“It can’t be done until next week.”
If a client is expecting their deliverable in two days, that’s a message they absolutely don’t want to hear. But unfortunately for project managers, project delays happen all the time.
The reasons vary — inadequacies in the project management plan, resource constraints, scheduling mishaps, changing expectations, or unclear project requirements — but mostly, it’s because people aren’t communicating properly.
According to a PMI (Project Management Institute) report, 20% of projects fail because of ineffective communication. The cost of poor communication in actual dollars is also high. The same report estimates “US$135 million at risk for every US$1 billion spent.”
Without a specific, enforceable deadline, teams are unlikely to complete a project on time.
Teams with no idea of what a successful project looks like are likely to fail in the quality department, and loosely controlled projects could go way over budget, resulting in a truly unhappy client.
In this guide, we will discuss the role of communication in project management — a necessary project management basics element — the different forms of communication, and the types of communication strategies project managers can employ so that stakeholders stay informed and able to perform their duties.
At a glance: Communication strategies project managers should try
- Phone conversations
- Active listening
Types of communications within teams
We’ve all been reminded since we were kids that communication is a two-way street.
Its goal is to relay information, and ensure that both the sender and recipient share the same understanding of that information. Communication is not just verbal. Other communication types exist, specifically nonverbal, written, and visual.
Verbal communication is the use of sounds and words, as opposed to gestures and mannerisms, and can be both written and spoken.
It’s commonly used in group meetings, formal or informal discussions, phone conversations, video conferences, and one-on-one feedback sessions.
Sign language is also a form of verbal communication.
Most communication is nonverbal and involves neither words nor speech.
It can come in the form of facial expressions, gestures, body language, appearance, eye gaze, posture, and paralinguistics (e.g., tone of voice, loudness, accent, rate of speech, and pitch). Silence is also a form of nonverbal communication.
Nonverbal communication can be intentional or unintentional. For example, a person may involuntarily smile if he or she hears something pleasing, like praises for a recently completed project. This form of communication can induce confusion if the spoken words and nonverbal cues don’t jibe.
Written communication, commonly used in business, uses the written word to instruct or convey a message. It’s used in emails, memos, reports, manuals, websites, blogs, advertisements, and news releases.
Visual communication uses art, photographs, drawings, sketches, charts, and graphs to send a message.
Visuals are often used in reports and presentations to provide context, emphasize a point, or render concepts that are difficult to grasp more digestible.
5 communication strategies to bring teams together
With the proliferation of modern technology tools, project managers can now use various strategies to better communicate with their teams. Below are five communication techniques you can tap to keep everyone in the loop.
Strategy #1: Meetings
In meetings, a group of people assemble to discuss updates, wins and successes, areas for improvement, and strategies to get things done better. Project management meetings are effective because:
- They facilitate collaboration.
- You can be more persuasive with in-person meetings than other forms of communication such as email or chat.
- Meetings encourage and strengthen rapport between team members.
- Brainstorming sessions during team meetings boost creativity.
Meetings are best done face to face to allow teams to form bonds, build trust, and cultivate feelings of empathy. If you work with geographically dispersed teams, consider these collaboration tools to facilitate virtual team meetings:
- Meeting apps like Slack, Skype, or Zoom. Skype and Zoom have built-in recording features so you can revisit meetings in the future for training or reference.
- Screen-sharing tools like Join.me or Google Hangouts.
- Instant messaging applications such as Gmail Chat and Skype to ask questions or post comments while a meeting is ongoing.
- Project management software that comes complete with communication and project tracking features that teams need for projects to succeed.
How to utilize meetings:
To make the most of your meetings, remember to:
- Keep meetings short. You want to spend your team’s time in the most efficient way possible, so keep meetings short and to the point. Set a time limit and stick to it. Agendas, even if you have them, are likely to expand to fill whatever time is available for your meetings. The jury is still out on what the ideal meeting length should be, but many people feel it’s anywhere between 15 minutes to an hour. The longer a meeting goes, the less attentive participants become.
- Take control of your meetings. Meetings can veer off topic if you’re not careful. A heated debate may ensue, or a team member may ramble on and on about unrelated points. To prevent this from happening, prepare an agenda for each meeting and distribute it to participants beforehand. If anyone introduces a topic not on the agenda, remind them of the objective of the meeting and that other topics can be discussed in the next meeting. Be ready to step in when arguments turn into personal attacks. End discussions when they’re no longer productive.
Strategy #2: Emails
Despite the growing popularity of other forms of messaging, email is still a major communication medium in the workplace.
It’s easy to use, widely adopted, fast, generally reliable, and platform-agnostic. Anyone can send and receive emails regardless of the device used, whether that’s a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer.
Email has specific uses. Only use email when:
- The person you need to communicate with cannot be reached by phone or other forms of messaging.
- The information you’re relaying is not time-sensitive.
- You need to send a file.
- You need to distribute a message to a group of people quickly.
- You want a paper trail of your communication back and forth.
Don’t use email when:
- You’re sending confidential information.
- The message cannot be understood without additional discussion or context.
- The tone of your email can be misunderstood.
Useful email tools to consider:
- Email services, including free web-based email services like Gmail and Yahoo Mail.
- Writing apps such as Hemingway Editor and Mail Mentor to check your email content for readability
- Editing apps such as Grammarly for grammar and spelling
- Customizable email templates so you don’t always have to write an email from scratch
How to utilize emails:
Whether it’s a new email you’re drafting or a follow-up email on the action items discussed in a meeting, keep the following pointers in mind when emailing your team:
- Be clear and concise. Short emails are easier to digest. Long emails can easily become confusing. If you need more context to explain a point, schedule a meeting instead.
- Don’t send an email when you’re upset or angry. Give yourself time to calm down before sending an email. The last thing you want is to send an email you will regret later.
- Proofread before sending. Once an email has been sent, it’s difficult to retrieve it. Keep your emails professional. Check for typos and grammar errors before hitting send.
Strategy #3: Phone conversations
Although phone calls are no longer as popular as before and have largely been replaced by other forms of communication such as texting, social media, and email, they’re still a viable strategy for effective communication.
If you need an immediate answer to a question, all you have to do is dial a team member’s number.
Tone also gives dimension and emotion to your words, unlike email and other forms of written communication in which your message can easily be misconstrued.
How to utilize phone conversations:
To get the most out of phone conversations, consider the following tips:
- Stay focused. Don’t get distracted. Listen carefully. Ask questions if there’s anything you don’t understand.
- Be aware of your tone. Remember that the other person can’t see you and, therefore, is unaware of your facial expressions and other nonverbal cues.
- Get your point across. Before you end the conversation, summarize the points raised to make sure the person/s you’re talking to understand what they’re expected to do and achieve.
Strategy #4: Feedback
Teams that welcome feedback are more likely to succeed. When used properly, feedback gives employees specific goals to aim for and reinforces productive behavior.
You can schedule some forms of feedback at regular intervals, such as performance reviews. Other forms of feedback, such as informal huddle or one-on-one sessions, can be done at any time.
How to utilize feedback:
Giving feedback is a skill that project managers must master, and so is receiving it. Almost everyone has been on the receiving end of negative feedback, which can be very uncomfortable, so be careful when providing feedback. To put feedback to good use:
- Check your motives. Always remind yourself why you’re giving feedback in the first place: to improve performance. Refrain from being offensive, harsh, or overly critical no matter how upset you are about the team’s current performance.
- Be specific and descriptive. Provide specific details about the behavior you’re giving feedback about and its implications on the team and the organization. This way, your feedback sticks and doesn’t get forgotten easily.
- Deliver negative feedback privately. Don’t point out a team member’s mistake in front of everyone.
- Be timely. The sooner you address an issue, the better. Deliver feedback as soon as a problem occurs, not when everyone has already forgotten about it.
- Ask for feedback. Don’t forget that feedback can help you refine your management techniques, too.
Strategy #5: Active listening
Given the amount of listening we do every day, you’d think we’d all be experts at it by now.
That is, unfortunately, not the case. Actually listening is hard work, and with the myriad of distractions we find ourselves battling constantly, we don’t even hear what’s being said most of the time.
Active listening happens when you focus your full attention on the speaker. You listen not just with your ears but all your senses.
How to utilize active listening:
The goal of active listening is to learn something, which helps you get to the bottom of things, especially if you’re trying to resolve difficult situations or conflicts within the team. To actively listen, remember to:
- Clear away distractions. This means turning off your phone or other electronics to focus your attention on the other person.
- Restate parts of the conversation. Ask questions if you need to. Summarize segments of the conversation to confirm you understand what was said.
- Don’t be judgmental. Understand the other person’s feelings regarding a topic or situation, acknowledge those feelings, and validate them in an unprejudiced way.
- Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Nonverbal signals, such as eye contact, posture, gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice, convey a lot without using language. For example, if you detect hesitation in the way someone says yes to a deadline, start probing. You may find that the deadline is not doable, or the other person only said yes because they’re afraid of possible repercussions.
Make effective communication strategies a priority
It’s been said many times, but it’s worth repeating: Communication is the lifeblood of successful organizations. It triggers teamwork, promotes positive working habits, and helps teams overcome hurdles and come out stronger.
Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Atlassian, Microsoft, and Smartsheet and recommends the following options: long January 2021 $85 calls on Microsoft. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.