Whether it’s dashing off a quick email or laboring over user stories, how you communicate can have a big impact on the outcomes you drive. Writing well is a critical product skill that you should deliberately practice.
As an undergraduate, I learned about Paul Grice’s maxims for effective communication. While Grice’s version was ironically more verbose, his maxims can be summed up as: be truthful, be concise, be relevant, and be clear. I can’t think of a better set of guidelines for developing strong communication skills.
Don’t say anything that you believe to be false and don’t say anything for which you lack adequate evidence. The former goes without saying, but the latter can be harder than it first appears.
How often have you argued for something based on an assumption that you weren’t sure was true? Have you ever found yourself generalizing, “young people don’t use email” or “everybody watches TV over the internet nowadays?” Or some equivalent common wisdom related to your company or industry?
But are these generalizations really true? Maybe. Maybe not. As product managers, it’s not good enough to generalize. We need to know what’s true in our context, for our product. We need to make sure that we are building our products based upon true assumptions. This maxim is a great reminder to put our communications to the test. Root out those underlying assumptions and verify them.
Say as much as needs to be said, but don’t say more. One of my all-time favorite quotes is from Hamlet. In response to Polonius raving about Hamlet’s madness, the queen demands, “More matter with less art,” demonstrating her point with her request.
This is a tough balance to find. It requires empathy. It requires clarity of thought. It requires patience.
We think about our products a lot. It can be hard to remember that others don’t think or care about it nearly as much as we do. Identifying how much to communicate and when is critical to getting our messages across.
As a senior in high school, I received a great writing tip that I still follow today. After writing a paper, my teacher instructed us to remove 100 words. When we ware done, he asked us to do it again. Learning to trim the fat is a very undervalued skill.
As a product manager, you are probably saying too much. Learn to edit yourself. And then do it again. It will pay off in dividends.
Ask yourself, why am I writing this? Is it pertinent to the situation? Just as being concise requires empathy, clarity of thought, and patience, so does being relevant.
Don’t start with what you are trying to communicate. Start with what your audience needs to know.
Sometimes this means your audience needs to follow your complete train of thought, sometimes it means they just need to know the outcome. Adapt based on the situation.
Choose small words over big words. Don’t be ambiguous. Make sure your pronouns clearly reference a noun. And most importantly, present your case in a logical order. Don’t dive into the details without setting the context.
Again, when we communicate with others, we need to remember that we think about product all day, every day. Others don’t. We need to set the scene for them. We need to help them see both the forest and the specific tree we are referencing. We need to help them see what we see, even though they are just jumping in for a short while.
Put It Into Practice
Want to see a real life example of what happens when Grice’s maxims aren’t considered? The next time an engineer tells you something can’t be done, ask why. Then observe as you and the engineer go back and forth on getting to a response that you can both understand.
Here are some tips on how to better develop your communication skills:
- Look for underlying assumptions. Test them.
- Remove unnecessary words form your writing. Repeat.
- Consider your audience. What do they need to know?
- Outline, outline, outline. There’s no better way to ensure a sound structure.
Want to Learn More?
- Wikipedia has a great summary of Grice’s Maxims.
- Here are some pretty funny examples of people ignoring the maxims (video)
You’ll see in these resources that Grice refers to his maxims as Quantity (Be Concise), Quality (Be Truthful), Relation (Be Relevant) and Manner (Be Clear).
Do you have writing tips that have helped you to communicate better? Please share them in the comments.