A year ago, I made myself birthday gift and I told my manager that ‘I quit’. Over those last twelve months, I have learned a lot and I achieved couple great successes – that might be a topic for another day. However, I have also seen that some essential skills of product manager(s) are not cultivated well enough both by myself and PMs around me. As 2020 has just begun, it is perfect time to close the gap.
All skills that I will be talking about can be actually wrapped with one key phrase. Hereby, I would like to propose to call the year of 2020 as:
The year of effective communication
Hence, I present you four skills that you should check out this year.
Product Managers produce messages all the time through artifacts like:
- product vision based on market problems,
- value proposition statement,
- road map & product requirements,
- product journeys,
- much more…
In most cases, through those documents, they tell somebody’s story. PMs speak about a hero (the user) that wants to achieve certain goal fighting against a villain (the problem that they want to address using your product). Moreover, they describe how their product helps to win this battle. Storytelling is one of key skills of product manager that you should use in such situation to provide this message in a compelling way. This art of storytelling suggests to use following flow to create great story:
- Set the stage – provide overall context of the story.
- Introduce the protagonist and her problem.
- Initiate her journey throughout the story.
- Make your audience care for her and her struggles against obstacles.
- Provide solution for the issue.
- Highlight the impact that your product has on the protagonist.
- Call to action – a punchline that implicate the action that you should do to make all this happen.
These basic set of rules should allow you to write down your first stories. However, to master storytelling, I recommend to go through materials like these ones: blog, blog, blog, video. Also, there are three books that you should give a look at:
- Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences by Nancy Duarte
- Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success by Ester Choy
In my previous point, I mentioned about creating inspiring stories. On the other hand, here, I would like to focus on the way how this should be told to different people.
Have you experiences a situation when you said two identical speeches and your listeners from those two occasions had totally different impression? I see it all the time, mostly when talking to some of my stakeholders. When speaking or presenting to them, I need to carefully choose the form of my messages. Otherwise, it will be more difficult for me to convince them. Moreover, for some, if I don’t match their preferred style of speaking, the content doesn’t matter at all as I would lose their focus very quickly and I can forget about any buy in.
What should we do then?
At first, you need to understand that different people focus on various aspects of your presentation. I have found great summary of such listening profiles in this post:
International Journal of Listening, 9, 1–13. identified four listening styles: people, action, content, and time.
Probably, I would add one more, fifth style: form-oriented people. Summarizing those five listening profiles:
- People-oriented listeners focus on emotional aspect of the speech and how the problem, that you describe, impacts you. Due to that, they might be dissatisfied when you provide only dry facts and numbers.
- Action-oriented listeners try to find out what is the intention of your speech and what actions you are planning to impose on them. So, try to avoid spending too much time on setting the context of your presentation.
- Content-oriented listeners focus on understanding the topic of your presentation because they want to learn. They might be the best listeners out of all types. However, if you don’t provide enough context to your subject, they might get lost in your speech and you can lose their attention.
- Time-oriented listeners require succinct message. Ideally, provide only few sentences (bullet points) of context refresh and get to your point as quickly as possible. Otherwise, you can lose their attention and you won’t be able to achieve your goal.
- Form-oriented people place too much attention into correct wording / form of your message. Whenever you make a mistake, they usually become active to point out the issue. Such people might be tough listeners as they may try to interrupt your speech to point out your errors.
To conclude, when you had a chance to get to know your audience beforehand, try to prepare your speech according to their listening profile. If you have brand new group of listeners, try to analyze which of those listening styles can be the most significant one (either because majority of listeners would fall under that group or the most important stakeholders would) and build your speech according to relevant guidelines.
I cannot write this post without mentioning the other part of communication – when you are listening to someone.
Active listening is a skill when a person focus on more than just to hear what others have to say. Such listeners give visual sign of listening and actually try to comprehend the speech. Why is this important? Through such stance, you can learn how to process more information when others are speaking to you. Moreover, through your active listening, the speaker can be more passionate to tell additional details and will be much more content of the conversation.
In details, active listening consist of several elements (beware, as some of those points might not work well in some cultures):
- eye contact
- mirroring of facial expressions
- avoiding distractions
- providing positive reinforcement
- asking questions without judging
To conclude, I often hear from others, that they don’t have problems with active listening. However, many of them are far from mastering it. How about yourself? Do you think that you are great, active listener? Actually, I have a challenge for you.
Next time, when you will be listening to someone, grab a pen and paper. The goal is really simple – try to focus as much as you can on what the speaker is saying and extract as much information as you can. Although, whenever you catch yourself on: thinking about anything else than your colleague or making gestures not related to the conversation (like checking the time etc.), put a dot on your card. Finish this activity after few minutes – I don’t want you to measure the time with a stop watch, because it would affect your score 🙂 The more dots you put on the card, the more you have to work on your active listening skills.
That is much harder than you think, believe me. Feel free to share your results in comments section under this article!
As we now know how to actively listen to others, let’s make use of this skill.
In my previous post, I mentioned that product owners frequently don’t investigating customers’ problems deep enough. Here, I would like to drill down into this matter.
There are two ways how you can learn more about your speaker and about what drives her:
- By understanding her non-verbal communication.
- By asking proper questions.
When somebody speaks to you, you can learn a lot about person’s emotions and attitude by listening to her tone of voice and watching on gestures and her facial expression. That makes face to face communication much richer than calls or emails. So, observe and analyze a speaker next time you talk to someone. Look how her voice and posture changes over the time and try to connect non-verbal signals, like eyes movement, with the content as is being told.
In regards to eyes position, here is a hint. I have been told once, and I proved that this actually worked at multiple occasions, that when people look upward, they are thinking analytically – when they look down, it usually means the subject is more emotionally related to them. Recently, I have also found a comprehensive guide How to Read People’s Eye Direction and Behavior – feel free to check it to!
Product managers frequently ask their users about the problem that they would like to resolve with PM’s product. However, in many cases customers provide only some hints of the root cause of the problem. For most of the time, they focus on discussing the solution rather that the issue itself. In such cases, I would recommend starting with the Five Whys technique. This method has its origins in kanban domain and relies on simple principle. For a problem that you want to understand better, you ask a ‘Why’ question. After you receive an answer, you ask ‘Why’ question related to that answer. You repeat this five times in total. Then, you should have your root cause of the problem that you need to address. It may look like this:
If you want to learn more about Five Whys technique, there are plenty of materials in the internet like this one.
Additionally, when you want to learn more about actual customer’s problem, you can try to stimulate your speaker by e.g. hosting the interview in the environment where the problem exists to see how they interact with the problem. This is part of method called ethnographic research, that you can read more about here.
Skills of Product Manager to master in 2020
I hope that these points, I brought you, will bring you one step closer to mastering communication techniques – I really believe that these are one of key skills of product manager.
I encourage you to start using methods written in this article and I’m certain that you will see multiple occasions how they helped you to have amazing 2020 year!