Helpful Communication Frameworks for PMs
Good communication is perhaps the most critical skill for product managers. I sometimes jokingly say that us product managers don’t really “do” anything, we just talk. After all, designers create flows, visual designs and assets, and engineers write code, whereas product managers just talk and write documents. Of course, this communication is often crucial to the product’s success (otherwise the product manager role wouldn’t be needed). Therefore, continuously thinking about how you can improve your communication as a product manager is key to improving at the craft.
In this article, I will share a few concrete frameworks and tools that I’ve found useful at making my communication more effective:
- Pyramid principle
- Situation — complication — question — answer
- The SUCCESs framework
- Front-loading critical information
- The two-sentence email opener
- Executive summary or TL;DR
The Pyramid Principle
The Pyramid Principle is the concept covered by the book by Barbara Minto and describes the way that strategy consultants (like myself in a former life) are taught to construct their arguments.
The core idea of the pyramid principle is that communication should be pyramid shaped, with a single thought (at the top of the pyramid) supported by a number of arguments or supporting points, which in turn are again supported by a number of points each and so on. The pyramid structure allows you to start at the top, communicating the single core point, and then drilling down to the next level to explain the core thought using its supporting points.
The beauty of the pyramid structure is that in a discussion you can focus on those points that need most discussion — because there is a disagreement, for example — and ignore the lower levels of the pyramid for those arguments were everyone is aligned.
If you want to know more, of course, pick up the book.
Situation — Complication — Question — Answer
The situation — complication — question — answer framework also comes from the book “The Pyramid Principle”, but makes sense as a stand-alone technique as well. It is used for framing decisions:
- The situation summarizes the background of the decision, described in a way that everyone would agree with it.
- The complication describes a need for action — something that has changed that requires a reaction. The complication should be facts based, but could include new information for some recipients of the communication.
- The question then frames the decision in terms of how to react to the complication.
- The answer is the decision to be made (or a proposal for the decision to be made).
A product-related example for framing a decision using this technique:
We have never allowed customers to customize XYZ in order to keep complexity low (situation). However, competitor X has now shipped such a customization feature, and we’ve been losing deals because of that (complication). We now need to decide whether we want to allow some kind of customization as well (question).
The advantage of framing decisions in this way is that it allows everyone involved to understand the background and aligns everyone on the reason why the decision needs to be made. Too often, questions and discussions are raised and different participants have different assumptions for why the decision might matter. This framework makes those aspects explicit.
The SUCCESs framework
The SUCCESs framework is from the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath, which you should check out for more details. It covers six aspects to consider in order to communicate an idea in a way that the audience will remember it:
- [S]imple: make sure to distill the idea down to its core
- [U]nexpected: include an element of surprise or mystery that will get the audience’s attention
- [C]oncrete: make the idea tangible, describe it in terms of things the audience can touch, see, feel
- [C]redible: appeal to authority (like a doctor talking about diseases) or anti-authority (like a former chain smoker talking about the bad effects of smoking) to give weight to your idea
- [E]motional: make an appeal to people’s self-interest, group identity, or making an association with something they care about
- [S]tory: tell a story that relates to the idea — stories are more memorable, immersive, and inspirational than mere facts
You don’t necessarily have to tick all six boxes for every idea you communicate, but the more the better. Also, the more important the idea is, the more time you should spend on planning the communication. So if you are communicating an idea how a minor UX flaw might be fixed, it’s probably fine to communicate it in a not so memorable way. However, if you are laying out the medium term vision and strategy for the product, it’s probably good to pay some attention to these six factors.
Front-loading critical information
Front-loading means conveying the critical information first before less relevant information. Especially in written communication, but even face to face, people lose attention pretty quickly — so make sure to communicate the most important stuff first.
This principle works on multiple levels — from writing bullets on a presentation slide in such a way that the first few words are the most important for each bullet, over writing longer emails in a way so that the first paragraph contains the one thing you want the recipient to take away, to structuring meetings so that the most relevant items are highest on the agenda.
One special instance of this technique is the executive summary (see below).
The two-sentence email opener
The two-sentence email opener is a specific technique I learned in consulting (where I wrote a lot of emails that demanded responses or reactions). This technique is about emails that get sent over the course of some kind of project or other collaboration.
The idea is two start off the email with two sentences:
- First sentence: establish context — what has happened since we were last in touch?
- Second sentence: need for action — what is the objective this email is trying to achieve?
The structure is a bit of a mini situation — complication — question framework, and follows the rule of front-loading critical information.
Here is an example from a product context:
As you know, we’ve been testing different price points for our subscription in our core markets. The results have now come in (see below), and we need to make a decision on our pricing going forward.
The two-sentence email opener ensures that readers are reminded of the context, but then immediately provided the most critical piece of information, namely “why should I pay attention to this email?”
Lots of people get way too many emails, and have too little time to read every one of them in depth. In the above case, if you start by discussing the results of the pricing test without highlighting that a decision needs to be made, you may lose some of your audience along the way.
Executive summary or TL;DR
Another specific application of Pyramid Principle ideas and front-loading critical information is the executive summary: starting a longer document with a short summary of all the contents — at most, a few paragraphs long.
Almost any longer document benefits from this kind of summary. Some recipients might not be interested or have time to consume all the details. Even if everyone in the original audience reads the whole document, when referring back to past documents at a later point in time it is super helpful to not have to sift through pages and pages to get to the main takeaway.
When emailing longer documents, it is often a good practice to include the executive summary in the email itself — anyone who doesn’t have time (right now) to read the whole thing will still get the gist of it.
If calling this section “executive summary” feels a bit over-the-top for your startup, just call it TL;DR instead. Same idea.
As mentioned at the beginning, communication is an essential skill for product managers. Of course, these frameworks won’t be sufficient without substance (in other words, clarity of thinking) as well as empathy (understanding your audience and adjusting your communication to their needs). Once those bases are covered, though, the tools of this article can hopefully help get your message across without too much loss in transit.
I hope you found this article useful. If you did, feel free to follow me on Twitter where I share thoughts and articles about product management and leadership.