On Product Writing
Why product writing is important, and how to do well
One summer morning in 2017, I arrived at the office in Los Gatos, CA, as early as 6:50am. I was excited as always since I joined the company. But in particular that day, I felt I was ready to move onto a major milestone after going through ramp up for about a month or so. I was ready to give a presentation about a product idea, to a large group of people in a forum we formalized as “PM Strat”. For the first time since I joined.
It was at Netflix. PM Strat is the forum where, product managers take their work to review with and get feedback from your colleagues, including other PMs, engineering, design, other cross functional teams, and leadership. It’s a true “open” forum, where nobody is left out. Anyone and everyone (in the company) can join, critique, and ask questions whether it’s because you’re a stakeholder, or you have dependencies, or are interested in the topic, or you really just want to participate for any reason or lack of thereof. If you want to picture how it feels like, think of it as a gladiator performing in an ancient Rome Colosseum. Oh yeah it’s that scary especially for an introvert.
I was excited and anxious at the same time. But as a new PM I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was like a founder giving a pitch to angel investors and VCs with a fancy deck, or a CEO giving a business review to board member (also with a fancy deck). So I asked my peer:
“Hey is there a presentation template I should use?”
“Oh, we don’t do much presentation here” He answered.
“What do you mean? No presentation? How does PM Strat work then?” I was confused.
“We use documents!”
That’s when I was officially exposed to the product writing culture. What does it mean?
A product writing culture favors a structured and clear written document as a primary way to kick off and progress the communication, over the traditional presentation format with slides. It promotes deep thinking, structured communication with complete and relevant context, and end to end narratives for the audience to fully understand the proposal, before giving their inputs . It also encourages feedback from all personality, at any pace (vs only from those who are loudest in meeting and have the time to sit in the meeting).
As it turns out, it’s not unique in Netflix. Many tech companies has been or increasingly are embracing product writing culture as well.
Oh don’t get me wrong, after writing and sharing the documents, I’d still need to be a gladiator in the Colosseum and receive live feedback and critiques from all over the place :)
That’s why effective product writing is so important. A good product manager communicates well. Written communication is one of the most important, if not THE most important communication tool we all need to master. The good news is, if you’re like me who’s an introvert, writing could be very well one of our strengths! Let’s double down on it.
So in this post, I’m going to discuss product writing. In 3 parts:
❓ What is product writing, exactly
🔑 Key elements in great product writing
💪 How to get better at product writing
Let’s dive in!
❓ What is product writing, exactly
Product writing is how a product manager communicates and organizes thoughts, proposals, and plans in a clear, concise, and structured written format. It includes but is not limited to the following:
A product strategy doc
A PRD (product requirement document)
A one pager describing a simple, not fleshed out idea
A specific problem analysis
A project status report
An email (of any product topic)
Or almost anything else you write about as a product manager.
All of the written “outputs” or “artifacts” are meant to accomplish specific goals. It could be:
To get feedback and farm for dissent
To initiate a discussion or brainstorm
To drive alignment
To record agreed upon directions, decisions, or plans as source of truth
To push forward a proposal or move forward with a clear action
And you would have the primary audience you’re writing for. Be it for leadership or cross functional team. Internal or external stakeholders. Tech or non-tech readers. Broader org or a specific niche team.
Product writing is a form of business writing. It differs from other forms of writing (such as fiction, diary, scribbling, love letter, etc.) in that it has much higher bar for clarity and effectiveness: Does it remove ambiguity and crisply communicate what it intends to convey? Does it drive desired actions and get things done?
Which leads to the next topic!
🔑 Key elements in great product writing
So what does it take to bring the desired clarity, effectiveness, and ultimately outcomes from product writing? I’d say 5 key elements: Structure, Information hierarchy, Relevance, Conciseness, and Actions. (or S.I.R.C.A):
Based on your topic, goal, and audience, think about the key sections you want to cover and in what sequence, before you start writing a single word. It’s similar to how you would break down a user acquisition funnel into steps, a big web page into sections, and a vague problem into sub-problems.
Just as an example, if you’re writing a product strategy doc attempting to communicate to your teams where you believe the product should be taken in the next 3 years, you could have:
A background section describing the product space and how it has evolved in the past
A problem section describing the key challenges and competition we’re facing now
A vision section describing a concise vision statement about the future you envision
A strategy section describing what game plan we can follow to win
A next step section describing, well, next steps and timelines.
Again, just an example, not a template. The key is to create a structure before you write the content, to guide how you write without getting lost in the weeds.
The best way to communicate complex information to the audience is to always start from the high level bullets, and go one level deeper at a time. It’s called a “pyramid”. (See the book I recommended multiple times: “The Pyramid Principles”).
You might not have noticed, but many of us (me included in the past) are used to start from the bottom of the pyramid. We’re tempted to start from “setting the full context” by providing quite a lot of details, the analysis, before ultimately “concluding” into key points. And we might or might not even communicate to the audience “the most important point” we want them to take away or act upon.
The logical sequencing is nothing wrong, to be sure. But you’re more likely to catch and keep their attentions and drive actions, if you start from the top, and then break down from that, one level at a time.
As an example, when you write an email to communicate about a project delay.
you start from explaining everything that actually happened,
then how the events impacted different parts of the projects and how they related,
then how these parts ultimately caused the project to delay,
and after careful estimation it’s about N weeks of delay,
and therefore the potential impact to the business
and finally with a recommended action to the stakeholder.
TL;DR: Project late by N weeks, the business impact, here’s the one recommended action.
High level context: the 3 things that caused the delay, and how the recommended action mitigates the the impact
The supporting details: the root causes/details about each of the 3 things, details about the actions (e.g. personnel, logistics, schedule), and some how the impact was quantified.
Being in the shoes of, say a stakeholder with 100 unread emails in the inbox, which version might get her attention and action sooner? If she only have 10 seconds, she can stop at TL;DR and you’d still get what you want from her - visibility and action. If she has more time and wants to learn more, she can continue into high level context or even the supporting details.
Remember, this is a principle, not a script. Keep this in the back of your head when writing, and use flexibly in different scenarios.
A great writing includes only relevant information (to the topic, audience, and goal), and leaves the rest out. That’s why it’s always important to be clear about the topic you’re focused on, who you’re talking to, and what you want to accomplish. Ask yourself when you write and proof read - is this information relevant? Keep it if yes, remove if no.
Also, think about who the email / document should be sent to. It can be “convenient” to send to a large group including the ones who care (and many who don’t). The most effective way to get the targeted response is to send to only who are relevant (not just to write about what’s relevant).
Great communication is always concise and right to the point. Written communication included.
Being concise is more than being short. It’s also to:
Use plain language (vs sophisticated words and jargon)
Prioritize information (what to say first)
Pause/stop at the right point (decides on the best break point of the document and each section).
Cohesion throughout the document - does everything ultimately drive toward the same key points and are well connected (and therefore a breeze for readers to read and understand quickly)
Good product writing inspires thinking. Great product writing drives actions. Because actions lead to outcomes.
An actionable product writing often includes one or more of the following:
A call to action: you need who to do what by when
"Next steps”: steps you’ll follow after what’s written
A clear objective / goal: what do you look to accomplish with this writing
And obviously it needs to have the above key elements so that it’s easily understood by the readers, before they can take actions.
💪 How to get better at product writing
So now, how to improve your product writing so you’ll include more of the key elements (S.I.R.C.A) above and be more effective in driving the desired outcomes?
Practice: sure enough, to do anything extremely well, you need the get the reps in. Write more, reflect and improve, and write some more.
Be a Reader: read what you write in a reader’s shoe. It’s not the same as proof reading simply to correct your errors. It’s to see if it really does make sense to the reader who might not have the same context as you. It’s similar to how you’d “dogfood” (test use) your own product before launching. If you find it difficult to be in reader’s shoe, flex your user empathy muscle as a PM.
Read: ok, different from the above. To write well, you need to read A LOT. Obviously the good ones (books, other’s product docs, blogposts etc). But also bad ones for you to develop that sensitivity of what’s not good enough. You don’t need to be a writing coach to know something is not well written. You just know when it reads clunky and you have a hard time to follow. Overtime you’ll learn about why, and use it to improve your own writing by avoiding the same mistakes.
Think before you write: just like how you should think before you speak. Think harder before you write because you have more time! Writing is an “asynchronous” communication compare to speaking. So use the luxury of time to organize your thoughts, structure, and goals, before put down in actual writing. Don’t rush, because thinking first doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll take you more time to finish the doc. You’d be surprised how much easier and faster it is to write, when you have crisply clear thoughts already organized in front of you.
Get feedback: this should also be self explanatory. Solicit explicit feedback from your readers about your documents, and understand where you can improve.
Product writing is one of the most important ways of communication you definitely want to master as a product manager. Whether or not you’re an introvert.
But if you ARE an introvert like me: you could double down on this skill, because it is going to be a very powerful tool for you to influence, get your thoughts across, push through agenda, all without doing as much the extroverted things you dislike!
Now, I have a call to action for you 😊 (choose one of the following):
If this post is helpful to you, share it with a friend (more if you want) and concisely write about why she/he needs to read it!
If this post is NOT helpful, send me a concise message in writing about why and how I can be more helpful, and I’ll promise to respond with appreciation and how I plan on improving!