There are many good reasons to sharpen the quality of your formal project communication. If you don’t want to make a powerful impact with it, then you probably shouldn’t bother with it at all. It isn’t as if you don’t have enough to do, as a project manager.
You need to communicate your message because communication is a “good thing.” The more that your team members know; the more they can act autonomously and make the right choices. You need to keep your stakeholders informed with clear and accurate knowledge, as a part of your engagement process. And your sponsors, clients, managers and steering groups want to know what is going on, so they can oversee your work, and take decisions.
Indeed, project communication is a vital part of good governance. Your written communication will inform decisions and allow oversight. It also creates a record and an audit trail. So there are lots of reasons to prioritize communication and to prioritize doing it well. I should know as I’ve written a book about it called How to Speak So People Listen: Grab Their Attention & Get Your Message Heard (Pearson, 2013).
But what does excellence in communication look like?
I have always worked to a very simple framework for understanding excellence in communication. I try to make my written and spoken communication compelling, persuasive, and powerful.
- Compelling Your message needs to arouse my interest and compel me to want to keep reading or listening. I want to know more.
- Persuasive Your communication needs to influence me. I must understand what you are saying and agree with you. You must therefore be able to change my thinking.
- Powerful Your communication needs to be effective and efficient. It must not just influence me, but prompt me to action and have a long-term impact on me and the world.
Let’s take a look at how you can create each of these, one at a time.
The principal way to make your words compelling is to use structure. In written reports, you are often given a structure, but how often do you need to report, off the cuff? You may need to contribute an opinion in a meeting, or make a recommendation.
One way to lose your audience along the way is to start to tell the story, realize you forgo something, go back an slip it in, get back to the story, eventually get to the point, get nervous that people weren’t following, and then repeat your point again… Repeating your point in this way often weakens its impact; rather than strengthening it. Does this all sound a little familiar.
Over the years, I have collated what I refer to as Structured Response Frameworks. These are simple formulas for how to articulate a message. Some apply to different situations, but each gives you an agenda that keeps the flow of your narrative evident, and makes it easy for your reader or listener to extract the important messages from what you are saying. Critically, when you get to the end of the framework, you can be sure that you have covered all the essential ground. This means you can do the one thing that gives your speaking and writing most impact: stop and shut up.
Let’s take an example. Something has gone wrong on your project. You need to make a brief report and recommendation to your board. I would recommend my EIOU framework:
E – Event I will briefly describe what as happened.
I – Implications I will set out what the implications are for the project and for the wider stakeholder group. This tells my audience why the event matters and what the potential consequences are.
O – Options Now I will lay out our realistic options, with a short evaluation of the primary strengths and risks of each course of action.
U – Urging Finally, I will set out my recommendation for action. I may or may not choose to press my case. This will depend on my own conviction that this is the best option.
Then, I will down and shut up. If you think about it, what more does your board need to know? Any details can be exposed through Q&A, in which they now take the lead. This is as it should be, because I will need them to take ownership of their final decision.
Structured Response Frameworks will help you to get rapidly to the point, and deliver your message in a logical sequence.
Many project managers come from a technical background. This means it is easy for you to succumb to a dangerous fallacy. All you need, to persuade, is to be right, to set out your case logically, and support it with facts.
Yet, how often have you failed to persuade people, despite being right? I’d guess it happens quite a lot – especially if putting an evidence-based case is your main approach.
To persuade, you must establish three things, of which evidence is just one: credibility, evidence, and relevance. And this is the order that most often works best.
Nobody is going to listen to you unless they trust that you are able to speak – or write – with authority. But hang-on, you say: I’m the project manager. Of course they trust me. Indeed, in securing your appointment, you have established a measure of trust and credibility. But for some people, you need to top this up from time to time. For some, you need to refresh your credibility every time you try to influence them.
So here, you must show that you have done your homework. You must look and sound authoritative. Your personal presentation or your written style and formatting must communicate the right measure of formality and professionalism, so it does not trigger doubts – however unfounded.
In promoting the importance of credibility and relevance, I am not saying the evidence is unimportant. It is crucial. So presenting it well is vital. Select the most powerful data, and create a logical flow of reasoning.
When presenting reasons for whatever you are advocating, keep the number of reasons low. It is easy to assume that more reasons for a course of action make you argument stronger. This is not the case. After a few reasons, each extra one will be less material than the one before. So the effect is diminishing impact. And now, you reader or listener is forgetting the earlier arguments you put. So they think this weaker reason is representative.
One, two, or at most three strong reasons will best make your case. Leave it to others to give the secondary reasons. If you need to throw in more, small justifications, to make your case stick, then it is pretty marginal and you need to either find a better recommendation, or own up to the fact that there is no compelling reason to select one course of action over another.
So what? This is the question you must answer. Because people don’t make choices based on facts. They make them based on how they feel at the time, and then use the facts later, to justify their decisions. So you must answer the ‘WAM?’ question: ‘what about me?’
I want to focus on three ways you can make your messages powerful. These are the language you use, the ways you make what you write or say memorable, and the way you set out consequences of action or inaction.
Simple, direct language has power.
Complicated, circumlocutory, jargon-filled management-babble leaves readers and listeners bewildered, befuddled, and mistrustful.
Wherever you can, use short words, short sentences, and straightforward structures. If this is not your strength, use tools like Hemingway App [link to http://www.hemingwayapp.com] to help you simplify your writing, without losing the important subtleties of your message.
Making your Words Memorable
How to make a message memorable would fill an article on its own. The danger is that you overuse the one technique we all know: repetition. This is the way to bore your audience and readers. If you repeat yourself, people will get bored. Boredom quickly follows repetition.
Yeah, yeah… got it. Use two other memory hooks in combination to create appropriate repetition. We tend to remember the first point someone makes. And we also recall the last thing they say or write. So repeat your primary message once at the start, and once at the end. Maybe, once in the middle too.
Spelling out Consequences
Consequences tend to work like a lever. A small action or inaction now, magnifies to a big impact tomorrow. So spelling out consequences is a fabulous way to boost the power of what you are saying. It is also worth remembering, that fear and pain avoidance are stronger motivators than pleasure and gratification. So maximum power comes from setting out adverse consequences of alternate choices, rather than the desirable outcomes of what you are recommending.
Communication is a vital skill for project managers, for many reasons. So it pays to study the ways you can master it. Give your written and spoken messages impact, by making them compelling, persuasive, and powerful. Use seven things; structure, credibility, evidence, relevance, simplicity, memorability, and consequences; to help you.
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