Public speaking isn’t usually included as a required skill in a typical product manager job description. But it should be. Today’s article on public speaking tips is written with product managers in mind, but is broadly applicable to many trades.
We’ve been trained to think of public speaking in only the narrowest sense: a professional standing on a stage or at the front of a large room, often behind a podium, delivering a speech to an audience.
But for product managers, public speaking can take many other forms. In this broader context, a product manager’s job often requires public speaking — at product roadmap meetings, development meetings and daily scrums, sales meetings, executive stakeholder meetings, analyst briefings, product demonstrations to prospects, customer site visits, and many other settings.
Then there are all of the other public speaking opportunities designed to establish product managers and their companies as thought leaders in their industries. These include sitting on discussion panels at conferences, tradeshows and other events; hosting educational webinars on issues related to their products; and being interviewed by reporters or analysts as public representatives of their products and industries.
In fact, you can even think of a product manager as her product’s chief public speaker.
Given how important public speaking is to a product manager’s job, here are some tips and strategies to help you become a more effective public speaker — and, as a result, more effective as a product manager.
How to be an effective public speaker
Speak with Authority — by Using Data
This tip will apply in virtually every situation where you have to speak to a group — whether you’re running a development meeting to discuss features and product details, or delivering a high-level product roadmap overview to your executive stakeholders.
As a product manager, you have the data that support your decisions for which features your next product iteration should prioritize, how to adjust your pricing scheme, and what the best time will be to roll out your product for general availability. The data can take the form of quantitative metrics related to the product or qualitative data such as the results from customer interviews.
Using data to support your talk can give you two important advantages in persuading whatever audience or constituency you are speaking to. First, bringing relevant data into your discussion positions you as the authority on the topic. This credibility can help you overcome the barriers product managers often encounter when, for example, trying to convince executives to green-light to a new initiative, or when trying to persuade a sales team to agree to a new pricing structure for the product.
A second advantage of supporting your talk with data is that it signals to your audience that your suggestions and requirements are not simply your opinion but rather the result of real-world evidence. This will often give your constituencies more confidence in your decisions than if they believed those decisions were only the result of educated guesses.
Some product managers are reluctant to deliver presentations or run meetings based on statistics, charts or other data, because they worry that the material will be boring. This is a valid concern: A talk or meeting driven entirely or primarily by dry statistics can cause you to lose your audience to thoughts about what to have for lunch.
But you can find ways to include credibility-enhancing data points in your discussions without losing the room’s attention or enthusiasm. The best way is to use your data points sparingly, and to build them around a lively, more interesting mechanism for delivering your talk.
Which leads to tip 2….
Build Your Talk Around Stories
Often the best way to structure a presentation or other public talk is to deliver it in story form. People respond to stories. They remember stories. Stories provide a convenient framework for a complex discussion, allowing you to quickly bring everyone in the room onto the same page in terms of the big picture, before you dive into any details.
To explain why this works, let’s use a story.
Say you need to present your strategic plan for an overhaul of your site’s e-commerce experience to your executive team. You’ll need their buy-in before you can move forward and commit development and marketing resources to the project.
You could walk into your discussion with a slew of data to back up your argument that your online shopping page needs an overhaul. Your shopping experience currently takes 45 seconds longer than the average site selling a comparable product. Your e-commerce page has been rated among the lowest of its kind by third-party review sites. Your shopping-cart abandon rate is 23% higher than the industry norm. And on and on.
Some of your executives might even be persuaded — if the PowerPoint slides filled with charts and raw statistics don’t send them deep into thought about lunch.
But now imagine that instead, you walk into your meeting and open with a story. It goes like this.
“Our new marketing campaign catches the attention of Kirk, our primary persona and ideal customer. He comes to our site, spends a few minutes reading our blog… a few minutes more checking out our testimonials page, and then he….”
(Note: At this point, your executives are likely all listening intently, interested to know what happens next with Kirk. Not one of them is daydreaming or making mental lunch plans.)
“Finally, Kirk heads to the pricing section of our website. After a few minutes on that page, he clicks buy. Everything is working according to plan!
“Kirk selects the most expensive version of our product, inputs his credit card information… and then four minutes later abandons his shopping cart. He also ignores our follow-up asking if there’s anything we can do to help him complete his purchase.
Because you’ve introduced the discussion topic — your strategic plan to improve your site’s e-commerce experience — using an engaging story, told from the point of a customer, your executives are now ready to listen to your evidence.
And because you’ve established the framework for your topic using a story that everyone in the room intuitively understood and related to, your evidence will carry far more weight with your stakeholders than if you had simply recited it without first putting it in context.
Let’s say you’ve built your new product roadmap and have scheduled a one-hour meeting with your sales and marketing teams to run through it.
You’re planning to start the discussion at a high level, providing a strategic overview of the product’s current position in the market and where you plan to take it with the new roadmap. Maybe you’re even planning to open with a story. These are all smart public speaking strategies.
But a couple of sales executives who will be in the meeting tell you just beforehand that they’ll need to cut it short. Now you’ll have to deliver essentially the same talk in only 15 minutes, including Q&A.
Or assume one of the sales executives catches you in the hallway and asks you to pop into an empty conference room and quickly explain your thinking behind the new roadmap. In other words, in this instance you’ll have to deliver the same talk in five minutes!
As a product manager, you might be called on to discuss your product vision at length, or in just a few minutes; to a technical audience, or to a non-technical sales rep. Part of the value you bring to your company is the ability to quickly and persuasively articulate that information under just about any conditions.
Keep Your Talks Positive
Enthusiasm is contagious. So is negativism. That means as a public speaker, you have more power than you might realize to influence your audience’s perceptions and feelings about your topic.
One of a product manager’s many roles is to serve as her product’s chief evangelist. So it is important that when you speak about your product in any context, to any constituency, you remain positive, and focused on moving forward to achieve your strategic goals.
It’s easy in a product roadmap meeting or a scrum meeting to be taken off track and discuss past development cycles, or dwell on what went wrong with a previous release and who’s to blame. These detours almost never lead to any enthusiasm or positive feeling among the people whose hard work and dedication you will need to move the product forward.
Because you are the person driving these meetings, you can implement a culture that guides your teams to focus on the positive.
What’s more, as the lead speaker in many of these settings, you always have complete control over what you say. Another trait of great public speakers is that they stay positive and forward-looking — and, leading by example, they encourage similarly positive feelings among their teams.
Conclusion: Public Speaking Ability is Essential to Effectiveness as a Product Manager
You might not have been asked about your public speaking ability in your interview for any product manager position you’ve ever applied for. And you might never have given much thought to the importance of honing this skill just as you would the ability to understand technical jargon or read a profit-and-loss statement.
But as you have probably found if you’ve spent any time in a product management role, it is difficult to make it through a week without having to do some form of public speaking — whether that means leading a meeting, presenting a product roadmap to one of your constituencies, or accompanying a sales rep to a customer site to talk about your product.
Public speaking is a vital tool in the arsenal of any product manager, not to mention an invaluable skill to have in any area of life. So there is plenty of upside — and no downside whatsoever — in devoting time and energy to becoming the best public speaker you can be.