Three ways to improve your comms

A few years ago I was parachuted into a team where the Project Board had lost confidence in the way the project was being run. I did as I usually do in these situations and put a little more structure in place. This included creating a very detailed yet very succinct weekly project report. It was a LOT of effort. Every week I would diligently pull together completed tasks from last week, outstanding items, this week’s tasks plus status and owners, next week’s and the following week’s tasks. Plus Issues, risks, change control items, tolerance and finally budget analysis. And I fit this onto one side of A4! How? Well maybe that template will be the subject of another article!

The point is that I created this report every week for about 3 months. Then one day I got the impression that nobody was bothering to read the report. So in the next week’s email I added voting button’s asking if people: a) read the report in full, b) read the highlights or c) didn’t find it useful. I referenced this in the report and sent it out as usual.

So out of a distribution list of 30 how many responses do you think I got?

One. Yes one, and that was from a guy that had just started that week and he was 1) still very enthusiastic and 2) probably didn’t have that much to do. And the best point… well he clicked b), he only read the highlights. Hmm…

I didn’t mind that much and I sort of expected this was the case all along. On further investigation it turned out that people did read the report for the first few weeks but then complacency set in and the consensus was that if the report was sent out then things were under control. I understood this point of view and it didn’t really matter because the reports were a great historical record and would be very valuable when it came to the post project review. Of course I was also a bit gutted that my very hard work was going unnoticed, but that’s life.

Later, I wondered if I could have just not bothered with all that extra effort and I started thinking, about the purpose of communication.

  • The Encarta Dictionary (via MS Word) describes communication as “the exchange of information between people” (I could argue the ‘between people’ bit but won’t in the interests of non-digression before we have even started).
  • Dictionary.com’s third suggestion is “something imparted, interchanged, or transmitted” (note the word ‘transmitted’.
  • Cambridge Dictionary online’s definition is “the various methods of sending information between people and places, especially official systems such as post systems, radio, telephone, etc” (again note the word ‘sending’).

So what am I getting at here, well the point is that often the communications you send as a project manager are ‘broadcast’ meaning they are one way. In this article I will make three suggestions to increase the likelihood that your communications will be better taken in (whether via email, spoken or otherwise), better understood and the content better retained.

The three aspects are ‘appropriate comms’, ‘targeted comms’ and ‘communication preferences’ (this is the important one).

Appropriate Communications

I once worked with a great project manager who was a real people person, he made and maintained real friendships with nearly everyone he worked with – he really cared about others – and he had lots of drive and made things happen.

But he had a downside too. His communication was quite one sided, he communicated to others in the way that was most convenient for him. A good example is the time I asked for an update on a particular project. After he gave me a verbal overview I told him I was surprised that I hadn’t been made aware of the significant issue he had just mentioned. He pointed out that he had included it in the last two or three daily updates. When I checked I found he was right, it was there alright, about 8 bullet points in as part of the meeting notes.

The point I am trying to make is that it is vital that when we communicate, we do so in a way that is appropriate to what we are trying to get across. If there is a significant issue put it at the top – and better still once you have sent that email go and see the person or give them a call and tell them there is a significant issue they should be aware of. Stakeholders can’t be relied upon to read what you think they will read!

Targeted Communications

Whether you like it or not you are responsible for ensuring the right people have the right information at the right time. You may be able to correctly argue the fact that you did include the important issue in an email three days ago, but should it really have been buried in a bulleted list of far less significant information? The only consequence is that your project will suffer and when it does it will be the project manager’s fault…

So how can we communicate better? Well one way is to ensure you target your communications. When you are next writing that email update ask yourself three questions: 1) “who am I writing this update for?”, 2) “how would X (and Y and Z) perceive this information?” and 3) “what is the best way to get this information across?”.

In this case the three answers could be: 1) the email id for everyone, 2) X needs the detail, Y just needs a summary and might get put off a high level of detail and 3) Z will only want to know if we are on track or not and may not even open the report if it has a large file size. And this is the point… It is vital that you, as a project manager understand how to get the information across that you need other people to know. And to do this it is imperative to understand the information they need.

In the case of the project board this can be achieved by actually asking the individuals at the start of the project what they what to know, when and in what format. So your sponsor may want an email once a week with a list of top priority issues, a traffic light status on each of the main work streams and a high level update.

Other board members may want to be able to visit a SharePoint site at a time convenient to them and see the change control register, Issues and Risk log, get a traffic light status update once a week by email and have a face to face twice a week to discuss sticking points. Your delivery teams are likely to want a detailed breakdown of their work items plus detailed notes from the daily meeting with all agreed action points.

So it is obvious that a single communication to all parties is not going to cut the mustard. The detailed daily report will likely put the board off and they may end up not keeping close enough to the project. If a high level summary is sent to the delivery team it is likely some actions and details will be left off and/or misunderstood.

But wait, I hear a cry of “I am far too busy to start tailoring different communications to different audiences” well fair enough – I agree it is not vital and even partly go along with the argument that it is up to the stakeholders to filter the info they need (but only partly) – but please remember the title of this article series is “how to be a better project manager:…”. You can be a good PM and not do this, however if you did, you would be better!

So craft your communications carefully and target the content and delivery medium to your audience.

Communication Preferences

So here’s the gold….

In a nutshell if you are trying to communicate with an individual and it’s just not happening it might be because you have different communication preferences. What are communications preferences? Well they are just the way in which individuals prefer to communicate. You may have heard people say “he is a very visual person” and that is exactly what I am talking about. In NLP speak communication preferences (AKA Representational Preferences1) can be described as ‘the way in which individuals prefer to reference the world all around them’.

The five preferences are Visual (V), Auditory (A), Feeling (K), Smell (O) and Taste/Gustatory (G). By a long way the three most common are Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic (feeling) also known as the VAK preferences for short.

So I probably haven’t told you anything you don’t already know or at least that isn’t logical. But what if you could tell a person’s preference? Well if you could you could use their preference to communicate more easily with them. With a visual person for example you can present your meeting update as a series of power point slides or an email they can read (remember it is the person you are communicating to’s preference that is important – not yours!). With an Auditory person you can give them a verbal update maybe over a coffee and give them time to ask questions etc. With a Kinesthetic person communication is slightly less simple as you still need to communicate in a visual or verbal way but here you can tailor your language and talk in terms of “getting a feel for the project” or “finding a way forward” and using words like “sensation”,  “atmosphere” and impression”.

Tailoring your language for ‘visual and auditory’ preference people works too. So you can discuss the way you “see” the project progressing or give a “graphic” update or “paint a picture” of the progress to date. Changing the words you use works for auditory preferences too, you can “tell” them about progress and “discuss” the issues or have a “chat” about progress or indeed “describe” the current state of play.

So we now know how to use our own choice of language to get our message across (yes I have an auditory preference!), but how do we go about working out which preferences individuals have. Well at the most fundamental level you can study the types of words people use. In exactly the same way that you can change the words you use to get your point across – if you notice the words people use, and recognize their VAK preferences, you can build up an accurate picture quite quickly. The only thing left to do is to then, is to use those types of preferences when you communicate to that person! This is why mirroring language works so well!

Pause…

Of course things are never that black and white (visual). Individuals are varied, and some have a very strong individual VAK preference and others will have mixed preferences. This trick is to keep track of who prefers what.

Try this practical exercise. Target someone you find more challenging to communicate with. Start a conversation with them or listen to them in a meeting and try to pinpoint their preference(s) by picking up on the words they use. Then use these sentences back with them. I bet you will get an almost immediate response and could even find they start to take in what you are trying to get across. If you keep going with your choice of words – you could be surprised at the response.

So thanks for sticking with me this far (bit of a long article today!). In summary you can become a far more effective PM by increasing your communication skills by following these three suggestions:

  1. Make sure you deliver Appropriate Communications by including the important things first. If there is an important issue, give it the attention it deserves.
  2. Target your communications so the detail people get the detail they need and the individuals who need summary info get that, otherwise you run the risk of getting nothing across.
  3. And finally if you are having problems communicating with specific individuals invest some time in working out what their communication preferences are and change the words you use and the context you use them in.

Thanks for reading, if you have any comments or if you find this helps please leave a message below.

Happy PMing!

Further Reading