juggle it all at once — in fact, really, it’s not possible. I often find myself grasping for a word, using it, and then realizing that the word I used might cause some confusion. That’s when I deploy one of my favorite phrases:

“I don’t mean to say…”

It’s shocking to me how often it’s just as important to say what you’re not saying as what you are trying to say. Words are imprecise things and being explicit about what you don’t mean to say can go a long way to making your message clearer.

Get it all out there

Often, it’s also helpful to be explicit about what’s unsaid, even if, especially if, you assume that everyone’s on the same page. Here’s another favorite catchphrase, one that I’ve borrowed wholesale from David Hoffman:

“Let’s make the implicit, explicit.”

Assuming that everyone has the same shared understanding is a dangerous game. Implicit understanding can be important for maintaining a sense of camaraderie—making things explicit can sometimes feel a little cumbersome, but trust me, discovering gaps in your team’s shared understanding before you start a project or a long conversation is worth it. Get all your cards on the table; you might be surprised to see what everyone’s holding.


Consider the above only an incomplete or initial perspective on communication and where we can improve it: much like our blind men, we’ve only sampled a few observations of the whole elephant of excellent and effective communication. Hopefully, the below phrases will help you in times of need to improve communication with and among your team:

“Does that make sense?”
“Let me play that back to you to make sure that I understand…”
“Can you call me instead?”
“Let’s talk one-on-one, face-to-face.”
“I don’t know. I was wrong.”
“I’ll take notes.”
“Repetition is the key to communication.”
“I don’t mean to say…”
“Let’s make the implicit, explicit.”

As for the fate of our blind men, in some versions of the parable, the men come to blows over the nature of the Elephant, none able to challenge his subjective experience, each forever ignorant of the Elephant’s true character. In other versions, the blind men both speak and listen to one another, build upon each other’s knowledge, and come to a shared understanding of the great grey beast.

In one way or another, we are all blind; let us appraise the Elephant together.


Thanks for reading — let me know what you think! Catch me on Twitter or sign up for my mailing list to stay in touch. 🎉