Why communication is the most foundational product management skill
This post is part of a series of short articles about the 20 most crucial product management skills.
What it means
Communication covers communicating effectively, clearly, and concisely in all channels (e.g., document, message, face to face), employing the most effective channels. Effective communication requires empathy with the counter-party, including tailoring the message to the audience. Communication doesn’t refer just to broadcasting information, it also includes active listening and understanding what others are communicating.
Why it is an important skill
If product development is a team sport, then product management is the job of a team captain — a leader of the team, but in the thick of the action with the team wherever it matters most. In contrast to the other usual members of product teams, designers and engineers, product managers don’t contribute any “hard” deliverables to the process — they write no code, they design no interfaces. A product manager is effective only through and with their team.
This means that communication is really at the heart of what product managers do. No wonder product managers are often overbooked with meetings, and designers and engineers complain about too many meetings: engineers and designers feel distracted from what they feel is the “core” of their job by these meetings, whereas for product managers, the meetings are the core of the job. Product managers are also most often the team member that interfaces with senior leadership, cross-functional stakeholders, and senior customer representatives. All of these require excellent communication skills.
For all of these reasons, I believe that communication is really the number one skill for product managers. Other functions can get away with great domain knowledge and mediocre communication skills; product managers cannot.
What great looks like
Great communicators are good at conveying and eliciting information. When conveying information, they pick the appropriate channel / medium for their message. They tailor the message to fit with their audience’s frame of reference.
Great communicators have an arsenal of tools at their disposal that they use expertly: written word, spoken word, visualizations, body language and facial expressions. They express themselves concisely and precisely.
Great communicators are aware of the emotional effect of their communication and act accordingly. They empathize with their audience and anticipate their reaction, and strengthen desired emotional reactions (e.g., generating excitement about the product vision) or soften undesired ones (e.g., alleviating feelings of disappointment after an experiment failed to produce the hypothesized results). Great communicators don’t just convey facts, they tell stories.
Great communicators know how to listen actively. They establish objectives for their conversations and can steer them in a way that helps surface the information they were looking for.
How to improve your communication skills
Communication skills are best improved through feedback and deliberate practice. It starts with establishing a baseline: what aspects of communication are you already fairly good at, and where do you have the most room for improvement? Part of this can be done by introspection, but since communication is always about at least two people, it is also important to solicit input from others: what aspects of my communication could use improvement? Identifying aspects to improve could stem directly from such feedback, or also from reading about practices and frameworks for effective communication.
Once improvement areas are established, it is time to practice. Deliberate practice means identifying individual aspects that you want to improve as specifically as possible, and then practicing that aspect over and over again. The most important part here is establishing a short feedback loop: every time you practice, you want to receive feedback on how you fared as quickly as possible. Sometimes this can be done individually — e.g., if you want to write more concise and actionable emails, you can rewrite the same email a number of times, condensing it further in each iteration. Sometimes it might require asking others for feedback and to hold you accountable — e.g., if you want to practice not cutting others off in meetings, you perhaps want to let everyone or some trusted colleagues know so that they can flag that behavior to you.
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