5 Ways Product Managers Can Sharpen Their Communication Skills
Product Managers are directly responsible for synthesizing the voices and needs of senior stakeholders, the product team, and customers. As such, they are the communication hub within their business.
Effective communication is one of those ‘soft skills’ so crucial to the success of a PM which is difficult to quantify and measure yet nonetheless has a hard impact on the business bottom line. Brushing up on communication skills and tactics enables a PM to better foster empathy and understanding with coworkers and customers, while at the same time helping to drive product success.
In this article, we’ll explore how a PM can improve their in-person and written communication skills.
Tips To Improve Your In-Person Communication Skills
Product Managers work and collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds and specialities to create great product day in, day out. In such an environment, challenges can present themselves to a PM in how they communicate with everyone from senior management to new customers and everyone in between.
The majority of these interactions take place in one of the following three ways:
- Conference calls
Love ’em or loathe ’em, meetings are here to stay. As a PM, you’re in an out of meetings all day, whether one-on-one or with a group of your colleagues and customers. As the axis point of business, UX, and technology, PM’s can be assured of being called upon to contribute to each and every meeting, if not lead them entirely.
- Agenda ✅: If you’ve called the meeting, put a clear agenda together with an expected outcome. If you’ve been invited to a meeting and there is no agenda, ask for one. Cameron Herold discusses this further here, and in his great book “Meetings Suck”.
- Timeframe ⏱: Have you ever been in a meeting that you just wished would have gone on longer? “That meeting was just too short!”…said…noone…ever. Keep meetings brief! Scheduling a meeting time that suits everyone can be a pain in itself, so make your life a bit easier with something like Calendly or Google Calendar’s ‘Find a Time’ feature.
- Take notes 📝: Taking notes in meetings allows you to keep a record of what was spoken about and to more thoroughly process the content. As suggested by legendary Angel investor jason Calacanis, take notes on pen and paper. Digital note-taking leaves you open to distraction and good ol’ pen and paper will help you learn better. After lots of testing, I believe Leuchtturm1917 are the best on the market.
Here’s the brutal truth: no one wants to watch and listen to your presentation!
Every single presentation I have ever given I have approached it this perspective. I simply take it as a baseline that every member of the audience is tired, hungry, doesn’t want to be there, and needs to leave as soon as possible to go collect the kids from school. It’s my job to make them interested and want to be there!
In order to deliver an effective presentation, you need to grab your audience by the proverbial cojones early on and keep them engaged in that psychological space for as long as necessary for you to convey your content.
- Tell a Story 📖: I know, you’ve heard this a million times. But you’ve heard it a million times because we humans are avid storytellers and consumers! Forge your presentation into a beginning, middle, and an end. Weave a hero (a customer, business goal, user story — whatever will resonate) into the centre of it. Need practice with standing up and speaking to a group? Join a Toastmasters club.
- Body Language 💁: Stillness in a presentation is a virtue — walking around and aimless fidgeting distracts the audience from your awesome content. This is an avoidable own goal. Apart from being 100% confident in your content and practiced (see below), you will be doing yourself an enormous favour by taking an acting class or two. Seriously. It won’t make you Laurence Olivier but it will do wonders for your posture and poise for those presentations.
- Practice! 🎤: Yup, another one you’ve heard before. But again, practice your presentation ‘til you’re blue in the face. If possible, do your best to practice in the actual space you’ll ultimately be presenting in. You cannot over practice — but dammit, you need to act like you’re trying to!
3) Conference Calls
Okay, so this one isn’t “in-person” per se but after face-to-face meetings calls are often the next best thing to being in the same room together — and with high-quality video call setups they can be pretty close to it.
Whether video-based or just plain ol’ audio, aural senses become far more attuned and important on calls than in in-person meetings. As such, PM’s need to be cognisant of this and tailor their communication skills to get the most from their calls.
- 2:1 ratio 🤐: We have two ears and one mouth — on calls, use them in that ratio. As a PM your goal on most calls is to listen and understand as opposed to being heard. Actively listen to others on calls and — somewhat paradoxically — you’ll find that you’re able to make points much more clearly when it’s your turn to speak. The easy way to do this, especially if you’re leading the call, it to use Simon Sinek’s rule and be the last to speak.
- Voice control 🗣: Record your own voice from a call someday and play it back to yourself. Nine times out of ten you’ll realise a need to speak more slowly and more deliberately. Use people’s names (think of it as an old-school @ mention!) so everyone knows who you’re referring to at each stage during the call. Note: I recently started a podcast and it has really helped me with voice control and how I speak on calls.
- Send material in advance 📥: Conference calls — especially long ones— can be prone to focus and context becoming lost as different voices compete to be heard and understood. To mitigate against this, make sure to send across an agenda, documents, and any presentation material in advance to attendees so that everyone is able to stay on the same page and focused throughout.
If you want to really level-up your in-person communication skills I strongly recommend reading the late Dale Carnegie’s seminal book on empathy and relationships How to Win Friends & Influence People. First published in 1936, it has stood the test of time and, if anything, it’s message is even more relevant today in a fast-paced culture with a message that supports the importance for deeper personal contact and genuine empathy.
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If you want to see empathy employed at a level of pure mastery, then do yourself a favour and watch the Tony Robbins documentary I Am Not Your Guru. If most of us even had just 1% of Tony’s interpersonal skills we’d be off to a flying start!
Tips To Improve Your Written Communication Skills
In a globalised economy, disparate and remote teams have become a norm as opposed to an exception. Because Product Managers are the axial point of communication between so many different stakeholders, they are constantly communicating with coworkers and customers with different offices, time zones, and languages. As such, clear, concise, and effective writing becomes an indispensable asset to the modern Product Manager.
The majority of written communication comes in these two forms:
- Chat messengers
4) Chat Messengers
Slack, Microsoft Teams, HipChat — whatever you use, the adoption and usage of team communication platforms continues to explode. Short-form, long-thread conversation spaces present new opportunities but also new challenges for Product Managers.
- Don’t live there 👨💻: As a PM, it’s tempting to be drawn into the team messenger to see what everyone is talking about and chat to different parts of the business. If you do this though, you’re losing. Treat team messengers like the ocean: you want to dip your toe in a couple of times a day but you know you’d die if you tried to live in there!
- Be a human ☕️: At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves having a long messenger conversation with someone who sits right beside us! Team messengers are there to supplement regular conversations, not replace them. Be a human and go grab a coffee together to do your business!
- Keep it brief 😴: Long, rambling team messenger conversations about important topics with side-threads can be exhausting and counterproductive. If you see one forming, get on top of it and call the team together to make a decision offline — or by video for remote workers. Google Meet is your best friend for these.
Needless to say, I don’t encourage for PM’s to be overly engaged in team messengers. They absolutely have their place, but far too often they can distract and can, ironically, negatively affect team productivity if not used judiciously. Ultimately, err on the side of caution.
Many have predicted the demise of email but Ladies and Gentlemen, let me tell you: email ain’t goin’ nowhere!
Email’s long-form format forces authors to be purposeful and focused within their content before pushing send. Well, that’s the idea at least.
Product Managers can find themselves spending a lot of their day in their inbox so it stands to reason then that being a strong writer of emails can contribute to effective communication and productivity.
- Prioritise 🔔: Always put the most important information towards the top of each email, using the rest of the mail to expand upon the salient points as necessary. Senior internal stakeholders in particular simply don’t have time to read or write long emails, therefore err on the side of brevity. In general, try to avoid long emails in general — you shouldn’t ever find yourself writing the Magna Carta!
- Assets & Attachments 📎: If you’re referencing reports, UX/UI designs, epics, etc. make sure to either link out to them, embed them, or attach them. Not only will this help any visual thinkers you’re communicating with, but it will allow your recipients to delve deeper into the content you’re referencing if they want greater context.
- Check yourself 💯: From time to time we all make mistakes when writing — we’re human after all. However, even small spelling errors can, unfortunately, undermine the perceived value of your content in the eyes of the reader, whether consciously or unconsciously. For those of us who are more error-prone than others, a tool like Grammarly is something of a godsend!
If you really want to take your writing to the next level then try out the Hemingway Editor. Hemingway is a fantastic app which seeks to improve clarity in your writing through its online text editor. You might not pen A Farewell to Arms with it, but it will help you write more clearly and efficiently.
If you’d like to really challenge yourself then start a blog. Yep, I know — how very meta of me to suggest that you write a blog right here in blog post! That aside, nothing supercharges your writing development quite like forcing yourself to publish written content that you release to the world to read and critique. Medium is your friend here and you can get yourself set up and scribing away within minutes.
I’m really interested to hear your thoughts on what works for you as a Product Manager. What have you seen done well? What have you seen that you’d avoid? Let me know in the comments below!