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5 Ws of effective stakeholder communication


In journalism, there is a rule of 5Ws that is surprisingly relevant for product managers in more ways than one.

As product managers, we need to communicate with stakeholders consistently and often. Effective communication is one of the key skills PMs need to succeed at their jobs. The criteria for successful communication depend on many factors: the message you want to convey, the audience and their preferences, the time constraints, the language and cultural aspects, the medium of communication and so on. There is no one-fits-all template or framework for effective communication. As PMs, our communication style and methods should be adapted to the environment we find ourselves in.

The rule of 5Ws

As a starting point in improving our communication methods, we can steal a page from a journalist's playbook and adapt their rule of 5Ws to our context. But first, let's recap a few basic principles of stakeholder communication. Those are:
  • Be concise, your stakeholders don't have much time
  • Be precise, don't let your stakeholders guess or misinterpret your message
  • Avoid slang, abbreviations and shortcuts unless absolutely universally understood
  • Ask clearly if you need stakeholders to react or do something based on your message

To frame your communication you can use the following cribsheet.


What did we do?

Describe the actions performed with all necessary details. Avoid justification or over-explanation at this stage, just provide a log of what happened.

Why did we do that?

Go into your reasoning for the actions mentioned. Describe the information you had at hand at the time and your analysis.

Who is impacted?

Exhaustingly list all people, systems and events that were impacted. If you already assessed the impact - include the summary too.

When did it happen?

Place the events in time so your stakeholders have more context and can better evaluate the significance and potential impact of what happened.

Which steps we'll take next?

List the actions and people responsible for those actions. Add timeframes (deadlines) when the actions need to be taken.

As you can see this framework can be used for past, happening right now or future events. Combine this with your unique knowledge of your stakeholders for even more effective comms. Refine your approach based on feedback and the outcomes.

Becoming better at communicating should be every PM's priority. No matter the job you're doing now, if you're an effective communicator - you'll have higher chances to succeed.

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