Product managers (PMs) face many challenges, not least of which is balancing the responsibilities of shepherding a product from development to launch and the many duties that come with it.
However, despite the considerable weight that PMs have to bear, many lack the authority of other managers; they're ultimately responsible for a product's success or failure, but oftentimes have little influence over the factors that directly contribute to that success––or failure.
One of the most effective ways for PMs to exert greater influence over a product is to build trust within their own teams and with key project stakeholders––and one of the best ways to build that trust is by consistently communicating progress and accomplishments with key stakeholders.
Building Trust as a Product Manager
As a PM, there are two main ways you can build trust with your team and your departmental peers: through action and through communication.
Unfortunately, most PMs don't get to pick and choose which of these two approaches to focus on.
Actions include things like hitting major project milestones or achieving specified metric-driven targets. Although we have more data at our disposal than ever before, it's not always possible to present reports to senior management that prove your value to a project or team, especially on a weekly or monthly basis. This leaves us with communication.
Regardless of who you're talking to or what you're trying to achieve, communication is all about crafting a narrative. Conversations about product should always tell a story. As a PM, storytelling is one of the most important skills you can cultivate, and doing so can help you optimize how you work and communicate your value to stakeholders at any stage of a product's development.
The Three 'Ps' of Product Management
Before we can tell the stories of our products, we need to know how to create a solid framework for product storytelling. Once we've established that framework, storytelling can and should be used as a strategic tool to build trust and communicate value.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the "Three Ps" of product management storytelling.
Of the three Ps, many product managers find this one the most challenging, and understandably so; corporate communication is rarely synonymous with personality. However, while this might be the most difficult of the three Ps for some PMs, it's also among the most effective.
The first step in making your product storytelling more personal is to identify what matters most to each key stakeholder. This doesn't necessarily mean identifying departmental metrics, but rather what each stakeholder wants to hear and how they want to hear it. This isn't pandering––think of it as tailoring your message for a very specific audience. Once you've identified these elements, you'll be able to tell a more personalized story to which stakeholders will (hopefully) respond positively.
Many PMs will be intimately familiar with making decisions with limited information and pitching ideas on the spot. But when it comes to keeping project stakeholders in the loop, planning and preparation are vital.
Proper planning is crucial to owning the narrative of your product from start to finish. This means anticipating difficult questions and how to answer them, tailoring those answers to the stakeholder in question, and ensuring that even unexpected developments can be handled quickly and appropriately. The more planning you do, the more credible and trustworthy you'll appear.
For product storytelling to be effective, it has to be proactive.
Crafting a strong product narrative proactively isn't just good sense––it can reduce the amount of work you'll have to do later on. Waiting for stakeholders to ask questions or prod you for development updates puts you on the defensive. Proactively taking control of that narrative allows you to establish your authority and demonstrate your leadership qualities. It also lets you set the agenda of the conversation, rather than merely reacting to questions or concerns.
Adding the Personal Touch
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to product storytelling, which is why making your communication personal is so important.
Think about this as if it were part of your product development process. When you're refining the messaging of your product, you take the target audience of your product into account––and that's exactly what you should do with internal communications, too.
Another reason why it's crucial to tailor your communications to the individual is because, as any experienced PM could attest, there are often wildly divergent expectations about what product management is and the process involved, even among senior executives. Start by identifying which individual stakeholders are most impacted by your product management work. If there are people (or entire teams) who are affected by the work you and your team are doing, but aren't typically involved in the process, it's up to you as a product manager to start bridging those gaps.
Next, be sure that everybody is on the same page in terms of both expectations and responsibilities. This allows you to quickly assess the potential impact that this person has on the overall product development process, as well as the level of engagement you should set for your meetings with these stakeholders.
What your CEO deems essential might not necessarily be the same as the priorities of your Head of Sales, so tailor the messaging of your product narrative accordingly.
Planning for Success
One of the biggest challenges in product management is the necessity of planning in environments and workflows that often defy it. Something as seemingly innocuous as an impromptu stand-up meeting can result in new problems to be solved, new stakeholder requests to be addressed, or new features to be designed and implemented.
Product management is an exciting career precisely because of its unique position at the intersection of technology, people, and business. However, the unpredictability that often comes with the territory can be a huge problem when it comes to planning; if you've ever had to explain to a stakeholder why your team was forced to deviate from the agreed-upon product roadmap, you've probably experienced this firsthand.
Obviously, we cannot––and should not––seek to eliminate planning from our roles. We can, however, use product storytelling to make these challenges more relatable to people outside the product development process and manage expectations preemptively.
The key to doing so is to focus on outcomes, not output.
Planning for the unexpected and conveying that preparation to your stakeholders isn't just about damage control; it's about establishing and leveraging your authority and expertise as a product manager. Nobody expects you to solve any and all problems before they emerge (or they shouldn't, anyway), but proper planning combined with strong product storytelling skills can build trust and showcase your leadership skills.
Taking Control of the Narrative
Whether you're a seasoned product management veteran or are still learning the ropes, there are few professional pitfalls worse than being caught off-guard by an unexpected question from an impatient stakeholder. Not only might you lack the information necessary to satisfactorily answer those questions, it also puts you on the defensive––again.
Although there's a chance of this happening in an overt fashion, such as during the middle of a product team meeting, it can also happen quite subtly, too.
Being proactive about communicating the story of your product should include transparency about every aspect of the project. Stakeholders need to know the bad as well as the good, and purposefully obscuring negative developments can be even more damaging than simply owning things that aren't going well. A proactive approach to communicating with your team allows you to get in front of emerging problems before they become full-blown crises.
Building a Baseline of Trust
Before you can do any of this, it's important to realize that you might not be able to tell your product's story the way you'd like to right away. Oftentimes, you have to earn the opportunity to share your narrative. This comes with time, experience, and a demonstrable track record of delivering results.
Even if you can't own your product storytelling process from end-to-end, it's crucial to start doing what you can to start sowing those seeds. This might mean going above and beyond the particulars of your role and taking on a little additional responsibility, such as proactively communicating with stakeholders about problems you're only tangentially responsible for. However, don't view this as a negative––think of it as a chance to start telling those stories that will lay the foundation of trust that you'll need to earn the freedom and control we've been talking about.
Once you've begun to prove your chops by consistently delivering results, you can start to push back a little on requests that don't align with your product's story. The more you invest in the stories surrounding your process, how your team works, and how you keep things moving forward, you'll start to see buy-in from those all-important stakeholders.
Next time you feel frustrated or powerless in the face of aggressive targets, bear in mind that the most effective leaders rely on earned influence instead of enforced obedience. Results are important, but so is gaining the confidence, support, and trust of key stakeholders through proactive, personal communication.