27 February 2022 at 07:35PM
For Project Communication Success, Maintain Your CARS!
During the life of a project, we project managers communicate all sorts of information to the project’s stakeholders: statuses, user requirements and profiles, tasks lists, test and survey results, meeting notes, dashboards, and so on. We also use a variety of channels and tools, from Slack to PowerPoint.
Project communications are the lifeblood of any project. But how can you know that you are communicating well?
To help you on your way, I recommend that you maintain your communication CARS: clarity, accuracy, relevance, and scannability.
CARS Propel Your Project
If you communicate effectively, your project can move forward more smoothly as you avoid the “potholes” of misunderstanding and missed details and avoid taking wrong turns. While I might be stretching the metaphor a bit far here, effective communication is no joke.
Its importance in the workplace is supported by recent studies:
- A widely accepted CMSWire report reveals that 97% of workers believe that internal communications impact their tasks daily.
- According to McKinsey, improved communication and collaboration – especially through social technologies – can raise productivity by 20-25% by increasing the amount of time workers spend on value-added tasks.
- Lexicon has reported that organizations with effective communications are 3.5 times more likely to outperform their peers.
In other words, effective communication can increase the ability of project teams to get things done. So let’s take a closer look at those four elements of good communication: clarity, accuracy, relevance, and scannability.
To start, I’ll define what I mean by each of these terms:
- Clarity: Clarity drives us to keep our information within our stakeholders’ knowable and relatable realm. By using word choices and formats they expect, we help them to understand without forcing them to work too hard to do so.
- Accuracy: Accuracy drives us to share information that is as true in the moment as possible. By being as accurate and as transparent as possible, we help our stakeholders stay confident and focused without distracting or confusing them.
- Relevance: Our information is relevant if it meets our stakeholders’ needs (and only those needs) at the time that the needs arise. Relevancy drives us to meet our stakeholders where they are – without assuming.
- Scannability: Scannable information can be easily and quickly understood and used. The pertinent points are obvious. Like relevance and accuracy, scannability drives us toward conciseness (lean language) and accessibility.
Now for some tips on how to incorporate these elements of effective communication into your own project efforts.
Clarity Is the Engine Oil
Clarity in project communication keeps the project’s engine running smoothly. For clarity’s sake, in this section, I focus on written communications, including emails, calendar appointments, collaboration-based announcements, work tickets, plans, contracts, and other work products.
We all remember the old adage “say what you mean and mean what you say.” But clear communication isn’t only about you – the sender; it’s also about the person on the receiving end. So choose your words wisely and put them together thoughtfully.
Here are some tips:
- Use a controlled vocabulary: Each important word you use should have only one meaning and one spelling. For example, what are you referring to when you say “the disk”? (Which, of course, you never spell as “the disc.”) Maintain or ask your project’s lead writer to maintain a project glossary.
- Stick to one thought per sentence: Each sentence or bulleted phrase should have only one main point. Shorter is better: Sentences should be no longer than 25 words. Take ideas out of those sentence add-ins that start with “and” or “which,” and give them their own sentence.
- Be direct: Avoid burying your point in the middle of a complicated sentence. Use active and commonly known verbs, such as “shows,” “delays,” and “connects.” Avoid verbal hesitations such as “there are” and “in order to.”
- Be specific: Use concrete language such as numbers and names. Avoid vague modifiers like “effortlessly.” Avoid tacking on phrases that add ambiguity, such as “with that in mind.” (What does “that” refer to?)
- Be positive: Research in mnemonics has shown that information stated in a positive way is easier for the receiver/reader to remember than information stated in a negative way. In online content, negative words and phrases are easy to miss and misunderstand.
If you let clarity drive your communications effort, the other CARS elements become easier to manage.
Accuracy Gives You Traction
The next element of effective communication, accuracy, is your project’s trust-builder. And it gives you the traction to lead.
When your project team members trust what you say, they feel confident in their collective goals. My colleagues at Content Science recently reported this connection between accuracy and goal-completion: “People who perceive content as accurate are five times as likely to report completing their goals as people who do not and are twice as likely to report completing their goals as people who are not sure of the accuracy.”
To help you judge the accuracy of your communications, I have developed the following checklist:
- Is it factually correct?
Re-read your communication with the possibility of someone mis-reading it in mind. Is anything distorted, poorly stated, or incomplete?
- Is it current?
Outdated facts, concepts, and illustrations can confuse a team member or possibly steer them in the wrong direction. Keep important communications up-to-date, especially those that serve as inputs to other team members’ work.
- Is it fair?
Sincerely recognize the contributions of others in your communications. Give credit where credit is due, but avoid the appearance of partiality or insincerity. Show your team spirit and pride while also being respectful of others’ time and effort.
- Does it meet expectations?
Above all, your communications should be believable. Don’t glow when it ain’t so, I like to say. Additionally, ensure that the format, location, and cadence of your communications are consistent so that your recipients know what to expect.
- Have you tested it?
If you are using a new tool or technology for your communications – or using a familiar tool/technology with a new audience – ensure that it works well for everyone. Don’t assume they can figure it out on their own.
Trust can make or break a project. So make sure your communications build that trust through accuracy and consistency.
Relevancy Steers the Way
Relevant communications are useful, focused communications. They contain all of the necessary details for the audience for which they are intended – with no distractions.
A study conducted by my friends at Content Science indicated that folks who complained about a lack of relevancy and usefulness in content most often found that the content was too basic, general or vague.
Here are some tips to avoid those traps:
- Above all, know your audience: Select the mode of communication and level of detail that matches your intended audience’s need – including their time constraints. Choose words they know and understand. Don’t “hide” or soft-pedal details. Don’t insult anyone’s intelligence.
- Stick to one purpose: Focus each communication on a single goal. Then build out only the content needed to achieve that goal with its intended audience. Use your delete button liberally.
- Provide limited context: Include one or two sentences about the context of what you are communicating. For example, if the data is preliminary, say so. Include dates and names, including the name of the project. No need to write an entire background story, but ensure your communication is distinct from the dozens of others that your audience is receiving.
- Put the ask first: Above all else, indicate what action you expect the audience to take regarding the communication – and in what timeframe. Put that ask in the subject line of an email and in a distinctive location in all relevant communications. Don’t assume that team members know what to do or what you expect based simply on a data point that you passed along.
- Point to additional resources: If your intended audiences might include new team members or others who like to research the details, add links or pointers to places where those details reside. Again, no need to clutter the communication with details that not everyone needs.
If nothing else works, spell out directly why a communication is relevant to the intended audience. Write, for example, “the following budget changes mean X, Y, and Z.”
Scannability Gets You Home
According content guru Sarah Richards, your communication has just 3 seconds to capture and hold someone’s attention. We live in a world of distractions and content-overload. Make sure your communications stand out.
For your communications to stand out – and accomplish their intended purpose – they must be easy to skim. At least 75% of our audiences these days are “skim readers.”
Here are some tips on how to write for them:
- Use headings and subheadings: Unrelenting blocks of text are not only intimidating but hard on our eyes. Break them up with simple headings and subheadings. Make each heading distinct.
- Use short paragraphs: Most project communications are not scientific papers. Keep your paragraphs to two or three sentences. One-sentence paragraphs are fine.
- Include lists: Bulleted and numbered lists are easy to read. Include them whenever possible. Ensure that each list item is short and fits logically with its companions.
- Include tables and graphics: Some data and instructions are easier for your audience to grasp if you provide a visual.
- To capture complex relationships, pull the content into a table. Ensure that table columns and rows are clearly labeled and the table has a title.
- Answer a “where?” or “how?” question by including a graphic or set of graphics. For example, show your audience where a website tab is with a screen shot and a big red arrow. Be sure to include some text for context.
CARS Apply to Gantts and Other Tools
Most of these points still apply when we use our favorite project-related tools.
If you track progress through a Gantt chart, zero in on only the relevant section of the chart that applies to your current audience. Be clear and accurate about what that section represents and what actions you expect next.
If you show status with a high-level stoplight chart, which in itself is very scannable, be prepared to provide context and clarity about what those statuses mean. Ensure the relevant details are accessible for those who seek them.
If you manage collaboration and status requests through Slack channels, my first instinct is to wish you good luck. But even as you Slack away, ensure that each post is relevant to the selected channel, has a clear purpose that adds to the discussion, and considers the participants needs. As tempting as it might be, don’t add a status chart to a channel where folks are posting funny GIFs to let off steam.
Finally, remember, above all else, to be consistent with your communications. Be consistent with the cadence of your communications as well as with their quality. Remember, maintenance of anything, including CARS, must be done consistently to be effective.
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About the Author
Debra Kahn, PMP, is a content solutions consultant with over 20 years of experience. Currently the CEO of DK Consulting of Colorado, Debra has enjoyed successes in a variety of roles within the high tech industry, including as a content strategist, technical writer and editor, and program manager. You can read more of her blog posts at https://dkconsultingcolorado.com/.