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Real-World Project Management: Managing Project Communications

"Thanks for the information. Wait, I wasn't listening! Can you repeat that?" Do your project team's conversations sound like this? If so, you have a problem with communications that could be wasting your valuable time as project manager. Joseph Phillips covers how to get focused on communicating.
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Have you ever been on the side of the conversation where all you heard was a voice like Charlie Brown's teacher? "Wa-wa-waa-wwaa." (That'd be funny if you watched more Charlie Brown.)

Or how about listening to your date? Yada, yada, blah, blah, Cubs game, blah, blah, beer, blah, blah, pizza.

Or what about when your favorite project team member enters your office. He says, "Hi. Got a real problem I could use some help with. I'm having a tough time understanding the project requirements on this deliverable." And you hear, "Blah, blah, blah, problem, blah, blah, tough, blah."

It's not that you don't mean to understand your date or your project team member—it's just that you're not listening. You've got a bazillion things racing through your head, you're focused on seven different projects, and the baseball steroid hearings were so frightening that you can't decide how your fantasy baseball league will shape up. (That's shape up, not shoot up.)

Communication, as you can tell from the above, is more than just talking. Communication is also listening. When it comes to project management, communication takes up 90% of a project manager's time.

That's right—90% of your time. Graphs are effective communication tools, so if you need it, see Figure 1. It's fascinating. Really. It is. Go ahead and click the link to see Figure 1. You'll be glad you did. And if you don't look at Figure 1, the rest of the article will just sound like Charlie Brown's teacher because you'll be wondering what was so interesting about Figure 1. I'll wait.

See? Wasn't that cool?

The Point of Clicking

I'm glad you clicked the link to see Figure 1. I communicated something to you and you did what I asked. If only projects were that easy! Sometimes you, the project manager, have to do a lot of begging and pleading, like I did above, just to get your project team members to do what they need to do. You know what needs to be done and you need to transfer that knowledge to your project team members. And then they go do it.

Or at least that's how it's supposed to work.

Real communication is about transferring knowledge. You know something and you tell someone else, and then they know it. But it doesn't always work that way, does it? Communication is tough. There are two big categories of communications: written and oral.

The Written Word

Written stuff, like this article, can seem to be direct. I write. My editor edits. You read. But what if I'm not clear in my writing? What if you don't get my jokes? Or my grammar and punctuation is so poor that you miss the point? Communication fails.

This is true in your life, too. Imagine that you sent an email to Susan, a team member. Here's one draft of your email:


I need a project team member who knows what Oracle is all about. You are
smart, talented, on time, and savvy. Team members who are not like you
admit to knowing nothing about Oracle. Our project is horrible when you're
away. This project is going great. Best,

Your favorite Project Manager

Wow! Susan sounds fantastic. But is that what you really wanted to say to Susan? What if your punctuation was so bad that Susan got the wrong message? Here's what you meant to say:


I need a project team member who knows what Oracle is. All about you are
smart, talented, on time, and savvy team members who are not like you.
Admit to knowing nothing about Oracle! Our project is horrible. When you're
away, this project is going great. Best,

Your favorite Project Manager


Alright, so this is an extreme example, but I'd bet dollars to donuts you've added some sarcasm, a joke, or a comment that came off the wrong way in an email message and mushroomed into a huge problem. The point is that written communication has its challenges within a project. Email is great. I love it and use it every day, but when the message is muddy in any written message, it can have large ramifications.

Say It Like You Mean It

So if written communication has its challenges, verbal communications must be great, right? We know better. Think back to your teenage days, when your folks would say that it's not what you say, but how you say it. Well, that's what my dad would tell me. And, as usual, he was right.

Dad was telling me, teaching me, about paralingual communications. Paralingual describes the pitch, tone, and inflections in the speaker's voice that affect the message. Can you think of all the different ways a project team member can say, "Sure. I'll get right on it." I bet you've heard them all.

And then there's the nonverbal communication—all that body language. (For Olivia Newton-John fans: Let me hear your body talk.) Posture, facial expression, shoulders, tugging on the ears, crossed arms, hand signals accentuate or reply to the message you're hearing.

Ready for another statistic? Good. About 55% of all communication is nonverbal. And just to be consistent, see Figure 2. If this is true, and I believe it to be true, you can see why phone calls, broadcast videos, and teleconferences aren't as effective as face-to-face meetings.

You've been in meetings and witnessed team members' expressions when you've shared good or bad news. And then you've reacted to the expressions on their faces, right? You've modified your message for clarity, you've asked them if they've got a freakin' problem, you've continued with your spiel because they're nodding their heads in agreement with you.

Just to be clear, and I want to be clear, a verbal message is affected by three major things:

  • The message itself
  • Paralingual attributes of the message
  • Nonverbal communication

To be a great communicator takes experience. To be an effective communicator, you must ask questions. Do you understand me? Questions help the project team, the audience, your date, ask for clarification, deeper understanding, and an exact transfer of knowledge.

One approach, sometimes called "parroting," requires the speaker to ask the project team to repeat the message in their own words. For example:

YOU: We've got to get this application developed by the end of the week or you're all fired. Now, Jim, tell me what this means.

JIM: You're an idiot?

YOU: No, you're fired. Sally?

SALLY: We've got to get this software developed by Friday or we'll be joining Jim at Wal-Mart.

YOU: That's it. Get out. Get it done.

Parroting can be demeaning, especially for Jim, but it's effective. You can be a bit more subtle than what I've presented here, by asking the audience if they're clear on the message, and then asking questions based on what you've presented.

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