brad dickason
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Stop wasting time on strategy decks

Early in my career, I thought that presentations were the ultimate way to pitch product strategy. I would spend hours painstakingly refining slide after slide to be crystal clear, truly reflect my thinking, have a slick theme, and maybe include a witty animated gif here or there. At least 50% of that time was wasted. I spent so much time deciding on a theme, worrying about layout, and aligning text. Even when I took a barebones approach and stuck to a default layout with bulleted lists and images, I rarely ever ended up walking through the deck.

The best reviews I’ve been in started with a pre-read and jumped right to discussion questions. Best case scenario, we referred back to a slide or two with data during the discussion.

Over the years, I’ve found that a crisp, clear document with a compelling narrative is the most effective way to land a pitch. Writing in a document forces you to focus on the narrative and not the visual elements. Your tools are Bold, Italic, and •Bulleted list (vs. squares, rectangles, and every color under the rainbow).

My approach to pitches these days:

  1. Spend all my time on a document that I send out 24 hours beforehand (I’ll call this a pre-read).
  2. Open relevant data/design/prototypes in browser tabs so you can easily pull them up.
  3. IF everyone has read the pre-read: Jump to discussion questions.
  4. ELSE devote the first ~5m of the meeting to closely reading the pre-read then tee up questions.

Your ultimate goal is to drive alignment and high quality discussion and documents do that quite well.

Writing the pre-read

When writing a strategy doc, I start by writing a very long first draft in outline format. I assume that I’m mostly wrong but at least I get my initial thoughts out on paper. If there are areas I’m not the expert, I leave that section blank and tag the team member in question. Then I’ll send this early draft to my team for a bunch of feedback (via comments in the doc). I’ll parse through those comments and then re-write a much terser version. I repeat this process over and over until we’ve reached a reasonable level of clarity and length.

This process resembles an accordion because you go from very long prose and then squeeze your strategy down to its most simple/clear essence. Then you add a few more things and squeeze it again :)

Your first drafts will likely be confusing, unstructured, and have little to no backing data. That’s ok, you’ll fix these issues as you iterate.

As you go through more iterations, your priorities should gradually shift from #1 → #4:

  1. Clarity - Can everyone understand what you’re trying to say?
  2. Rigor - Is it backed by enough data/research?
  3. Alignment- Does everyone agree with what you’re proposing?
  4. Compelling - Do people get excited when they read it?

Don’t try to achieve #4 from the start. It takes time and you’ll likely throw away everything you wrote if your draft is exciting but doesn’t hit #1-3.

Best Practices

Here are some general rules I try to follow for my pre-reads:

  1. No more than 2 pages. Anything that is not essential to your narrative should move to the appendix with a ‘read more’ link.
  2. No more than 3 discussion questions. You should spend time thinking through the right level of detail and questions that only this group can answer. Your questions should be specific (e.g. “Are we aligned that we should not allow users under 18 to sign in?” vs. “Do you agree with our plan?”)
  3. Share drafts early and often. You want people to be part of the process and invested in helping you get to the final draft. It may feel ‘too early’ but you’ll likely get very valuable feedback anyway.
  4. Only use a table when absolutely necessary. It’s easy to drop in frameworks left and right but tables break up the flow of the narrative and are only useful when you need to structure data around 3-4 items across more than 2 dimensions. Otherwise just use a bulleted list or a graph. One place tables shine is when pro/con’ing 3-4 options across multiple dimensions and using Red/Yellow/Green to indicate priorities.
  5. Write the objective of the document at the top. Is this a pitch for a new product you plan to ship in H1? Is the goal to align leadership on an updated plan based on feedback from your last review? State the outcome you’re trying to achieve very clearly so everyone has shared context for what they’re looking at.
  6. Ask for very specific feedback. When you’ve reached a new draft, make sure you lay out what’s missing (e.g. no data yet) and what feedback you’re looking for (e..g “Is this clear?” “Do you agree with ___”?)
  7. Always send at least 24h in advance. You should do everything possible to ensure that your key stakeholders have read your pre-read in advance. The quality of feedback and discussion will increase dramatically if people have time to sit down and read your document closely without feeling rushed.
  8. Archive prior drafts so you can refer to the history. It’s common to refer back to previous statements or drafts as you iterate. Save each major revision as a draft in a shared folder so you can grab quotes or revert messages that aren’t landing well.
  9. Post/E-mail your pre-read (with feedback and notes) after the meeting. This is a best practice for any meeting but is especially important for strategy pitches. If multiple people have different takeaways from the meeting, you need to find that out now, not in a few weeks.

Are you struggling to land your strategy or having challenging product reviews? Do you have tips for what worked? I’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts via twitter: @bdickason

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Post last updated: Dec 21, 2020