Project Management

Project communications: What works, and what doesn't

When you're trying to zero in on an effective project communication style, think about these important factors so your message hits the mark.

Image: iStock/shironosov

Project leaders have differing communication styles, preferences, and methods, and not all approaches work well in every scenario. The key to being a successful project communicator is to take into account as many of the following factors as possible (as well as geographic location and cultural differences) when deciding on the appropriate communication style to use.

SEE: How to plan for your first project manager role

Your audience

What works: Always weigh the needs of your audience and their preferences for communication. You should answer these questions.

  • Who is the message intended to reach?
  • Is your audience internal or external?
  • Are they project team members, executives, or stakeholders?
  • Are they external clients, vendors, government or legislative departments, or another public body?
  • Are they likely to be receptive or resistant to your message?

Think about your audience's viewpoint, as well as any issues that may need to be addressed in the message. Consider how much time they have to receive your message, decode it, and respond. Also, anticipate a busy C-level executive may only require a high-level summary, whereas project team members or stakeholders may require more detailed information.

Additionally, find out if one or more members of the intended audience requires a specialized form of communication due to a health-related limitation or a disability. This can often go overlooked and unaddressed, yet is very common in the workplace.

What doesn't work: Delivering a message that disregards any of these factors can create issues if the message is not received by the recipients in a manner that was intended. Furnishing C-level executives with copious amounts of detail may not be a good idea, and in contrast, leaving out pertinent information required by frontline individuals can be a recipe for frustration and error.

The content's nature and significance

What works: It is particularly important to think about the message you are delivering in terms of the content's nature and significance. Consider the level of confidentiality and privacy laws; are you providing the right amount of information or too much? It's unlikely that all parties need the same amounts of information. That said, try to be as transparent and consistent as possible. There is always a fine balance between too much and too little information.

What doesn't work: Be careful not to send confidential information to parties that should not be privy to it. And don't withhold necessary information from individuals who require it to effectively do the work to successfully execute the project.

Your tone

What works: Your tone should always be professional and respectful. A project manager (PM) can be firm when necessary, but never disrespectful or condescending regardless of the audience. All too often individuals in lower-level positions are spoken to and not with, yet mid-level management and C-level individuals don't experience inappropriate tone as a simple function of seniority. Keep in mind regardless of position all individuals deserve the right to be treated with equal respect. Also factor in tone when it comes to written communications where messages can easily get taken out of context.

What doesn't work: Changing and shifting your tone during times of stress from respectful to disrespectful when speaking with or emailing individuals is unacceptable. PMs should strive to always maintain a professional, fair, and respectful tone. Absent this, it may become difficult for team members or other stakeholders to be interested in working with you, making it challenging to gain future employment.

SEE: Insider's Guide To Better IT Leadership (Tech Pro Research)

The message's delivery and context

What works: When sending or receiving messages, context and delivery is key. The old saying "context is everything" can be critical in the world of project management. How a message is delivered, and under what context should be carefully decoded by the PM and recipients. That said, you have a responsibility to the client and the project to always pay particular attention to how the message may be received and always be aware of context. Sometimes one simple word placed in the wrong order can completely change the meaning of the message. Once that message is forwarded to another party, the potential for misunderstanding can escalate. You should always take the time to carefully review your messages for context, as well as clarify when receiving a message that may be unclear. Seek to understand first.

What doesn't work: If you are unsure about the meaning of a message, in any form, don't make an assumption. If the message is not handled properly, it has the potential to become a huge misunderstanding, or possibly set in motion unintended project instructions or activities that can lead to undesirable outcomes.

The timing of the message

What works: Remember that "timing is everything." Think about how much time the recipient has to extract the meaning of your message. When individuals are pressed for time, they typically rush through messages, running the risk of confusing simple words like do and don't, is and isn't, and so on. There are times to be concise, and times to be as detailed as possible depending on how much time the recipient has to decode the message. Even when the recipient needs a significant amount of detail, be as concise as possible. Also, the medium chosen should coincide with the timing of the message. In addition, factor in how quickly the message needs to be received by the recipient.

What doesn't work: You should avoid using only one form of communication for all messages, and definitely avoid sending communications outside of work hours unless absolutely necessary. It's important to ensure recipients can receive and retrieve emails, phone calls, text messages, and online collaboration communications when needed.

The mediums of communication

What works: Make sure to select the most appropriate medium for the message, depending on the purpose, nature, audience, timing, content sensitivity, the recipient's communication preference and message accessibility, among other factors.

What doesn't work: It's not likely to serve you well to utilize only one medium throughout a project life cycle. There will be times where email makes the most sense, and times where simply picking up the phone proves best. It's also not wise to disregard factors such as the message purpose, nature, timing, context, or tone, because this creates the potential for recipients to lose confidence in your judgment.

Also see

About Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contr...

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