Ten principles of project communication

Experience shows that there are 10 principles of communication that a project manager should follow. They are no more than common sense, and most project managers and most managers generally know that these are good communication principles. Following them in the heat of the moment and under time pressure in projects is another thing. The 10 principles are:

  1. Know your audience.

  2. Know what you are talking about.

  3. Pick the right medium for the audience.

  4. Recognize tensions in the needs to communicate.

  5. Work with the sponsor.

  6. Test and adjust.

  7. If your message can be misunderstood, it will be.

  8. Plan and rehearse.

  9. Let people know what is going on, especially your sponsor.

  10. Listen and ask questions understand that communication is two-way.

Know your audience

You would not run a workshop for a board of directors in the same way that you would for entry-level staff in a call centre or for new recruits for the checkout tills at a supermarket. Different audiences have different needs. Who are you communicating to? What is their average age, level of experience in their industry, and knowledge of your project? What do they expect and how do they prefer communication? How educated are they? These are the kinds of questions you must have a feel for.

In the public service senior managers like every communication to be formally documented so that there is an audit trail, because their environment and legal responsibility give them an incentive to want that. The electorate wants it too when there is a mistake or simply an Act of God without a mistake. Investment bank directors, on the other hand, tend to prefer communication that is fast, dense in content and informal they are free of public accountability and the shareholders to whom they are accountable work through a management chain that relies on judgement.

A key part of knowing your audience is to know their emotions. We are all emotional, every single one of us. Understand the emotions of the people you are dealing with and learn to work with them, not against them. Patton had this to say about emotions in communication:

It is an unfortunate fact that few commanders, and no politicians, realize the individuality of units and the necessity of playing on human emotion. Speaking of this reminds me that [General Willard S.] Paul once told me, with perfect sincerity, that the greatest moment of his life had been at the Battle of the Bulge when I put my arm around him and said 'How is my little fighting son of a bitch today?' He said that this remark inspired not only him, but every man in the division, and it is highly probable that it did. General Patton


Know what you are talking about

As a project manager you will not be an expert on the subject matter covered in all areas of your project. You lead a team. Often the team members will know more than you on a subject. Where you must be the most knowledgeable is in what is happening in your project, what the plan is, whether there are any gaps between the two and if so how they arose and how they can be addressed. Make sure you know that and can communicate about it, to anyone who asks. So rehearse in your mind, on the way to work every day, what words you will use if you meet the chief executive in the lift and they say 'So how is the project?'.

What should you say in such circumstances? An answer along the lines of 'Oh, it's OK' gets nul points, as they say in the Eurovision Song Contest. If the project is OK, you need to be able to say 'The project is largely on plan. There are some minor slippages but they are not material. We made the pilot test milestone last Friday, 120 users for two hours, with results 7% above planned. The next milestone is in 5 weeks time, in the week before the holiday, and we are on track for that. Are there any particular details you would like to know about?'. Or, if the project is not OK, you need to be able to say something along the lines of 'The project went from green to amber last Friday when we failed to make the test milestone, because only 70 of the 120 planned test users took part in the pilot, which meant the results are unreliable. We are planning a rerun this Friday, subject to final confirmation from Procurement. If we miss that, the project will be downgraded from amber to red. A note to all staff from you would really help us get the extra bodies we need may I draft a suitable paragraph and send it to you for your consideration?'.

If you don't know what you are talking about, you will not be credible. You must know the things you are expected to know as project manager. For everything else, if you don't know, say so, and make sure you know who it is in your team who does know. If you are asked something that is out of scope, rather than waste time, find a polite way of telling them that it is out of scope.

Pick the right medium for the audience

Different people understand things in different ways. It's no use talking about the vastness of the ocean to someone who has lived all their life in a desert if you want to convey a sense of space talk about the vastness of the sky or the desert instead. And although a vegetarian chef might understand you if you describe how to roast duck, you are likely to get more of their attention focused on what you are saying if you stick to something vegetarian. Pick the right medium for the audience.

The CEO, for example, is always short of time and is likely to be very quick on the uptake. A brief to them can use a wide variety of language for maximum impact in a short time. Technical specialists may be just as intelligent as the CEO, but can be much more concerned with detail, and uncomfortable going too quickly. You may need to prepare a more detailed presentation for them (not prepare more quickly, which is something else). And finally, consider an audience that swears often. The use of coarse language is often said to be a sign of a poor vocabulary. However, there is little point using your master's level vocabulary if your audience's normal conversational style is to have an expletive for every third word. Know your audience and adapt your style for them. This does not mean swearing every third word if they do, but it does mean simplifying your language and using examples to illustrate your message that will be familiar to them.

Recognize tensions in the needs to communicate

What if your audience contains both the CEO and the rest of the organization, technical specialists and those that use an expletive for every third word? You can't split them up and give three different presentations, nor should you. This is an example of tension in the need to communicate. There are no rules other than know your audience and use your common sense to make a reasonable compromise in your communication piece. Other common sources of tension are between:

  • short-term versus longer-term needs.

  • different stakeholders' needs.

  • different sponsors.

  • suppliers versus customers.

  • client-facing versus back-office staff.

  • sales versus marketing.

  • compliance staff versus those regulated.

Often these tensions are not fully soluble, but you must at the very least recognize them. The two biggest tensions are the first two in our list. An example of long term versus short term is that some information needs to be kept secret in the short term, and you must be trustworthy and discreet enough to be able to manage such information. As Rudyard Kipling said, 'Most of the Arts admit the truth that it is not expedient to tell everyone everything ...'.

Work with the sponsor

All communication from the project is a potential risk to the sponsor. Ensure that all communication from the project is acceptable to the sponsor. This does not mean wasting their time by asking the sponsor to check every e-mail. It does mean the following, however:

  • Knowing what the sponsor does and does not want to see in communication, both explicit messages and implicit ones

  • Asking the sponsor if in doubt

  • Letting the sponsor know your general intentions for communication and the communication plan

  • Checking major communications pieces with the sponsor

  • Getting the sponsor to send out key messages in their own name.

Test and adjust

For major communications, such as announcing the start of a project, a milestone, or a change in plan, check that what you intend to use to communicate the message actually has the intended effect. Test the message on a few people before sending it out to everyone. Adjust your plans according to the results of the test.

If your message can be misunderstood, it will be

Think how your message could be misunderstood. Look for vague words, unfortunate associations, hidden meanings. Use the test described above to check especially for misunderstanding.

An example of how not to do it was the name used by the USA for military operations in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center on Tuesday, 11 September 2001. The operations were launched under the name 'Infinite Justice'. However, to many Muslims this name is offensive because in their faith Allah is the only one capable of infinite justice. The name was hastily changed to 'Enduring Freedom'. The US had intended to communicate that the military operations were about obtaining justice; the message was understood by some as blasphemy.

Plan and rehearse

This too is an extension of test and adjust. Plan your communication. Rehearse delivering it. This does not need to be complex or expensive or time consuming. In the back of a cab or on the underground or train into work, think through what you want to convey, the words you will use, and some of the likely questions. Mental rehearsal is often the most important thing.

Let people know what is going on, especially your sponsor

'Nobody told me.' 'Nobody asked.' It is up to you as project manager to take the initiative in communication, and most of all you must ensure that your sponsor knows what you are up to. Stealth is good for bats and bombers and assassins, but not for project managers. Do not get a reputation for being a steal manager no one can see you and you don't appear on the corporate radar. Tell your sponsor what you are doing. This is not achieved though the kind of drive-by messages that timid people use to try to avoid the effort of communicating difficult messages but keep the right to say 'told you so' afterwards. On the contrary, make sure you have the sponsor's attention and that they understand what you mean. That may not be easy but it is your job, what you are paid to do. (Even if you are not paid, perhaps in the voluntary sector, it is still your job as project manager.)

Listen and ask questions understand that communication is two-way

Communication is not transmission only. It is also receiving and listening. Practise listening just as you practise speaking and presenting. Listen with your whole body eyes, ears, body stance. Ask questions, not to show off but to clarify what is not clear and to show that you are listening. Practise asking questions and get feedback on your style. Table 10.2 lists some common barriers to listening. Find a friend to tell you which of these you may need to work on.

Table 10.2. Barriers to listening

Dreaming: Half-listening until some private association is triggered, then .... (This is particularly common when anxious or bored.)

Derailing: Changing the subject before they have finished.

Mind reading: Second-guessing what they really mean rather than what they are in fact saying.

Placating: Agreeing with everything but only because you are not really involved.

Filtering: Listening for something specific but ignoring everything else.

Being right: Refusing to listen to suggestions, criticism and comments; not accepting that someone might have proved you wrong.

Judging: You already know that this person isn't worth listening to.

Sparring: So quick to argue or raise counterpoint that they never feel heard. Avoid by replaying what you've just heard.


When trying to get a fix on task status, it is easy to make the mistake of asking 'How far through are you?' After all, that is the information you want. But the person answering knows how long they spent on the task so far and their original time estimate for the task, so the easiest way for them to give you an answer is just to divide effort so far by their original estimate to get a value for progress. If they have worked six days on a task that was estimated at 10 days, they will then answer '60% done' or some equivalent. But in fact there is not enough information to answer the question, because we do not know how much work is left to do as the original estimate might have been wrong or they may have been working inefficiently, albeit unwittingly. So instead of asking how far through the work they are, always ask 'How much more work is there still to do?' If we are six days in and there are still six days of work to do, then the task is only 50% done, not 60%. Framing the question this way also helps them to think about what they are doing from a different perspective the project's perspective. In communications generally, asking the right question is a powerful skill and one that is well worth developing.

Table 10.3 brings together a few words of wisdom that have been written about communication.

Table 10.3. What others have said about communication
1 Know your audience. Think like a wise man but communicate in the language of the people. William Butler Yeats
2 Know what you are talking about. First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak. Epictetus
3 Pick the right medium for the audience. Words are a wonderful form of communication, but they will never replace kisses and punches. Ashleigh Brilliant
4 Recognize tensions in the needs to communicate. Effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know. Jim Rohn
5 Work with the sponsor. The key to any good relationship, on-screen and off, is communication, respect, and I guess you have to like the way the other person smells and he smelled real nice. Sandra Bullock
6 Test and adjust. Communication works for those who work at it. John Powell
7 If your message can be misunderstood, it will be. There is always someone who knows better than you what you meant with your message. Osmo A. Wiio
8 Plan and rehearse. To fail to prepare is to prepare to fail. Anon.
9 Let people know what is going on. Communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing. Rollo May
10 Listen understand that communication is two-way. To listen well is as powerful a means of communication and influence as to talk well. John Marshall
    What is the shortest word in the English language that contains the letters: abcdef? Answer: feedback. Don't forget that feedback is one of the essential elements of good communication. Anon.


E-mail alone is not communication

E-mail is great, but e-mail alone is not communication. It can be one of the problems of communication. It is tempting when time is short to eliminate meetings and rely instead on general-circulation e-mails. Both meetings and e-mails have a role but they are not interchangeable. One is an opportunity for two-way communication, and the other is deliberately one-way only. Meetings allow rich person-to-person exchange of information, much of which can be of the non-verbal kind that carries significant meaning. An exchange of e-mails may have some of the characteristics of a conversation, but it loses much of the richness of a real conversation (could you pick up the cues from an e-mail which would allow you to ask '... OK, but isn't there something else you want to talk to me about?'), and because people delay answering e-mails until they are ready it is sometimes slower. (And instant messaging is not the fix to the problem in communications of e-mail.)

IT staff are particularly prone to avoiding human contact and relying on e-mail instead. If you work in IT, take a good look at yourself and ask whether you use e-mail when you could use the phone or walk across the office.

Information gathering

We can all agree with statements like 'The project manager must monitor project progress and take action to ensure that the project stays on track'. But after a few days or weeks of doing the project management job, it is not so easy to agree. Quite quickly, project managers are driven to ask in return, 'Yes, but how? There is just too much happening. I can't monitor everything, and even on those tasks I do monitor I can't tell whether action is really required'. What is needed is a summary of the project status, highlighting tasks that need attention.

Key Idea

Develop gut feel as a communication aid

Learn to develop your gut feel for how things are going, and use it to help know where to focus your communication effort.

For example, a sudden reluctance on the part of a team member to provide a regular progress update is itself a warning sign. It might be simple forgetfulness, but it might mean that the person is worried about the real status of their corner of the project. You need to find out not only the time information, but whether there are any emerging problems.


The sponsor and the programme board face the same problem, but they have even less time to devote to each project. The sponsor cannot and should not get involved in every detail of the project, and yet the sponsor is responsible for safeguarding the organization's investment in the project and guaranteeing the business benefits. How can this be done without checking what is happening several times a day? Both the sponsor and the programme board rely on summary information generated by each project that they supervise. With the right metrics, one can tell a lot about the state of a project or an individual task without having to know the technical detail. The project-level summary information for the sponsor and the programme board is an aggregation of the task-level summary information used by the project manager. Standardization, summarization and systematization are the ways to make the task manageable.

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Definitive Guide to Project Management. The Fast Track to Getting the Job Done on Time and on Budget
The Definitive Guide to Project Management: The fast track to getting the job done on time and on budget (2nd Edition)
ISBN: 0273710974
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 217
Authors: Sebastian Nokes
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