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What I Learned from Journalism, As Applied to Product Management

I often get asked for advice from product managers on the skills I consider critical for the role. Invariably, I find myself falling back on some practices that I learned as a journalism student nearly ten years ago. Although I never actually worked as a full-time reporter, I found that basic skills I learned in my very first “craft of journalism” courses are the ones that I now return to again and again as a product leader.

As such, here are the top five things I learned in journalism school that I think are important for emerging product leaders.

  • Get good at interviewing. Effective interviewing a/k/a customer development is a core skill of being a product manager that often doesn’t come naturally. It takes practice to be able to roll with the punches, listen actively, ask good, open-ended questions, while paying attention to emotional trigger words that really get at the meat of a customer’s pain. To improve your interviewing skills, record yourself doing customer calls and listen to them later. Share them with others for feedback. And if you have a team, start to develop a set of “best practices for customer development” that others can learn from too.
  • Learn how to manage your emotions during customer interaction. As a journalist, I often had to deal with interview subjects who were upset, irrational, or just plain reluctant. Yet I still needed to deliver a story, much as you still need to get as much as possible out of a customer interview even when it’s going poorly. There are many techniques, like mirroring, that you can use to make the customer feel heard — even if they are upset or circumspect during a customer development call. I also try to have a hypothesis in mind for how the conversation is going to go before I walk into a call. This involves a great deal of preparation, not just to understand the probable sentiment of the customer, but to know enough about their industry and company that I can ask good questions. Great preparation shows the customer that I care enough to have done my homework, even if they have negative feedback for me.
  • Read the daily news. So much of product management is, or should be, figuring out what the trends are in the world and understanding how they might impact your product or your business. You won’t understand how to build the next big thing unless you know what’s going on in the world. Personally, I get the dead tree (print) edition of the New York Times, to increase the level of “serendipity”, i.e., stories that I wouldn’t have otherwise read. In journalism, reading the news can often spark ideas for the next story, or maybe a new angle on something that’s already going on in the world. In product management, it can inform new product features or completely new products, as well as what to avoid. For example, Microsoft might have been more cautious with productivity scoring in Office365 had it paid attention to user sensitivity about being monitored while at work.
  • Dedicate time to open-ended research. From your increased awareness of things going on in the world outside your office building, you should always have one or more half-baked, “back pocket” product concepts that you’re constantly refining with more information. In journalism there’s the concept of an “enterprise story” – one that the reporter creates from whole cloth because they are sufficiently enterprising and dogged in their pursuit of sources. The enterprising journalist has several of these often-half-developed stories on the go at any time, and the process of collecting new information without necessarily knowing where it will go (what reporters call “gathering string”) is one that I’ve brought into product management. You never know when all the string will amount to something.
  • Get good at writing well. This pretty much goes without saying. Too often in my product leadership career have I seen product managers hide poor strategic thinking behind fancy PowerPoint decks. Don’t be one of these PMs. Elegant and concise written communications are not only more efficient than PowerPoint at imparting information, they also force you to adopt a higher level of rigor in your product or feature proposals. That’s why Amazon uses written narratives and six-pagers to articulate business cases. Plus, precise word choice helps to improve the level of understanding between you and your engineering team and increases their confidence in you as a product leader.

Journalism is a tough field. And so is product management. If you’re an emerging product management leader and want advice on how to up your game, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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