Writing for Product Managers

Oct 24 2020

Do you have "exceptional communication skills"? Well, it is a requirement in every product manager job description. Writing is a core part of a PM's job. Be it emails, documents, status updates.

In this article, I distilled the principles and tactics collected from masters of the craft of writing in various domains. If it sounds too simple or basic, that means I've done my job.

Enjoy.



Keep It Simple

In written communication at work, your objectives are clarity and persuasion. If you remember just one thing from this post: keep it simple.

In the words of Scott Adams : "A good argument in five sentences will sway more people than a brilliant argument in a hundred sentences. Don’t fight it."

Style is a small part of writing well, especially in a work setting. Focus on getting your point across.



Miscommunication is Costly

Miscommunication is costly. And the reader likely won't tell you if they don't understand what you are saying. They will just ignore it, or interpret it the way they think is right. As the saying goes, "it's not what you say, it's what people hear".

You can't persuade someone if they don't even understand you. Worse yet, misunderstanding among your stakeholders can lead to the wrong product being built. And that is expensive.

Make your point as easy as possible to understand.



Help the Reader Out

Everyone is busy. That's why people are much more likely to skim than to peruse your writing.

Make your writing easy to parse. Optimize the content for scanning. Break up your walls of text, because no one will read them. Use more bullet points, whitespace, and clear headings.

Just get your point across. And help your stakeholders move on with their day.



Use Simple Words

Avoid words that would require the reader to reach for the dictionary, because most won't. And when they don't understand the word, they either skip it or guess it.

Your job isn't to sound smart or write poetry. Your job is to communicate effectively to ship successful products.



Use Fewer Words

Write with an eraser in hand. Messages with fewer words are easier to understand.

In the words of George Orwell: "if it is possible to cut a word out always cut it out."

Examples of words to cut out: "really", "very", "amazing", and adjectives in general. Chances are, the additional words won't add to your point.



Use Short Sentences

Don't put more than one idea in each sentence. One sign that you are doing this wrong is having run-on sentences with lots of commas. To combat that, try using a period where you would normally use a comma.



Use Visuals

Include visuals in your written communication where possible. Paint a vivid picture for the reader. This could mean diagrams, charts, or even sketches that illustrate your point.

It both makes your message easier to understand, and it is more persuasive .



Order Matters

In written communication, you present a sequence of ideas in a particular order. And that order matters.

Make your point early on. Your first sentence or two should grab the reader. Because again, people are busy. Is this something they would want to keep reading?

The order also affects how the reader's brain understands the message. As a rule of thumb, we are faster at understanding active voice than passive voice in English.

Once you are done writing, re-read it (preferably aloud) to check the flow.



Provide Context

As the reader reads your writing, one thought question that they always have is "Why should I care?" The answer to that question should be clear. Establish this early.

Hyperlinks are helpful for packing more context to your writing without taking up additional space. Link to shared documents where possible in case your stakeholders need more information. This saves some back-and-forth questions and keeps the source of truth easier to maintain.



Repeat the Important Points

Because the reader is likely to skim, repeat the important points in case they missed them. And the down-side is limited. When the reader scans something they already read, they will just filter it out.

The repetition doesn't need to take place in the same document either. You can repeat in the form of follow-ups, reminders, summaries etc.

As a bonus side effect, repetition is persuasive .



Bold Words, Sparingly

Use contrast to make the key pieces of information pop, by bolding or highlighting keywords. This makes your writing easier to scan.

Don't overdo it though. If everything is important, nothing is.



Further Readings

 Tell People the Main Ideas by Julia Evans

 The Day You Became a Better Writer by Scott Adams

 Politics and the English Language by George Orwell

 Words that Work by Frank Luniz  

David Perell's Tweet   

 Writing Well by Julian Shapiro    

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