The "I get it factor"
truly effective communications techniques
Project Trainer, Author, and Consultant; President—Blue Marble Enterprises, Inc.
Project managers are required to communicate information to project stakeholders in various formats and in varying degrees of detail. As the project environment continues to evolve and technology enables project teams to function more effectively in a remote or virtual environment, effective communications remain a key element of project success. In an environment of fast-paced project decision-making, the effective transfer of information is critical in synchronous as well as asynchronous situations. Project team members and executives require information that is factual, brief, clear, and usable without additional translations, explanations, and interpretations. The “I Get It Factor” is a combination of techniques that can improve the ability of the “sender” to effectively transfer information to the receiver while minimizing the need for a continuous flow of clarifying questions, follow-up messages, and false starts.
Managing communications effectively by understanding the needs of meeting attendees also reduces the frustrations and costs associated with unproductive meetings. The “I Get It Factor” improves communication by developing the sender’s ability to clearly define the objective of the communication, assess the needs of the intended receiver, and prepare the information in a format that can be effectively delivered and received. This is based on the ability to “listen” to the message from the receiver’s viewpoint while the message is being developed and prepared by the sender. This paper examines commonly known and practiced communications techniques and expands these techniques to provide the project manager with an enhanced skill set for communicating with all project stakeholders
The development of the “I Get It Factor” concept was basically an accident. A few years ago I was asked to develop a lesson for an e-learning asynchronous training program. The assignment was to write a lesson that would help project management students understand Earned Value Management. An attempt was made by another author, but the outcome was not successful. When I was asked if I would be interested in this assignment I jumped at the opportunity. After making the commitment, I realized that this would not be an easy task to complete. In fact, I had some very serious concerns and was really questioning my own judgment about accepting the assignment. The challenge: explain Earned Value Management, its fundamental concepts, and the set of formulas that would be expected to appear in the questions on the PMP® exam in an asynchronous training environment where the student did not have the opportunity to ask questions and the only supporting information would be side notes and information boxes. This may not seem like a very big challenge to the seasoned project manager, but even in the classroom it takes significant effort to explain the general concepts and calculations associated with earned value.
My approach to the assignment was based on a cognitive learning model that had been established by the organization sponsoring the development of the program. Cognitive learning is about enabling people to learn by using their reason, intuition, and perception. The model used for the training program involved several steps: (1) introduce the subject, (2) explain its importance and its application, (3) demonstrate how the subject is used or applied, (4) provide an opportunity for the student to apply the concept, and (5) provide a test to measure the knowledge level attained. [Addition of numbers to list ok?] This seemed like a logical approach to learning in the given environment. After several attempts to write a program that I believed would meet the needs of the sponsoring organization and the people who would ultimately participate in the program, I delivered my completed assignment to the quality control manager.
A day after I submitted my material I received a call from the quality manager. She made a very simple statement: “I get it!” She further explained that she was not at all familiar with the tools, techniques, or concept of Earned Value Management, but my explanation, the exercises, the practice, and the flow of the material clearly explained to her how earned value is used and why it is important to project managers. The “I Get It Factor” was born. Basically, it means to write in such a way that you are not only the author but also the reader. Construct sentences that make sense from the reader’s perspective. Do not assume that what you wrote will be instantly understood. Transfer your thoughts to your document, continue to write, and then, at certain points during your writing, go back and read what you wrote. Read from the perspective of your intended audience. Did you clearly make your point? Is the information presented in a logical manner? Do the words flow smoothly? Are you using the correct words? Can you say it more clearly? Does what you wrote have the impact you were attempting to achieve? I imagine that the world’s accomplished authors understand this concept and it may be second nature to them, but, for many in the business environment, writing even simple messages or explaining simple tasks can become a significant challenge.
Achieving the “I Get It Factor”
The challenge of successful communication is for the sender of the message to send a thought to a receiver and have the receiver fully understand the thought. An analogy, as described in the Harvard Business Review on Effective Communication, explains the story of a church that was disassembled in Europe, shipped to the United States stone by stone and then reassembled exactly as it was at its original location. When a person speaks, the thoughts are broken down into words. The words are sent to the receiver, who must then reassemble the words into the original thoughts from the sender. If the receiver understands what is being said and can successfully reconstruct the thoughts, communication is complete. The key is to choose the correct words, package the information with the receiver in mind and deliver a message the receiver can decode with minimal effort. The goal is to send a message or communicate a thought that is received exactly as intended.
An effective method used by many authors, speakers, and people whose job responsibilities require extensive communication is to tell a story that will help the listener/receiver visualize and internalize the message. Stories, when told effectively, have a two-fold effect. The speaker or writer delivers the message with a degree of passion, excitement, and authority. It is also an enjoyable way for the speaker to relive an event or share knowledge. The receiver can “feel” the excitement and interest of the speaker and is drawn into the story, listening more closely, ignoring distractions, and more easily assimilating information. Consider seminars you have attended, papers or books you have read, or even audio books. There is no doubt that you have been mesmerized by a certain speaker who had the capability to keep your attention for hours, or by a book that you just couldn’t stop reading. These are examples of the “I Get It Factor.” The words from the author or speaker are planned and arranged carefully and there is clear evidence of passion, confidence, and a desire to connect with the reader or listener. I have had the good fortune of hearing many excellent speakers and reading some books which drew me in so deeply that I could really feel the thoughts and emotions of the author. The “I Get It Factof’ was in full force.
Speakers who, in my opinion, use the “I Get It Factor” include General Colin Powell and Joel Osteen. They have the ability to connect entirely with their audiences, make the message easy to understand, display their passion openly and tastefully, include a bit of humor to keep the atmosphere relaxed, and deliver a clear and organized series of thoughts. As they are speaking, the listeners are able to process the thoughts, reconstruct the message in their minds, and make a connection to their own particular environment and set of circumstances. There are many examples of speakers who display the same abilities and can easily reach their audiences. Use your favorite speakers and writers as role models and teachers. Consider what it is about them that draws you in and helps you remember their stories and their messages.
I recently read the book, The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. If there were ever an author who wrote using the “I Get It Factor,” it was Randy Pausch. Mr. Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and his passions were virtual reality and computer science. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and, sadly, passed away not long ago. Mr. Pausch was asked to give a lecture as part of a series titled “The Last Lecture.” After he was diagnosed, he thought about his priorities and his family, and although no one would have complained if he decided not to provide that last lecture he felt the need to leave a legacy. It was distributed via the Internet and viewed by thousands of people. It was truly an unforgettable event. His book, The Last Lecture, is equally unforgettable and it will compel you to keep reading. As you read, you will find yourself stopping, reflecting on the wisdom provided, allowing the thoughts to settle in, and then continuing to move on, anticipating more wisdom to be found on every page. The style of writing is that of telling a story. It is actually a series of stories with a key point or “life thought” that really makes the reader think. As I read the book, I could hear myself saying in the back of my mind, “Wow, I get it! Wow, how interesting! What a great life he had.” That is pure “I Get It Factor.”
Most of us will not find ourselves in the same circumstances as General Powell, Joel Osteen, or Randy Pausch, where communicating to several thousand people on a regular basis is part of life. This paper is intended for people who manage projects, manage people, or have other job assignments that require strong communications skills. A large portion of our communication is written and includes e-mail, letters, status reports and other project documents. Some of these documents are based on templates and don’t require much imagination or strong writing ability. However, there are situations in which effective written and verbal communications skills become essential. Many project managers work with virtual teams, and for them communication in electronic format is basically a norm. The diversity of the team may require significant effort on the part of the project manager to communicate effectively.
Improving Your Ability to Communicate
The way people communicate continues to change. As technology advances there may come a day when we won’t have to use e-mail or any other external devices. We may be able to connect to another person’s brain similar to the way we connect with the Internet and just transfer whole thoughts. Not much chance of a breakdown in communication there (as long as we have a good connection). Until that day comes (and I hope it’s a long way off), we will have to rely on the written word, the spoken word, and to some extent body language to get our thoughts across to our intended receivers. The first step in improving your communications skills is to do a self-assessment. Most people think they communicate very well, and it’s no big deal. I have asked hundreds of people during my speeches, lectures, and classroom programs, “Is anyone here an excellent communicator?” The response is generally the same, with no one professing to be an excellent communicator. Occasionally someone does raise their hand. When asked what makes them an excellent communicator, the response is, “I am a good listener.” This is the key element in the “I Get It Factor.”
If we intend to be successful with our communications we have to understand how important listening is. It is therefore important to find a way to make the receiver want to listen. To accomplish this you have to think like the listener. Ask yourself, “Would I want to listen to me talk? Would I really want to read something I wrote? People like to listen to or read about things that interest them or that have some value and can be readily assimilated into useful data. Truly effective communicators are creative people. They use many different techniques to ensure that they are successfully transferring information. The use of diagrams, props, stories, videos, music, and other media generally work well when used appropriately. A combination of media that touches all senses will definitely help to get the message across. Unfortunately the project environment, especially in a virtual team situation, does not always provide for the use of “multi-sense” techniques. Considering the fact that most adults are visual learners, it is important to create the message in a way that the receiver can visualize what is being communicated. This means that the sender has to become somewhat of “a communications artist.”
The Communications Artist
There is no doubt that messages sent with a certain “flair” capture the attention of the intended receiver. By “flair” I mean such a way that the message is interesting, easily converted to an image, and stirs the interest of the receiver.
The communicator’s pallet:
- Make sure you know what you want to communicate.
- People like to think in pictures. Use personal experiences to help people quickly relate to your message (pictures are worth a thousand words!).
- Use emotion—people will connect if you are passionate (but don’t overdo it).
- Be conscious of gender and try to be neutral in this area (too much “he” and not enough “she” can cause some concern).
- Keep the source of your data in mind and offer it when appropriate.
- Power and energy—use active verbs, convey excitement, use words that transmit energy.
- Use metaphors to make a point or clarify a statement.
- Avoid using absolutes and generalities—too much generality dilutes your position, and using absolutes indicates no flexibility. Absolutes may result in disagreement or conflict. If you are using an absolute, provide a reason.
- Make your point quickly.
- Consider your audience. Your region of experience and theirs may be different. Look for common ground. Construct the message to match the needs of the receivers.
- Convey a feeling of friendliness. No need to be hostile. Anger is something that is never communicated well. Work with facts. Be clear about your concern. If a conflict is developing, e-mail isn’t the answer. Brush up on conflict management techniques.
Remember that what you say and what someone hears can be quite different! We all have personal filters, make assumptions, make quick judgments, and have beliefs that can distort what we hear. Make sure you have a feedback loop in place to ensure that what was said is what was received. Ask your message receiver to restate what they think was said. Take note of their responses. The feedback they provide will help you improve your message delivery skills.
Improve your listening skills. Most people think they are good listeners, but that often isn’t the case. People interrupt, attempt to finish the speaker’s sentence, jump to conclusions, or allow themselves to be distracted.
Ask questions. Questions indicate interest. Be thoughtful. Ask relevant questions or clarifying questions. Be respectful.
Clarity is everything.
Know when not to type. Sensitive issues require face-to-face discussions. Don’t fire off an e-mail when you are angry, or to provide a performance appraisal.
Before making a statement, verify your information.
Speak from the heart. People can tell when you are sincere.
Keep a positive attitude—you want the receiver to understand your message. Maintain awareness of your style and delivery. Your focus is on completing the message transaction. Your attitude is visible whether you are speaking in person or through a written memo or e-mail
Communication is an art, and the effective communicator has invested the time to hone his or her skills to a point where the “I Get It Factof’ is a natural part of the process. The communications artist can assess the landscape, develop a vision, choose the right words, package the information, and deliver a masterpiece.
Understanding the “I Get It Factor” will improve your ability to communicate effectively. Writing and speaking from the reader’s/ listener’s point of view is the secret. Don’t make assumptions about the receiver of your message. Make sure that what you are saying is what you really want to say. When writing a memo, article, or paper, stop and read what you have written and do it often. Read with the reader in mind. Is your point clear? Did you use too many words? Did you use the most appropriate words? Can you look back at what you wrote and say with confidence, “They will surely get it”? When speaking to an individual or a group did you take the time to learn about their background and their specific needs? Are you planning to use acronyms that others may not be familiar with? Are you planning to speak at the appropriate level of complexity and with the correct vocabulary? Are you truly interested in and have a passion for what you are about to talk about? Do you have a planned set of analogies to help your audience understand? Are you prepared to speak in “pictures” and stories? Do you have the appropriate props, slides, or other supporting material? Are you prepared to make your presentation entertaining, enjoyable, and memorable? If it’s a serious message, do you have your facts ready and verified? Are you aware of the emotional state of your audience?
You can clearly see that communication takes effort and requires the sender to think from the receiver side of the communications model. Make it your goal to hear an “I get it!” from your audience. It will make your day.
Nichols, Ralph G., & Stevens, Leonard A. (1999). Listening to people. In Harvard business review on effective communication (pp. ??-??). Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Condrill, J., & Bennie, B., PhD. (2007). 101 ways to improve your communication skills instantly (4th ed.). San Antonio, TX: GoalMinds, Inc.
Pausch, R. (2008). The last lecture. New York: Hyperion.
Leeds, D. (2005). The 7 powers of questions: Secrets to successful communication in life and at work. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, Penguin.
©2010, Frank P. Saladis, PMP®
PMI® Global Congress 2010—North America, Washington, DC