Communication Secrets for Product Leaders

Editor’s note: You’re about to read an extract from our new book “Product Mindset”. You can get the full book here.

The importance of communication resides in being able to understand your consumer and their problems. Building good products requires you to communicate effectively with your team and with your stakeholders.

But how do you actually communicate effectively? It’s not a skill that everyone is born with, but with a few simple tips we can all become better at getting our message across and making others feel understood. Karl Sluis, a founder at CityAtlas, breaks down the key communication tools he has developed through his career. We begin with a fable…

Appraising the Elephant

Beautiful elephant in the jungle

Three blind men in a remote jungle village hear some exciting news: An elephant is coming to town! None have ever heard of such a creature before. They can’t see the elephant, but they can be safely lead out to meet and touch it and discover for themselves this majestic creature.

One of the blind men touches the elephant on the trunk. He declares “I know what an elephant is! It is a big, thick snake.” 

The other touches the elephant on the ear. He cries “An elephant is a fan!” The final man approaches the leg and says “It is a pillar for a building!”

There are three important lessons here:

It’s very hard to understand the world based on the tiny little window that each one of us is privy to.

It is very hard to share the limited understanding of the world that we have, based on the few tools that we have.

But, the world can be known and shared. You can put the pieces together.

Putting the pieces together and discovering the true nature of the elephant is what Product Management is about. Tools discussed elsewhere in this book, for example, research and analysis, are essential for this. As is a communication model that works. 

Three Principles for Effective Communication

Let’s explore three concepts that will make you a more empathic, powerful and charismatic leader and communicator.

1: Reciprocity

Principle: Communication is a reciprocal process. All great communication is a form of back and forth between two parties. Ensure there is dialogue, back and forth, not a one-way lecture. 

Tool #1: Give people “receipts” to make them feel heard and to improve your recall. Say “Let me play that back to you to make sure I understand.” This is particularly important if you’re talking to people from fields in which you are not an expert, for example, tech teams if you’re not from a tech background.

Tool #2: Communicate your communication needs. “I hate email. Can you call me instead?” You may find that seemingly poor communicators are better when you switch to a tool/medium in which they are more at home.

Tool #3: Talk one on one. Information flows freely in private. Take people out for a coffee and talk directly without the social pressure of a group environment.

Tool #4: Be open and vulnerable. Be the first one who is willing to say “I don’t know.” You’ll be surprised by how much this elevates, rather than reduces, your stature as a leader.

2: Medium

Principle: Many of the mediums we use to communicate are fraught with opportunities for confusion. Language is a miracle of human evolution but it is flawed. Technology has bridged gaps but can have hidden pitfalls.

Tool #1: Understand that some mediums remove meaning. Facial expression and gesture are hugely important for communication. 

Mediums like the telephone that strip this out reduce meaning. When possible, prioritize high bandwidth forms of communication like face to face meetings.

Tool #2: Language is inelegant and imprecise. Some words, for example, “love,” can have a different meaning for different people. If “success” means different things for each member of your team, you may find yourselves striving towards different goals. 

Tool #3: TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms), pronouns and jargons should be avoided as much as possible. While fine within a tightly knit team, when communicating across groups they can exclude and get in the way of understanding. Type “End of Day”, not EOD. It’s not that much harder. Just say what you mean.

Tool #4: Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself.

Tool #5: Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself…

… Even if you give the best presentation in the world, people will forget a large amount of what you said. It’s just the way it is. 

People are busy and bombarded with information. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, and don’t be offended if you have to.

3: Context

Principle: You can’t escape context. Being sensitive to how everyone is feeling in the moment is essential. Think about how the current political, social or company climate could add unintended meaning to what you say.

Tool #1: Be aware of your relationship with the person you are speaking to. A simple question like “How’s that presentation coming along?” can seem either encouraging, neutral or threatening depending on the various subtler, background elements in play.

Tool #2: Consider every interpretation. Think before you speak. Calculate how you think someone will interpret what you say, and observe their reaction. Be willing to clarify if you think you have been misunderstood.

Tool #3: Get it all out there. Make the implicit, explicit. State your assumptions out loud. You’ll always find that someone on the team has different assumptions. Getting those assumptions upfront early can save massive issues later on. 

You never really know what is inside somebody’s head. With these tips, you can do a better job of figuring out, and getting what is in your head across to other people.

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