Being a Product Manager is a challenging role, constantly requiring you to stretch yourself in new ways. But did you also know that the role of PM prepares you like no other to be an amazing speaker?
We interviewed three outstanding product managers, Natalia Burina of Salesforce, Megan Berry of RebelMouse, and Ellen Chisa of Lola Travel to learn exactly how you can leverage your know-how in tech, product management, and team development on stage.
They each have long careers in tech. The three of them combined have worked at some of the most successful companies of the last twenty years as well as small startups where they’ve made waves: eBay, Microsoft, Samsung, Salesforce, Klout, Lola Travel, RebelMouse. We’ve distilled their insights specifically for fellow product managers looking for opportunities to take their careers (and their confidence when speaking to crowds) to the next level.
“My job as a product manager and leader has prepared me to do this,” Natalia asserts. Now you, too, can learn the ropes of expanding your role as a Product Manager to Conference Speaker from three veteran PMs and experienced speakers.
So how do you get started?
Influence without being authoritarian (or recognize that you already do)
“Before you present your ideas as a PM, you have to get buy-in. You get influence without authority. That’s part of the PM job,” Natalia explains. Getting buy-in can be a big challenge for many PMs, and it’s something that speakers also have to be great at too. The difference is when you’re a speaker, you have to persuade audiences with your reasoning, your stories.
Ellen says that working as a PM gets your ready to “prepare a quick narrative for your ideas.”
“At a big company, you need to align everyone and share. The most pressure I ever felt, was during a presentation to about 30 people. I was asked to present a very controversial idea.”
What was Ellen’s secret to getting buy-in in this environment? “I framed my presentation from the angle of the people I spoke to. I said, ‘Let’s walk through our user journey.’ It was more emotional than what they were used to. It was not simply logical or me saying ‘This is what the hierarchy says we have to do.’ Afterward, one of the designers emailed me to say it was an amazing presentation of ideas.”
The skills and mindset that great PMs build up over time help develop an uncanny understanding of the importance of influence. Megan says people will often ask her “How big is the team of engineers you manage?” Her response? “I don’t manage them. You have to collaborate with everyone. You have to create groups that can reach consensus.”
This is exactly how their roles as speakers work as well: They have to present ideas from the audience’s point of view and help them reach a common vision.
Leadership Roles Pave the Way
Natalia stresses that her 15+ years of experience as a PM is what has prepared her for the speaking she does today: “A lot of the PM job involves getting up in front of the room and talking to your team.” This position is one that people immediately relate to leaders, no matter how small the group of people is you’re speaking to.
Then, over time, “Your team starts small, then gets bigger, then you have to present to the company.” The role of PM also opens doors to feedback and constructive criticism, as Natalia notes: “The environment I come from is critical in a good way. Everything you do is questioned. Part of the PM job is getting ready, making sure your ideas are good. From that job, it’s a natural step to give talks. This is part of being a leader.”
Ellen Chisa echoes these same ideas in her story. Now VP Product at Lola Travel, she came to product management from running her own company and then working as a PM at Microsoft for exactly “two years, two months, and two days.”
She learned that running a startup was about more than having good ideas. “We were bad at executing,” she says. When she took on product roles, she learned so much more about how to lead and build teams that got things done, learning how to communicate with the broad group of people that were involved with directly building, or touched the products she was building, in some way. This prepared her for her future roles on stage by giving her the ability to talk to diverse audiences.
Find Mentors In and Outside of Work
Mentors are crucial in moving up in any career, and they’re also crucial to getting you on stage to speak to new audiences. Natalia cannot stress this point enough: “Peers and mentors are key in getting you on stage.”
For some of us, like Megan, mentors can be found close to home. Her father has been a big influence in her speaking career, having traveled to see him speak many times herself. Beyond her familial mentor, “There are other people I’ve been inspired by,” she says. These include entrepreneur and keynote speaker Ramon Ray, President of Un-Marketing Scott Stratten, and Cindy Gallup of Make Love Not Porn. Beyond getting access to new opportunities, mentors and friends are also crucial to have by your side at speaking engagements.
Ellen takes the exact same approach, “Most of the time I speak, I get a good friend to come watch me.”
Learn The Methodical Steps of Preparing a Talk
“There’s a lot of preparation and work involved and some amount of anxiety, nervousness before [a talk],” says Natalia. “As part of my job at Microsoft, a lot of it was about doing presentations to executives. A lot of the corporate jobs I’ve had have had me carefully craft presentations to executives,” says Natalia.
Ellen, Natalia, and Megan each have their own unique ways of preparing for talks, but the principles are the same: “A talk is something you know way ahead of time.”
- Write a narrative and the core mission of the talk.
- Rewrite the talk like an essay, over and over again. “It’s about getting down to the essence of what I’m trying to communicate.”
- Move the talk into slides.
- Practice alone. Find where the narrative doesn’t match with the slides. Revise.
- Practice with a harsh friend.
- Refine. “Sometimes I start completely over.”
“A one-hour talk takes more than 40 hours of preparation. I get better at what I do each time, but it take at least 40 hours per talk.”
- Craft and follow a storyline for the talk. “The most important thing is to have an interesting story to tell. If you’re presenting data and facts, it’s meaningless until it tells a story. The more emotion you put into the story, the more interesting it will be.”
- Create a clean and engaging layout for your slides.
- Gather feedback from friends, family, and experts. “Run it by friends and family before you present it. Run it by experts in the field. Get feedback.”
- Deliver it with enthusiasm and engage with the audience.
- Create a core thesis/idea and write a talk title. Then create a story around that title.
- Write short slides, with a few words on them and build the content into talk.
- Customize to your audience: “How you speak to a small group should be very different from you speak to a big group. When it’s smaller, you’re a person and they’re a person. It’s just a conversation. When it’s a bigger talk, you have to orient your content toward what they care about and that alone.”
- Take a casual approach. Think more about engaging people than worrying about memorizing data points or exact wording.
Carve Out Your Niche of Expertise
“People often feel like they don’t have anything unique to say,” says Ellen. “But everyone really does have something to share. It’s just about sharing it differently. I got used to communicating my ideas and sharing my ideas around building with my work.”
As with anything, practicing speaking about your expertise and refining your focus are keys to success.
Another secret of great speakers who are worried that they aren’t their subject’s foremost experts: “It’s easier when you’re promoting something other than yourself. When I speak, I’m evangelizing for my startup or for the Awesome foundation.” Ellen also notes “It wasn’t that I had to believe my ideas were valuable. I had to feel my work was valuable.”
For Megan, she has had a clearly defined niche since her days at Klout: “My niche is still around influence marketing. I’m someone who can talk about social product and how it’s created and how you should engage social marketing and the products around social marketing.”
Natalia shares her own view about carving out a niche as a PM speaker, “Whatever it is that you’re doing in your day to day, where you really excel you should speak to those areas. It’s about putting together a story, fascinating facts.”
Either way, “A good talk isn’t necessarily defined by someone walking knowing exactly how to do something new,” says Ellen. “It’s about starting 100 people thinking about new ideas. It’s about starting a conversation.”
Ellen, Megan, and Natalia stress the importance of sharing your ideas as women product managers in tech. “I feel like people take me more seriously,” says Ellen. She also notes that her writing helps too. “The writing actually opened up a lot of doors to the speaking. People saw my thought process and then they wanted me to speak.”
Beyond building up your personal brand, speaking on stage is about something much larger than yourself: It’s about opening doors for other women. As Ellen reasons, “The more women there are giving talks, the harder it becomes for people to say there aren’t talented women in the industry. The more women who are top of mind, the better.”