David Tuite

Guidelines for stakeholder communication

May 28, 2019

child shouting into a microphone

Read a couple of product management job descriptions and you will quickly get the message that “excellent communication” is a requirement in this career.

Excerpts from multiple product manager job descriptions which all ask for excellent communication

But how many of us have ever seen a good definition of what excellent communication is?

I like to think about four general guidelines when delivering communication to stakeholders: tone, structure, accessibility and timeliness.

Excellent communication should be…

Appropriately Toned

Don’t be emotional or hyperbolic when facts are required and don’t be dry when storytelling.

One mistake I made over and over again in the first year of my career was to be overly hyperbolic in my written communication. I thought that I could rally colleagues to action by with emotional appeals but all I was doing was muddying the water for people who were trying to make rational decisions or putting people on the defensive.

Consider the following two ways of explaining that sales have been down lately:

  1. “Sales have declined 30% over the past 10 weeks”
  2. “Our sales are terrible for weeks now”

One is contains objective, factual information which others can use to inform their thinking. The other is opaque and charged. It puts the listener on the defensive before the conversation is even started.

At the same time, as PMs we often have to tell stories and generate empathy for our users. Emotion is a useful tool when doing this. However, don’t fall into the trap of conflating your own emotion with that of your users. Convey your users emotions, with evidence, while keeping your own out of the picture.

Concise and Purposeful

When communicating, the attention span of your recipient is the most valuable resource you have. Do not squander it. Do not generate noise just to be heard. Get the recipients of your communication to the point quickly and let your message do the talking.

The skill here is knowing your target market. What is important to the recipient of your communication? Your goal should be delivering the information they need in the shortest possible time.

Imagine you need a decision from an exec. Tell them why the decision is important, give them bullets of key data points, give them a recommendation and give them a number of alternative choices. All of this can usually fit on one page. Do not go into minute detail about how the decision will be implemented.

Note that there is a difference between highlighting information you believe will be most pertinent and hiding information you consider to be minutae. It should be possible to drill down to the level of detail that the reader desires. As the product manager, one must always have the details to hand or know how to quickly get them.

Simple

Most problems worth solving are complex. This is why we work in teams. A single person can’t do it alone. Your role is to allow people around you to understand the complexity.

Before explaining opportunities simply, you must understand them deeply. Have you ever tried to explain a concept to someone, only to be thrown off guard by the first question they ask? This happens because you don’t completely understand the subject matter. You haven’t completely exhausted the problem space. You know you’ve got it down when you can anticipate the questions and objections and deal with each without breaking a sweat.

Once you have all of the detail, your next superpower is correctly choosing the level of detail to drill down to when explaining. This gets back to being concise and purposeful and assessing the needs of the recipient of the communication. Until you have exhausted the problem, you haven’t defined it’s boundaries and you can’t break it down to the right level but no further.

Proactive

Finally and most importantly, your communication must be proactive. Don’t make your stakeholders or customers come asking for an update. They’ve probably been waiting patiently for some time before they reached out and, by that point, you have already lost favor and are on the back foot.

So many other PMs I talk to have issues with executives reaching into their roadmaps and moving things around. The best way to counter this problem is to proactively pull the exec into the planning process as it is happening. Blast their ears off with your thought process as you make decisions. An exec is much less likely to fiddle with a roadmap they have helped craft themselves than one that seemed to materialize out of thin air.

Similarly, next time you are preparing a report or other document, create an empty doc, put a working title on it and send it out to the recipients immediately with a note explaining that it will take shape over time and you would like them to contribute and share their knowledge. The alternative is to wait and send out a perfect report some days later. If you do that, the first response you get could be about how you completely missed an important avenue of exploration. By writing the doc in the open it is less likely this will happen.

This is what people mean when they say “over communicate”. Communicate so early and so often that everyone knows what you are doing.

Communication comes in many shapes and I haven’t covered them all here. Communication is also listening, intonation, body language, presentation and a host of other methodologies. What else is involved in excellent communication? Tweet me @dtuite to let me know.

Special thanks to Glen Holmes and Felicity Neary for reviewing this post.


David Tuite

Written by David Tuite who is a product manager at Workday and used to be a software engineer. You should follow him on Twitter