Persuasive Communication for Product Managers
a practical guide to moving an audience to action
As Product Managers, we tell stories for a living. We tell stories to pitch ideas, get buy-in from our teams, and to convince people to go on a journey with us. Persuasive and compelling communication is essential in moving our audience to action and is necessary for success as a Product Leader or Exec. However, we don’t always know how to communicate in ways that are engaging, memorable that result in an action.
We incorrectly assume that great communicators have an innate, fully realized gift that they were born with. The vast majority of us, an old Seinfeld joke goes, are so anxious about getting in front of a group of people that we’d rather die than speak in public.
Enter Lauren Weinstein, Speaking Coach and Stanford GSB lecturer. Lauren has spent her career helping people craft and deliver messages that resonate. At Thursday’s event, cohosted by Women In Product and Omidyar Network, Lauren debunked some of our most cherished myths about connecting with our audience and led us through a series of hands-on exercises to improve impromptu and formal presentation skills.
Lauren explained that great speakers/communicators project an uncanny ability to connect with their audience - they are compelling and are confident. However, for most of us, anxiety can undermine our impact when we’re in front of an audience. When we are anxious, we talk fast, we use fillers like “uh” and “um” and our facial expressions telegraph our discomfort. Thus it’s hard to be compelling or to bring people along with us when we are in flight or fight mode.
The first step, then is to manage our anxiety to come across as calm and confident. Anxiety can be situational (stage-fright), audience-based (pitching to an exec, VC, or board) or goal-based (contingent on some outcome). There are a few concrete steps to manage your anxiety:
1) Try to make it a conversation — Ask questions, walk a friend through your content to make it feel unscripted.
2) Visualize Success — If you imagine that your talk is going well it is more likely to be successful.
3) Be Present —Instead of being fixated on the future, be intentional and mindful, listen to the sounds around you, focus on your own breath. Some people even play Tetris right before a meeting to stay fully present.
Having a Plan
Lauren advocates having an anxiety management plan in advance. Some of her tips include, using Headspace (a meditation app) as part of your regular practice. The 4–7–8 breathing technique (where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts and exhale for 8) activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Finally, you can practice speaking slowly in your day-to-day life, so that it doesn’t seem too jarring when you talk.
Warmth > Competence
Two qualities that form 90% of others impressions of us: Warmth and Competence. Competence is the one we’re most familiar with and the one that we over-index on in our professional lives. We use logic and data to appear as rational and efficient. However, it can create a distance between us and our audience and can cause people to label us as being robotic or untrustworthy. Warmth on the other hand, makes us appear likable and trustworthy since it appeals to our emotions.
The next time you need support from another team or try to explain the rationale of an unpopular decision to your stakeholders, do your research on what they care about. Find common ground and meet them where they are. Tell stories to bring people with you on the journey. Cognitive scientist Jerome Brunner suggests we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped in a story. Lead with warmth and then go to competence.
How To Communicate
Research shows that non-verbal communication carries between 65% — 95% more impact than the actual words spoken. So how you say it is more important than what you say. Your body language or tone of voice can send mismatched messages, and can actively undermine your credibility. Gary Klein states in “The Power of Intuition”, 90% of the critical decisions we make at work are based on gut feeling. We make snap judgments to determine whether someone is competent, credible or trustworthy based on subtle, non-verbal cues.
To that end, Lauren advocates the 3 V’s of communication: Visual, Vocals and Verbal.
Visual — The first V focuses on body language. The two things to remember here are to be “Big and Balanced” and “Open and Connected”. For the first, this implies taking up space — standing with your feet parallel to each other, using expansive gestures to make your point, and using physical transitions (walking) to get from one talking point to another. For those of us that do more seated meetings, cross your legs at the ankle to feel more grounded.
Being “Open and Connected” means demonstrating warmth by making eye contact with people in the room, smiling, looking excited, moving forward toward the audience (relevant for Q&A).
Vocals — The two most important things to pay attention to here, are “Warmth & Variety” and “Pace & Power”. The former is focused on vocal variety, namely the tone or the energy we put in our voices as well as the expressiveness within our words. The latter is focused on slowing down, being intentional by pausing as well as speaking from our diaphragm to convey authority. This makes what we say more impactful and believable.
Verbals — The final piece focuses on sharing “Stories & Examples” and having “Clarity & Structure”. Structure helps you be clear and concise and avoids the dreaded rambling. Lauren recommends the “Problem — Solution — Benefit” structure to persuade someone. For example, if you need support to build or sponsor a product, this structure helps you frame an argument concisely. It is a particularly useful tool for impromptu speaking.
Another great tool is the “Answer-Example-Relevance” structure to answer the question “How does your Product work?” This tool is particularly useful in impromptu Q&A sessions. You can frame your answer by providing a relevant example and giving your audience a reason to care.
Longer presentations can be strung together using a combination of the two structures above by working through a series of questions/problems, with appropriate examples, relevance and solutions.
The frameworks above are great to get started. However, to make your presentation or impromptu talks resonate with your audience, Lauren recommends borrowing principles from Dan and Chip Heath’s book: “Made to Stick”. The acronym SUCCES stands for:
Simple — have a simple core message
Unexpected — break a pattern or surprise someone
Concrete — paint a vivid mental picture
Credible — tap into the voice of an expert or into people’s own personal experience
Emotional — get audiences to feel something
Stories — because our brains are wired to remember stories
Some of the more enduring messages embody all of the above. For example: “1000 songs in your pocket”, “To put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade”. They appeal to our emotions and fire up our imagination. In doing so, we remember the message and how it made us feel even after many years.
By weaving these principles into our presentations, we can connect with our audience in a more compelling way.