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Mastering Core Product Management Skills: Communication & Storytelling
It is well known that developing core product management skills i.e., strong communication and storytelling skills can speed up the sharing of ideas, promote team harmony, and even inspire and motivate team members. Considering this, it is worthwhile for product managers to spend time considering how to enhance the many forms of communication they have with their team.
Every product manager would have encountered the below situations at least once in their early careers:
- I struggle to convince executives with my proposals whereas the other PM in my team breezes through and gets their buy-in smoothly
- My cross-functional team members need so much hand-holding. They come back with very basic questions even after walking through the specs more than once.
- The feeling of “These folks just don’t get it!” whenever there is a pushback from others in the organisation.
Unfortunately, product managers encounter the above scenarios more often than members in other functional roles like marketing, design, development & others. While the above scenarios can have multiple causes, a regular culprit is the absence of a “good communication strategy”.
Dimensions of Good Communication as a Product Manager
So let’s break down good communication into multiple dimensions and delve deep into the dimensions that act as a differentiator between average and top PMs.
Communication at the very basic is viewed two-dimensionally:
- Communicator – their behaviour and delivery
- Content – information that is being shared and its presentation
You’ll find tons of resources to improve upon various aspects of a good communicator including body language, expression, confidence, tone etc. Even for improving content like structure, purpose, data points, clarity, story etc. So we’ll not dwell specifically upon those and focus on improving communication as a PM.
Adding a Third Dimension to Communication – Audience:
A refined approach to communication includes a third dimension namely ‘tailoring to the audience’. In the case of product managers, the audiences are cross-functional team members/leaders, leaders in the PM org, senior executives etc. To ensure that the messaging lands right for each kind of stakeholder, it’s important to structure it better and make it full-proof.
Framework to Strengthen Communication as a Product Manager
Here’s a basic framework that I use to enhance communication using the ‘tailoring to audience’ dimension. It includes 5 different aspects and covers everything one needs to know about communicating well.
|Define||Name the audience|
|Goals||What does each of them care about in this context (goals & objectives)?|
|Knowledge||What is their current knowledge level about this topic?|
|Unexpressed||Am I able to sense unexpressed aspects (if any) of their communication?|
|Empathy||Am I able to empathise with their situation? If not, why?|
Let us take a situation where a PM needs to convince the engineering team to push out certain tech debts from the sprint to accommodate certain features. This is a very common scenario that PMs face in their roles.
Here is how to put the above framework into action:
|Define||Name the audience||Engineering manager, Developers, and QA|
|Goals||What does each of them care about in this context (goals & objectives)?||Their goal is to remove tech debts from the code to make our platform very scalable.|
|Knowledge||What is their current knowledge level about this topic?||They understand their domain (tech) well but very likely they are not fully aware of customer & PR repercussions due to delaying this new feature.|
|Unexpressed||Am I able to sense unexpressed aspects (if any) of their communication?||They might be thinking that product folks just care about delivering new stuff and not care about fixing the current problems that might blow up anytime soon. They are very frustrated (though not visibly) and no longer trust me in this regard.|
|Empathy||Am I able to empathise with their situation? If not, why?||Yes. Engineering has to walk a tightrope situation balancing new features vs existing debts. If something blows up in the meanwhile, they end up slogging to provide a quick fix and also could potentially get the associated blame.|
When we apply the audience framework to this problem statement, it is very easy to
- See different options available
- How to go about communicating the same
- Agree on a mutually workable solution.
Let’s add the Fourth Dimension to Communication for PMs: Context Creation
PMs with core product management skills i.e., good communication mastery get both the content and audience aspects right. However, the stand-out PMs practice something in addition. I call this dimension “Communication Context creation”.
What is Communication Context Creation & How Can PMs Use it?
Organisations, depending on their maturity, enforce ceremonies & processes for product development. Examples of these processes are quarterly planning, monthly or weekly reviews, spec walkthroughs, sprint planning, demo meetings, Go-NoGo meetings, launch update communication, etc. These processes are venues for PMs to use their core product management skills to influence and align stakeholders.
Above-average PMs communicate using these contexts to align stakeholders and create impact. However top-notch PMs create such contexts and opportunities regularly.
Top-notch PMs map out stakeholders, their information needs, and their frequency. They create communication channels wherever there is a gap and maximise the impact of their work.
Real World Examples
Few examples where PMs proactively create communication context based on the organisation’s current needs:
- A PM in a series A startup realises product strategy hasn’t reached all corners of the company. She initiates a bi-monthly product vision & strategy update discussion with stakeholders so that these are reinforced & clarified regularly.
- A PM identifies tough stakeholders and holds regular sync-ups with them despite not being expected to hold these regular sync-ups
- A PM identifies a lack of enthusiasm in the teams and wants to solve it. She starts a biweekly newsletter. The newsletter has POD updates, callouts of key contributors, milestones, and early wins in the project. As a result, people around her buy her enthusiasm and fully support her efforts.
Given similar skills, PMs who create communication contexts for the wider benefit of the organisation tend to be much more successful than others.
Root Causes Analysis of Example Scenarios
Let us relook at the scenarios at the start of this article and analyse what could have gone wrong:
I struggle to convince executives with my proposals, whereas the other PM in my team breezes through and gets their buy-in smoothly.
While there would be subjective reasons based on the context, the biggest issue could be not being mindful of the audience. Executives have different motives and goals depending on the organization’s context and also concerning a particular project.
You might think that the executive cares about business numbers, whereas they probably care more about customer experience.
Executives in mature companies tend to put higher priority on protecting current revenue streams and safeguarding brand value. They may not want to take big risks. So whenever you present disruptive ideas to them, you would want to be open about the worst-case scenario and how you got that covered.
If a change maker executive joins a mature firm, they might tend to do the exact opposite of example 2, and you would want to tailor your communication accordingly.
My cross-functional team members need so much hand-holding. They come back with very basic questions even after walking through the specs more than once.
The feeling of “These folks just don’t get it!” whenever there is pushback from others in the organisation
Here the issue could be both that of the audience as well a lack of communication context creation. These situations arise more often when each of your cross-functional teams has many of their own functional goals that they forget about the common goals.
For example, an engineer is more invested in code quality and scalability than your product vision for the customers. While goal alignment across senior levels can help, the role of a PM here is to reinforce the common goals via the vision and strategy.
The PM needs to create regular meetings to evangelise her vision, and even something in an AMA or Q&A format should do the trick in getting the message to the right people and getting aligned.
Typically it takes 3-5 times of repetition to get the desired results.
Actionable Summary to Communicate Better
Step 1: Identify the challenges you face in your organisation and filter the ones that are communication-related. You would find that most people/team challenges can be solved through better communication.
Step 2: Find out the communication contexts (e.g. review discussions, weekly updates) that exist today in your team/org. Based on the challenges identified in step 1, identify and create communication contexts that would help solve these challenges (e.g. a regular 1:1 with an important stakeholder or a cadence in strategy briefing)
Step 3: Before every important communication (a presentation or a discussion or written communication), go through the audience framework mentioned above in this article. Use your answers to the questions in the framework to craft your communication strategy – solution, content, medium.
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