Words Matter

Words matter.

As Product Managers, we need to choose the right ones.

Most of our work starts with something abstract (an idea, a theory, some data) and ends with something concrete (a product).

The gap between abstract and concrete is vast. Most things don't make it from one side to the other. We can use words to bridge that gap.

Well chosen words establish a point of consensus.
They translate raw data into meaning.
They transmit an idea from your head, to the outside world.

"Here is what I believe in. Will you believe in it too?"

The most fundamental are our statements of intent:

  • Product vision

  • Quarterly objective

  • Sprint goal

These need to be universally understood and meaningful. If you quit your job tomorrow, would your team still know which way to travel next?

But be careful.

Words can be used for good and bad. And once the wrong words have wormed their way into people's heads, they are terrifically hard to get out.

Here are a few examples.

1) “Feature XYZ v2”

Almost every roadmap contains some kind of v2 deliverable. Stakeholders love this, because they are free to imagine what it means. Product Managers use it, because it allows them to sidestep difficult conversations.

But wait some time, and the interpretations soon start piling up...

Stakeholder: When will XYZ v2 be ready?
PM: We began testing the new flow last week.
Stakeholder: But when will v2 be ready?
PM: That is v2.
Stakeholder: It's not what I expected.

...and the recriminations begin.

This is a common problem, not only with versions, but labels in general. When we settle for an ambiguous label, we rebrand conflict as consensus.

It feels like a solution at the time. But the change is purely cosmetic.

We are hiding from conflict.
Hiding from conflict is toxic in the long term.

We can save everyone heartache by choosing a more descriptive label in the first place. When that’s not enough, we can use visuals ("a picture paints a thousand words") and clarifying details to bring disagreements to the fore.

Use the words you have to confront conflict, not hide from it.

2) “NMAP”

Here is an acronym I coined whilst working at Outfittery.


Every time we create an acronym, we start a secret club of people who understand what it represents.

I know you think your acronym is clever, and you spent hours working on it, but it's helping no-one. By all means, if you are the Product Manager of a Swedish pop band, call them ABBA. But don't use an acronym for something that can be described perfectly well with actual words.

The terrifying thing is that soon your acronyms start breeding amongst themselves. Next thing you know, you're explaining the difference between ABBA, CABBA, BACABBA and BABBA to your new QA.

Confused QAs miss bugs.
Confused teams make bad products.

Your acronyms are bad and you should feel bad.

3) “Deadline”

This is a pretty serious word. I don't know if you've noticed, but it even contains the word 'dead'. That's because it's short for: "We must make this deadline or my boss will kill me!"

If we issue "deadlines" all the time, people stop taking the word seriously. The expectation becomes that things don't get delivered on time. We reinforce a culture of failure, frustration and distrust.

So we should use it like we would a surgeon’s scalpel: not on every patient!

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. We are using words ALL THE TIME!

  • "I did something" or "we did something"

  • "A project", "a mission", "a bet" or "an experiment"

  • “Done”, “Released” or “In Testing”

Each of these decisions have consequences. So choose carefully. Identify the meaning you want to convey, and use the right words to do it.

If you're doing that already, congratulations! You have reached basecamp.

…but wait, what's that? Yes, there's still a summit to climb.

Good Product Managers use words to convey meaning faithfully.

And great Product Managers?

They use STORY to compel others to follow.

For example. When you start an important presentation, you don't need to tell your audience "today I am going to present about..." (They know that already.) You don't need to announce the order of contents. (They will know that soon enough.)

The best Product Managers start presentations, as writers start novels.

"Marley was dead: to begin with."
“All this happened, more or less.”
"As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect."

“90% of our users are abandoning their baskets."

People have short attention spans and are resistant to change. We need to leverage every last ounce of our storytelling power, to get them to follow where we lead.

Extend this mindset to as much of your communication as possible. Meetings. Status updates. Documentation. Emails.

When your name pops up in the CEO's inbox, you want them to think, "I gotta read this".

One last thing you should know. It's about grammar.

Repeat after me.

Grammar is NOT as important as they taught us in school.
Grammar is NOT as important as they taught us in school.
Grammar is NOT as important as they taught us in school.

Grammar is just a means to an end. A useful tool, but not a requirement.

In 1642 the poet Richard Lovelace wrote "Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage". This grammatical nonsense was so exquisitely eye-catching it became a legitimate, frequently used construct in the English language.

377 years later, my old colleague Emilie is regularly dropping connecting words from her sentences, to abrupt and jarring effect. (She is not a native English speaker.)

When Emilie speaks, everyone pays attention and learns something new.

Grammar is overrated.

But words?

Words matter.