As part of an effort to continuously hone my communication skills - an ability that is vital for all aspiring and incumbent Product Managers, I decided to seek out opportunities to deliver product messages to the outside world.
It took me many years to realize that a day full of nothing but constructive discussions across the various business units could indeed be considered a productive day.
It's not like I don't get the chance to talk about products or product development every day - on good days, that's all I do. To be an effective PM, you must develop methods of interacting with a diverse set of internal and external "customers" and to really succeed, you simply MUST be a solid communicator. This job is all about communication, with almost every part of the business (sorry Legal teams). We Product people are full-time arbitrators, back room mediators, and business-to-tech translators.
In fact, it took me many years to realize that a day full of nothing but constructive discussions across the various business units could indeed be considered a productive day.
What drove this decision
I can't remember seeing a resume that didn't highlight "excellent communication skills". I would like to think I'm competent in expressing myself through company emails, in formal presentations to internal stakeholders, in one on one interactions with customers and even with online mediums like this year-in-the-life PM blog.
But the one area that I have a hard time leveling up on is public speaking. I love what I do and it always seems easier to talk about something you're passionate about so I set about finding opportunities to practice in front of a live audience.
The decision: Sign up for several public speaking engagements to resume exercising those stagnating muscles.
I've already stressed the importance of communication but I want to be clear that I don't consider public speaking to be mandatory for this role. However, I will propose that if you're delivering a certain type of presentation in a certain setting, that you will use the same physical and mental muscle groups. Having to convince groups of people that you understand their problems while proposing fresh and unique answers to those problems would be familiar territory and I wanted to find those experiences in a more formal (and formidable) environment.
Plan of attack
As it turned out, I didn't have to look very hard. Not only are there are readily available opportunities as part of the normal course of product development, but you're not likely to find many people competing hard to take on those assignments. In a relatively short period of time, I was able to schedule three very different speaking slots on my PM calendar.
Deliver product release webinar to customers
As a kind of "warmup exercise", I volunteered to deliver the public webinar for our next product release where I could extoll the virtues of the latest round of improvements to our products to a broad audience of customers, prospects, partners, and more. Using a virtual, web-based delivery format meant that I wouldn't be face-to-face with my audience but it was still a public forum where I would need to be poised, polished, and professional.
I was fortunate in this case to have an existing presentation template to use and of course I was intimately familiar with the material since my team had just spent the last few weeks working through the backlog. The content and accompanying script was new of course and I also wove in a few live product demos to increase the degree of difficulty.
With some rehearsals and an early dry run recording to be shared after the official webinar, I was ready to go. All the preparation paid off and the live event was a success. I had fewer jitters than if I had actually been on stage but I certainly experienced a bit of the same anxiety.
Announce new product at industry event
The next venue was much more daunting. At a major trade show, I signed up to deliver a formal presentation where I would announce a new product for the company. The talk was promoted by our Marketing team and would likely attract a range of participants from the amiable (e.g. happy customers, supportive co-workers, and curious passers-by) to the slightly more surlier (competitors, disgruntled former employees, and grumpy show floor stalkers looking for free swag).
I would be condensing more than a year's worth of product discovery and delivery into a 20 minute presentation which would be hard enough.
For this talk, there was no template. I knew I would be condensing more than a year's worth of product discovery and delivery into a 20-minute presentation which would be hard enough. But it also had to be much more engaging as I would be competing with all the distractions of the surrounding event.
I sketched out the general flow of the talk, liberally borrowing techniques and best practices from everywhere could. Immediately afterword, I literally grabbed a few of our internal creative types (thanks creative types!) to help me create a beautiful presentation to support my narrative.
We ultimately landed on a simple, but effective style that needed fewer words on the screen and incorporated a bit of audience participation. The noisy venue wasn't necessarily ideal and truthfully the product practically sells itself (thanks Product!) but I'll take a small bit of the credit for what was a captivating, if not compelling presentation.
Lecture about product management to college class
My final challenge was to be the most trepidatious. Many of us can identify with the general anxiety of public speaking but when you combine that with that recurring nightmare we all have about finding ourselves back in school completely unprepared for some assignment, you can appreciate my plight.
I had done a similar session as a guest lecture at this same university earlier in the year and was now being invited back to speak to a new class both on the broader topic of Product Management as well as its strong connection to UX. In this instance, I would be able to step away from my day-to-day work with my own company's products and talk about product-related topics about which I am more passionate.
I'm not exactly sure how to measure the impact of these speaking opportunities but I'll confess that is better to have them behind me. I am satisfied with having pushed myself outside my normal comfort zone and will likely do so again. Most Product Managers I know already have enough stress in their daily routine and would not willingly introduce more. One small tip I can share from this exercise is that compared to public speaking, facing down a rude customer or talking a hot-headed CEO off the ledge or feuding with a belligerent Engineer all seem like walks in the park!
Look for more reports from theProductPath here on PM Decisions.