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Communication, Relationships, and Stakeholders

How To Improve Your Communication Skills as a Product Manager

Hilary Johnson

Product Lead | Growth Advisor @ ustwo Freelance

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4 Articles
Hilary loves leading healthy and productive teams that collectively deliver product impact. Hilary is currently working with ustwo and The Body Coach to help people achieve their fitness goals.

Communication is at the heart of everything we do as product leaders.

Not only that, but our jobs depend on it.

Sure, there are a bunch of skills that are vital to building great products.

Strategic thinking, data acumen, technical fluency and user research are just some of the many skills that make product managers successful.

But product managers can only succeed if they’re able to bring the whole team along with them and work with them to collectively reach a common goal.

So how can you get really good at communicating?

Isn’t good communication  something you just...know?

Nope. Sure, some people are naturally more comfortable communicating than others. These people often have the gift of making presentations look like a good time.

They are often social by nature, and are energized by communication and engaging with others.

They articulate themselves clearly and get their message across effortlessly.

But for many,  great communication doesn’t come as naturally. They need to work at it. Like any other skill, continued practice can help get you there.

It might seem daunting at first, but good communication skills are within everyone’s reach with effort and practice.

Here’s how you can you start to improve how you communicate:

  1. Spend time getting to know people

  2. Understand your audiences

  3. Practice communicating with clarity

  4. Practice listening

  5. When in doubt, over-communicate

Why are communication skills important for product managers?

There are many reasons communication skills are important for excelling in a product role. I’ve broken them down into three key one:

  1. As product people, we need to collaborate with team members to build successful products

  2. Leadership is key to our role as product leaders

  3. You need to align and get buy-in from stakeholders to move forwards

1. Collaboration with your team

If you’re intent on being a lone wolf, you’ll have trouble leading teams that build successful products.

This is because successful product managers approach problem solving as a team effort.  Product management is an interdisciplinary role that involves engaging and collaborating with different disciplines. 

Product managers work with other disciplines like marketing, design and engineering to increase the team’s chances of building the most valuable things for customers and the business.

More often than not, there will be multiple teams and disciplines involved in solving a given problem.

This means that product managers need to be able to collaborate with lots of different people. This is what attracts many people to the role in the first place!

It’s an environment in which you’re always learning. But it can be challenging because this involves building a shared understanding with others.

Creating this alignment and space for collaboration means building relationships and getting your points across clearly. It is your responsibility as product managers to bring different perspectives together. 

Great product managers will facilitate collaboration between the disciplines.

2. Leading your team, with a twist

No matter the size of our team or organization, it is the product manager’s job to lead in the right direction. But with a fun twist - often without authority!

The “Product Manager as the CEO of the Product” trope has fallen out of favor with many in recent years. This is mostly because the analogy is flawed.  Most often, product managers don’t have the direct authority over the things and people needed to make their products successful.

As Ken Norton puts it: “When you’re a product manager, you’re generally not the boss. You need to gain authority through your actions and your leadership skills, not your role.”

Leading without authority involves guiding team members, influencing stakeholders and facilitating conversations to make key decisions. Good product managers are opinionated, but they foster an environment where they can be proven wrong.

Truly successful product leaders [...] embrace their lack of authority and lead their teams and the wider company through communication, vision, and influence. They focus on collaborating across the company, bringing together the best people to move the product forward, and setting those teams free to execute on their product vision. - Martin Eriksson

Fostering this environment will require building trust with team members and communicating well.

3. Aligning with and influencing diverse stakeholders

Another key part of most product management roles is communicating information clearly to stakeholders, to get them to understand our decisions and buy into them.

We need people in leadership roles to understand why we think a problem is worth solving, and how we intend to solve it.

If we fail to do this, we may be stopped in our tracks.

For example, product managers need stakeholders to buy-in to their roadmaps. This means communicating your roadmap (in both writing and in person) to key stakeholders by telling a compelling story about where you're going.

If you communicate effectively, you’ll be able to align and validate your team’s roadmap

Understanding your stakeholders and communicating clearly with them are indispensable  skills to delivering successful products.

You need to be able to speak to a wide range of audiences.

How can I improve my communication skills?

Now we know how fundamental communication is to building successful products. How can you start to improve your skills?

1. Get to know people

This may seem like an obvious point to some, but getting to know people doesn’t come as naturally to everyone. It can get especially tricky if you’re working in a larger organization. Understanding how people do their best work, how you can collaborate together and what some of the challenges they’re facing are will help you work better together.

If this is something you need to practice, start with getting curious about people and their work. Empathy is about connection with others.

If you show genuine curiosity for people in your team - whether it’s their work, or the hobbies that they’re into, you’re fostering connection. If you’re looking for a written way to know your teammates, you try “Working with me docs”. These explain who people are, what they do and how they like to work.

Getting to know people in a remote setting can be challenging. But there are ways to replicate (or at least mimic) a ‘water-cooler type environment’. Some teams host a virtual space each week to have informal chats.

This could be in the form of team office hours, where the team informally exchanges ideas and learnings. At ustwo, teams hold a weekly “Fika” (Swedish coffee break) where everyone gets together to have a chat or play a game (over coffee and pastry of course).

I was a feral nerd until I hacked together functional-ish social and communication skills in my late teens and I am deeply concerned how functional these are still going to be by the time it’s safe to see people again.

— Jessica Rose (@jesslynnrose) March 11, 2021

Communication takes practice!

If getting to know people doesn’t come as easily to you, remember: listen to people without a goal.

Expert negotiator Chris Voss explains that speaking to others with an immediate goal in mind not only makes a conversation feel transactional, but it cuts off unknown possibilities (and fun). Yes, get to understand someone’s role and work, but also get to know them as people. 

2. Understand your audience

If you understand who you’re speaking with, you’ll be able to communicate better with them.

If you’re presenting to someone or updating them, empathise with them! People have different goals, motivations, and challenges.

Try to understand them. This way, you’ll be helping them understand your message and key points. If you’re unsure how to get to know people’s goals and challenges, simply set up some conversations with them to understand their needs and challenges.

If you are very unfamiliar with your stakeholders (and perhaps work in a larger organization), you can approach your conversations with more structure (some people refer to these as stakeholder interviews). Consider some guidelines to prepare for them.

I recommend reading Erika Hall’s Just Enough Research to help guide these conversations.

Create empathy with your audiences and understand how they relate to your product and team. This will help you communicate effectively with them. Remember to approach these conversations with curiosity and an open mind.

3. Practice communicating with clarity

Look for opportunities to practice clearer communication.

Using simple and clear language is a good bet in any setting. Avoid using industry jargon when speaking with people. Accessible language will go a long way to helping communicate with people.

This is especially true if you're trying to align a wide variety of stakeholders. I recommend Julian Shapiro for some great tips on clear writing. Also consider some brands like Monzo to find inspiration on a clear tone of voice for your written communication.

When communicating, whether in writing or in person, tailor your message depending on the audience. If you’re speaking to leadership removed from your team’s day-to-day, your message should be concise and to the point.

If you’re speaking with your team or people close to your work, you’ll naturally want to cover more detail.

Look for opportunities to communicate outside of meetings and presentations. For example, if you have OKRs or a product roadmap, they should be in a visible space whether your team and stakeholders can easily access them.

4. Practice better listening

Actively listen and hear people out. Active listening means pausing your own internal thoughts (for example about what you might stay next) and actually paying attention to  what the other person is trying to convey.

Ask people questions to better understand their point of view. By doing this, you’re creating empathy and are building a better understanding.

Give room for feedback when you’re presenting with people you want to align with. After all, alignment isn’t one-sided! It’s an exercise in negotiating different views and opinions.

When you ask for feedback, it doesn’t mean you need to act on every single piece of feedback you hear, but make sure people feel heard and understood.

5. When in doubt, over-communicate

If you’re not sure if your team and stakeholders understand key decisions or things you’re working on, err on the side of communicating more. It’s better your message is getting across clearly and repeatedly than people needing to chase for updates and information.

Be proactive with your communication. Look for opportunities to help others understand you and you do the same for them. For example, you might proactively communicate context, your goals / OKRs, your roadmap or your strategic thinking to others.

You can do this with office hours, updates on Slack or informal demos. They may not have asked for it, but people will appreciate not having to guess what you’re doing or why you’re doing it.

As product leaders, it’s important to communicate well with your team so that they understand what’s happening and why it’s happening. 

They’ll be looking to you as a leader to help guide the team with sound decisions you’ve arrived at by collaborating with other disciplines. You need to communicate well with stakeholders so they can buy into your vision. 

By building trust and empathy with your team and stakeholders you’ll be able to improve how you communicate with them.

Look for opportunities to practice clear communication - make a point of ditching jargon and using plain English. Don’t forget to actively listen to others. And be pro-active about communicating with others.

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