Writing for executive audiences – a 3 step process

A note for new subscribers: This post is part of a monthly Sunday series on my notes on technology product management (this is what I do for a living). You might notice that these posts often link to older posts in the series on LinkedIn even though they are all available on this blog. That is intended for folks who only want to follow future product management related posts. Finally, for all those of you who don’t build tech products for a living, I believe many of these notes have broader applicability. And, I hope you find that to be the case as well…

We’ve covered the following topics so far in this series –

  • Defined the role of a product manager and outlined the 4 key skills required to do the job – problem finding (solving for value), selling, problem solving (solving for usability and feasibility), and building effective teams.
  • Skill #1 – Problem finding: We spent time working through why problem finding is the most important skill and how to approach building problem statements and hypotheses.
  • Skill #2 – Selling: We outlined why all Product Managers spend significant doing sales and marketing in their bid to drive the change they seek to make for their users/customers. Today’s post will focus on a core piece of this sales and marketing toolkit – writing for executive audiences.

Why is writing for executive audiences a core piece of the sales and marketing toolkit? As IC product managers, many of our opportunities to persuade tend to come from sharing our thought process in writing with internal stakeholders (typically executives in the product management org)- via strategy documents, issue investigations, product specs, and email exchanges.

I’ve intentionally picked an internal audience as the focus because that’s where the biggest challenges tend to lie. When the organization is aligned on the problem that is being solved, it is much easier to build and sell a cohesive solution to users/customers.

For the purpose of today’s post, I’m going to assume most of the longer form writing happens in long form memo-style documents versus PowerPoint presentations. I’m also not going to focus on product specs as that will form the core piece of skill #3 – Problem Solving – and will be covered in our next post.

So, today’s note will be focused on strategy documents, issue investigations, and email exchanges for executive audiences.

The 3 step process. My suggested approach to writing (and speaking) experiences is to work through the 3 parts of the process – 1) Content – start early and write down everything you want to convey, 2) Structure – rewrite your content and make it easy to consume with a logical flow, and 3) Delivery – tailor the final delivery to your audience.

1) Content – start early and write down everything you want to convey. Block 2 hours on your calendar as soon as you know you have a document to prepare and write down everything you want to convey. Don’t worry about logic or structure – simply put all your ideas down in one place.

As simple as this sounds, there is a common pitfall in this process that I’ve seen myself and others fall prey to – postponing the act of generating content because of a desire for the perfectly structured first draft.

If you are most people, your first draft is going to suck. That’s expected. Procrastinating at this stage ends up becoming very expensive because most docs require multiple revisions. Great documents are rarely written in a day. They are also rarely written by blocking out 2 days prior to your review. Instead, the optimal creation process looks something like this.

2) Structure – rewrite your content and make it easy to consume with a logical flow.

“For the average business or professional writer, producing more literate memos and reports does not mean writing shorter sentences or choosing better words. Rather, it means formally separating the thinking process from the writing process, so that you can complete your thinking before you begin to write.” | Barbara Minto, The Pyramid Principle

Now that we have followed Barbara Minto’s advice and completed our thinking in step 1, we are ready to begin to write. The key at this stage is to pick a logical structure that will help convey your ideas. There should be plenty of examples of good structure around you – just look to prior strategy docs or issue investigation docs that have been well received.

Figuring out a structure should not be rocket science. For example, a good issue investigation doc follows a version of – 1. What is the problem?, 2. Where does it lie?, 3. Why does it exist?, 4. What could we do about it?, 5. What should we do about it?

Similarly, most good product strategy docs follow a version of – 1. Problem statement (user/customer need), 2. Size of opportunity if the problem is solved, 3. Our hypothesis and key assumptions, 4. Principles, 5. Strategy (where do we play?, how do we win?), 6. Roadmap / Tests to validate key assumptions, 7. Open questions/Areas we need help.

The challenge in this step (at least in my experience) isn’t finding a good structure – instead, it is in building the discipline to keep iterating on our original draft. Again, Barbara Minto puts it nicely –

“Once you put ideas in writing, they take on an incredible beauty in the author’s eyes. They seem to glow with a fine patina that you will be quite reluctant to disturb.”

The first draft is simply the act of laying down our thought process. The act of structuring involves breaking up with that first draft and rewriting to make it easy to consume.

3) Delivery – tailor the final delivery to your audience. All the work we put into writing and speaking is to persuade our audience. So, this 3 step process involves moving from “what do I want to say?” to “how can I best make my case to the audience?”

Great sales and marketers understand that their success is dependent on their understanding of their audience. When they understand their audience, they can create the sort of resonance in their messaging that leads to action. So, as product managers, this means doing the work to get to know our audience and asking ourselves – Do you understand how to build an argument that will resonate with your key stakeholders?

If the answer is no, we need take the time to meet with our stakeholders and understand them better.

This content-structure-delivery process applies to presentations and emails as well. While we’ve focused on the creation of a document, this process works just as well for preparing a presentation, answering an email, or taking questions at the end of the presentation.

I had shared an illustration recently with a few folks on “good, better, best” for answering exec questions (in Star Wars lingo of course :-)).

As you’ll see, the same process holds. If you are responding to an email, write down your thoughts, rewrite in a logical structure that focuses on clarity over completeness, and seek to deliver the message in a way that anticipates any obvious follow up questions.

You have less time to work through this process in a live Q&A – but, the same idea holds -> understand your audience’s intent when you answer questions. And, if it is unclear, clarify.

While the purpose of the structure stage is to build a logical argument, the purpose of the delivery stage is to transcend logic and create emotional resonance.

While logic will help lead our audience to the conclusions we derive, it is emotions that will help us persuade our audience to take action to support us in our quest to build better experiences for our users/customers.

A career and life sidebar: As you’ve probably noticed by now, this approach is applicable well beyond exec communication. This post could just as easily have been called “Writing clearly” or “Communicating with clarity.” But, in the spirit of focusing on emotional resonance, I have come to realize that the term “Exec Communication” resonates better. :-)