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10 tips for sharpening your project communications

Alison Wines
July 12, 2012

These days it seems that everyone is a project manager. Even those of us in business-as-usual roles frequently find ourselves leading projects: to roll out a new IT platform, to improve procurement processes, to design a new staff newsletter. There are thousands of examples, big and small.

As project managers, we are focused on delivery. We want to complete the project on time, on budget, and within scope. But it is easy to overlook what may happen after the project. Do people like the changes? Will they use the new software, process or newsletter you have delivered? Or will they find a work-around because, frankly, they just don’t get it?

Ultimately, this is what determines the success of a project, and good communication from the outset can help to ensure that your stakeholders and end users support you from the word ‘go’.

1. Stop talking, start listening
My grandfather used to say, “you’re not learning anything while your mouth’s open”. Often people at the frontline will have valuable input to your project, and will be aware of critical usability issues that may not occur to senior management. Get out there and start asking questions.

2. Communicate early, communicate often

We are hard-wired to be suspicious of change, so letting people know about the project and most importantly, how it will affect them, is essential to head off resistance. Some projects do need to be completed quietly, but the necessity for this should always be clearly established.

3. Take a leaf out of a journalist’s book
In all your communications, try to answer the six questions: what, who, when, where, why and how? That is: What is the project? Who is running it? When will it be happening and what are the key milestones? Where will it be happening? Why is it happening? How will the changes  be implemented? This is a foolproof way of informing your audience and avoiding the potentially damaging rumour mill.

4. Give your communications a human element
People have a decreasing sphere of interest moving outwards from themselves at the centre, followed by their immediate acquaintances, their community, then the rest of the world. Keep your audience’s attention with good news stories about how their colleagues are adopting the project.

5. Dress your message

A visually appealing message, particularly one with eye-catching and easy to absorb graphics, helps get the point across in a positive way.

6. Keep it short and sweet
No one has time to read an essay, especially if they have to take on additional responsibilities as a result of a project. Keep messages as simple as possible, stick to the main point, and be respectful of people’s other commitments.

7. Be honest about bad news
Projects rarely go perfectly to plan, and if you have to communicate a setback, be as honest about it as you can, let people know what you’re doing to rectify the situation, and take the criticism on the chin. Trying to sweep a negative story under the rug or sugarcoat bad news may cause stakeholders to lose trust in you.

8. Celebrate the wins
Australians are taught from an early age not to brag, but stakeholders want to know that a project is progressing towards its end goal. Let them know when you’ve hit important targets or had an unexpected success. It’s also great to reward the hard-working team involved whether it’s taking them out to lunch or just an email pat on the back, copying in their line manager. This will help the team keep up the momentum for the next phase, and shore up the support of your stakeholders.

9. Speak the same language as your audience
Miners will have a different vernacular to IT staff, who will have a different vernacular to a finance team or medical professionals. If you’re addressing a diverse audience, keep your language simple and engaging, and avoid using jargon that may alienate groups.

10. Grammar matters
You don’t have to worry about split infinitives and the Oxford comma, but getting the basics right will ensure that your audience focuses on the right things in your message. If grammar is not your strength, ask a colleague to run their eye over your communication first.

Without the right communication, the best project plan will go nowhere. An understood objective is far more likely to become a supported objective, ensuring project managers gain critical buy-in. Better communication means better project outcomes!

Alison Wines will be leading an interactive discussion on ‘Getting buy-in and proving value’ at the annual Corporate Communication Compass on 21-22 August 2012.

Alison Wines
Alison Wines is the internal communication and engagement manager at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. She has worked as a project and change manager with some of Australia’s largest organisations and government entities, and is passionate about using good communication to achieve great outcomes. Email Alison or find her on Twitter.
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