The 5 communication skills that are most critical to every Product Manager

Fresh out of undergrad, when someone listed “Strong communication skills” in the 5-page job-description, I only fell short of raising my hands and saying “Yes! I have it”. Well, I was educated in an English-medium school, I read English fiction extensively, I could speak fluent English. Is that not it meant?

Five short years into a Product Management role, my parameters of communication have melodramatically metamorphosized. I remember my first critical presentation to a prospective customer. Days of toiling over a presentation, choosing carefully every word, I was almost ecstatic with the result. My mentor and the COO of the company’s reaction “Customers would not relate to this”. Within minutes, the presentation was in the trash, like it never existed.

Ensuring that your audience understands exactly what you want them to understand is hard!

Even the most seasoned speakers, leaders, have to put in the hours to deliver just one talk, just one town hall, just one pitch to investors. So, even if you think you are an excellent communicator, I am sure there is still room for improvement.

Before any communication begins, the first stride should be -intentionally deliberating over

Know the end goal of your communication

Sounds simple, does it not? I have found that it is not.

As Product Managers, every day we interact with multiple personas. The intent of our communication also varies across the spectrum. We talk to convince senior stakeholders to invest in us. Reams of documentation for engineering teams, lead to bulletproof, almost perfect product features. Sometimes, all you want to do is let everybody know that you built this brilliant feature, and that is great. Those days I had been actively working on an extremely complex Product feature. The feature would directly affect a few important KPIs of the org and I was desperate to get it right. Before I came up with a solution, I needed to validate quite a few assumptions with internal users. Based on the complexity, I favored visual representations to illustrate the behavior. The presentation talked extensively about how the feature worked. I ran the sessions with few individuals, I noted a consistent pattern.1–2 slides in, users tended to agree with whatever I said. I could not command the critical attention that I needed. Few hours (quite a few) spent in fuming over and cursing the lack of attention of individuals, I knew I needed another solution. The visual elements in the deck were drawing more attention than I wanted. The presentation was also diluting the information that I needed to communicate. That gets to my second important communication matra

Selecting the right form of communication is critical

Once I realized my mistake, I went with a simple excel sheet. It clearly stated the inputs and the respective outcomes and a place for the user’s reaction. It provided an easier mode for my audience to critique and feedback.

I later found out that circulating the sheet for offline input also worked wonders.

Let me conclude my story by saying that the feature was a great success!!

More often than not, we have our form of preferred communication. Some people are more comfortable with words, some with presentations, and others with excel. There is an innate tendency to default to your preferred mode. It works better, to take a step back and decide based on what would work best to satisfy the intent of your communication.

Longform or excel is easier because the constraints of words or space are greatly reduced. Presentations, however, is a beast that needs to be tamed.

Simplify complicated concepts in presentations to tell a single story

If you needed to just make a sales pitch, the presentation is simple enough. Presenting your feature, however, with details of problems it will solve, what it does, how it works often turns out to be more complex than usually believed. Out of the many resources I constantly research, I have found HBR’s Guide to Persuasive Presentations the best and most practical.

But because I am sharing my personal experiences and what worked for me, here are a few things I swear by:

  • Present to a single persona at a time. If need be, have multiple presentations

  • Weave a story through your slides. Each slide should build upon the other and work in harmony.

  • Allow your audience to connect to your solution.

Start with what your audience knows and end with what you want to tell them

You have the perfect set of slides. You have worked through each tiny detail and you really know your stuff. You confidently passionately deliver your presentation. You hear some murmur. Wow, people are interested!

You hear a question and you almost start to answer. But, oh, it was addressed to your boss. Your boss knows the feature, but you know it best.

If you are a beginner-middle level Product person in a big Product organization, you have felt it. You have felt dejected that your voice does not weigh as much yet…

Get people to listen and respond to YOU

This one does not have a shortcut. It even does not have a few books or anyone solution that works for all. The process is slow and aims at establishing your credibility and marketing yourself as the subject matter expert. For me, this problem was solved in a rather unplanned, unintended, and painful manner.

Post my feature release, I had two options. Equip support teams to handle queries and troubleshoot, or to take it up myself. I chose the latter. My rationale was that I was lazy to train others plus some goodness of heart. While my decision being completely wrong and stupid, addressing a hundred tickets a month did something. It assured everyone that it was easier to ask me the solution than investing their brainpower to do so.

A rather expensive way to establish me as the SME!

That gets me to the last, not the least, and often the most neglected mantra…

Listen for sake of listening, not solutioning

Communication is a two-way street. You talk, people listen. People talk, you listen. Hold your thoughts while you listen. Listen without jumping to solutions. You listen, listen, and then listen some more if you are a Product Manager.

As Sachin Rekhi puts it, Product Management is 60% substance and 40% style!. While you can come up with a tangible plan for the former, the latter is an elusive target. Lot of blood sweat, if not years of practice goes into improving one's communication skills. But then it is the best investment you would have ever done.

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