Practical guide to effective written communication
Why We Communicate
You as a project manager spend a large portion of your time communicating to ensure the success of your project. You require the cooperation of others to make the decisions and complete the tasks. You must communicate so others clearly understand their role in the project and complete their areas of responsibility in a timely fashion. Your objective is to get action from others.
The PMBOK® Guide discusses many areas, which require communication. This paper deals with the day-to-day, often informal, communications so crucial in project management. We communicate to inform or solicit input as part of the decision-making process. We communicate to build a consensus among the project team or to resolve conflict. In the end, we communicate to assign tasks and responsibilities.
No matter what the reasons are for communication, it should be for a purpose. We expect our communication to result in effecting the way our project progresses. Most of the time, this requires action on the recipient's part. Bottom line, we are tying to sell the recipients to perform a desired action.
When Written Communication Is Appropriate
Informal verbal communication has its place to build personal relationships and to be able to better read the other person's body language. It allows a less threatening environment to work out troublesome issues. Where would modern project management be without the insight gained during side discussions next to the water cooler or coffee pot? Even a phone conversation is more personal than a memo or email.
Exhibit 1. Errors in Communication Can Easily Lead to Major Embarrassment or Worse
This paper by no means advocates eliminating these crucial means of verbal communications and personal interaction. However, I strongly advocate using written communications to supplement not only formal but also informal discussions. A brief, one paragraph email can summarize and emphasize an agreement reached in the hallway.
Written communication is crucial to document all aspects of an ongoing project. It is part of the permanent record and will read the same six months later as when it was written. It enables the project team to review decisions later on and can bring new team members up to speed quickly and objectively. The project manager must document any critical project issues in writing to establish the permanent record.
You can forward written communication without altering its meaning. If the matter calls for escalation, you can forward the message without accidentally altering or distorting the meaning and misrepresenting the facts as they were presented to you.
Exhibit 2. Written Communication Provides a More Permanent Record and Can Avoid Misunderstandings
How often do we wish we could take back words we said? You have an opportunity to review what you write before you sent it. You can massage your message to make sure it is just perfect. You can even try the message out on a coworker. Moreover, it provides you with a record in cases were you warned of potential problems and the responsible parties did not take the appropriate action.
This paper addresses only the short written communications typically expressed as letters, memos and, more often, email. It does address more formal documents like legal contracts, dissertations, theses, technical documentation, presentations, novel, etc.
Who Is the Target Audience?
Define the Audience
Most of the time, our audience is obvious. These are peers, subordinates, supervisors, project team member, project owners, or stakeholders.
However, our message can have an unexpected audience. The receiver can forward the message to their boss, all the way to the company CEO. Our message can be subpoenaed in a lawsuit. Just remember the supposedly internal emails that hurt Microsoft during the antitrust trial. How would you feel if your last email were published in a newspaper? What if the client sees the message you intended for internal distribution only? Has a client ever shown you a document, which was clearly not intended for their eyes?
If you think this sounds paranoid, think again. The “leak” often is not even intentional. How easy is it to accidentally send a message to the wrong email recipient? Have you ever stapled a memo to the wrong paperwork?
The best protection against any of these problems is to always write in a professional manner. Avoid derogatory language and keep your and your company's image in mind. Then, you do not ever have to be embarrassed by one of your messages showing up in an unexpected place.
Understand the Audience
To start out with, forget everything your high school English teacher told you. In order to be successful, you need action based on the message. That is all that counts. So, forget about suspense and building up to the ultimate climax. Put yourself in your reader's shoes and write short and to the point. Understand what types of constraints are on his or her daily activities. You need to present the information to fit the reader's style.
Many people work in piles in one way or another. For example, I work off my email inbox. Items stay in my inbox until I finish with them. Then, I move them to a more permanent location. Therefore, if you send me one email, which has two separate issues, it causes me a problem with the way I work. It is easy for me to accidentally ignore the second issue in your email after I completed the first item and filed the email away.
Address the Reader's Issues
If we do not achieve our objective, we wasted our time communicating. Therefore, it is in your best interest (career, financial, personal, etc.) that the reader reads and acts upon the message appropriately.
That means that you write for the benefit of the reader, not your benefit. Show the readers what is at stake for them by writing in terms of the reader's interests, requirements and issues and by keeping the reader's concerns in mind.
How to Get the Message Across
Talk Directly to the Reader
It is important to speak directly to the reader. Preferably, the memo or email should start with the word “you.” This immediately sets the tone that this may be of importance to the reader.
If the reader only reads one sentence, what should this sentence be? It has to contain a summary of the message as well as the action you want the reader to take. This should be the first sentence.
Yes, that is contradictory to what you learned in school. Think of it this way. You cannot force anybody to read your message. Once they get bored, they will stop and discard your writing. You loose! You have about two seconds, which is about the maximum time the reader will take to decide whether to read or ignore your message. So, make sure the reader gets the meat of your issue within these two seconds.
Once you got his or her attention, you have about 30 seconds to get the rest of your message across. That is the length of a typical commercial. That is it. Odds are, the reader will be interrupted before the 30 seconds are up. It is your job to ensure the reader gets all the info needed. That means do not waste your time and effort on tangents or background. Once you got your message across, the reader can always get back to you to ask for more. However, the first message must be sufficiently self-contained so the reader can make, at least, a preliminary decision on whether to pursue your issue or not.
It is important to ensure the message is relevant to the recipient. Do not send the message to dozens of people because you are not sure who should get it. You will acquire the reputation of wasting time. That will distract from the important messages that you need to get through. It can be so annoying when you respond to a message sent to a long list of recipients by selecting “Reply to All” just to acknowledge the receipt of the message. If everyone on the distribution list does that, they immediately create hundreds of messages, which are meaningless, but still require the recipients to sort through.
It is crucial that not only your message is clear, but that you spell out what action you expect the reader to take. Do not make them guess. Odds are, they guess wrong. If you want the reader to approve your approach, make sure to say so. Avoid “FYI” messages. That is not an action. If the message is important, then you want the recipient to read the message and act on the contents. If it is not of importance, then do not send it.
Make sure to clearly delineate between fact and opinion. You want to provide your reader the facts to base a decision on. It may be your opinion that this is a good decision. Again, do not make the reader guess what is fact. Even worse, do not disguise your opinion as fact. That will hurt your credibility in the end.
Take Your Time to Write
If you do not have time to write it right, do not bother wasting your time. The more important the message, the shorter and concise you want the message. There are no bonus points for the longest memo or email. Quality is not proportional to length. You win if the reader understands your message. If the reader for any reason misses the point, you loose. It is truly that simple.
Therefore, make sure you construct your message carefully. Trim off any unnecessary fluff, tangents, and words that are not directly required to bring your point home. Be short and concise.
It is OK to spend a day on a two-paragraph email. Write it and then let it sit for a few hours. Read it again and evaluate how you can improve it. Show it to a coworker and watch their impression reading it.
Never send the message in anger. Once sent, the permanency you desire is hard to undo. You may want to let it sit overnight and read it again in the morning, just to make sure that you got it perfect. If it is that important, it can wait that additional time.
Once you are done, make sure to create a meaningful subject line. It has to say enough to ensure the recipient will, at least, open the rest of the message. Some email clients, like Microsoft Outlook, have a three-line message preview. Make sure that this all-important first sentence fits into this preview area.
Consider How the Reader Sees You
What kind of impression do you want to give when you write? As project managers, we want to be perceived to be in control. This means we want to make sure we take ownership and clearly assign responsibilities. We especially do not want to appear as passing the buck. Along the same line, we want to show we are proactive instead of reacting to the whims of the situation or environment.
It is important that we show that we are organized. This goes hand in hand with being in control. It is hard to project the proper image if our writing is disorganized and hard to follow. We need to show that we are knowledgeable of the issues and are not just paraphrasing (especially incorrectly) what others tell us.
Our writing style will say at least as much about how the reader perceives us as the words. The writing style becomes the equivalent of the body language in verbal communication. Sloppy writing will project the image that we do not care. Incoherent writing can indicate that we do not understand the bottom line. Bad grammar and misspelled words show it is not important enough to get it right.
What is the Best Format for Optimal Results?
Use a Proper Structure
As mentioned before, we are not writing a novel. You can find the best examples on how to structure a message by reading a high-quality newspaper. The main point is in the headline and the first paragraph. As you continue reading, you obtain more detail. You can stop reading any time and still have gotten the gist of the article. Another example is direct mail pieces. The authors of these messages have made a science out of how to get your attention and keep it.
That means you start with the most important aspect of the message. Background and detail go in the back. You do not build up to the most important part, but order your thoughts by decreasing importance. It is OK to keep the message interesting, just leave out the suspense.
Write with plenty of white space. If there are three points, put them in bullets. Highlight the action you want the reader to take. The reader is often drawn to bold words. However, if you have too much text in bold, it looses its benefits. Make sure the bold text is self-contained so that the reader does not have to hunt to find the text to complete the highlighted portion.
Keep the format light and consistent (not too many type faces, font sizes, etc). DO NOT WRITE IN ALL UPPER CASE. It is considered obnoxious and the equivalent of yelling. By the way, most people will read a postscript, although that is not a common part of an email message.
Use Good English
Make sure to show that the message is important to you by taking the time to write with proper spelling and grammar. With the modern tools (see below), there is no excuse for poor English. Why should the reader be interested in your issue when you send the message that it is not important enough to you to spend the time on the details?
In general, it is beneficial to write short sentences. Under no circumstances do you want to force the reader to have to reread text because it is too convoluted. It is a good idea to write at most at a 10th grade level. This is not to insult the intelligence of the reader, but to make it easier on them to comprehend the message.
Avoid jargon or fancy words. They may force the reader to have to stop and think about their meaning or, even worse, miss the point. Remember that the message may end up with people who are not necessarily as experienced with the technology or subject matter as you are. True experts prove their grasp of the subject matter by their ability to express even complicated issues so nonprofessionals can understand them.
One key suggestion for effective writing is to avoid passive voice and, even worse, the use of “one” or “someone.” This may be all right for academic dissertations. A sentence like “One needs to write documentation” or “The documentation needs to be written” does not convey ownership. Make sure that you assign required actions directly to the appropriate person.
Exhibit 3. The Spelling and Grammar Checkers Provide Continuous Feedback
Exhibit 4. Readability Statistics Show How Difficult it May Be to Read Your Message
Where Are the Right Tools?
Microsoft Word has some features, which can greatly help you with your writing skills. Most users consider these an annoyance and turn the features off. Keeping the features on provide you instant feedback on your writing skills and, over time, will help you improve them.
The greatest assistance is the spelling and grammar checker. A red line under a word tells you that the spelling is incorrect. Left-click on the word and the pop-up menu presents you with a number of choices to correct the word. Even more powerful is the green line, which indicates grammar errors. This can be maddening at the beginning. Often, no matter how hard you try, you cannot get the green line to disappear. At times, the only solution is to rewrite a whole paragraph. That is good. As a result, your message will be clearer and more concise.
Exhibit 5. Outline Mode Helps Organize the Document and Enforce Consistent Format
Once you wrote your message, perform a spell and grammar check and request readability statistics. You may have to enable this in the options dialog box first. The results can be eye opening. Use the Microsoft Word online help to obtain a detailed explanation regarding how the program calculates the statistics. After you rephrased some of the text, run the statistics again to find out whether the changes improved readability or made it worse. You can even highlight a sentence or a few paragraphs and find out the statistics for a subset of your document.
It will require quite a bit of effort to improve the readability of your document. It is time worthwhile and the features of Microsoft Word can greatly help you along the way.
For improving consistency in formatting, the outline feature of Microsoft Word can provide plenty of help. It provides a means to organize your thoughts and easily rearrange whole sections. It is easy to ensure consistency of headings. Then, you can apply consistent formatting to the whole document, including numbering.
Microsoft Outlook allows the use of Microsoft Word as email editor. This means that you can have all the writing assistance from Microsoft Word available to ensure high-quality emails as well.
Remember that some of your recipients may not be using the same software to view the email as you are. That means that you may loose formatting, such as fonts, bullets, bold or font size. Your chances of maintaining the format improve if you instruct Microsoft Outlook to send messages in HTML format. That is the same format used by the World Wide Web.
Microsoft Outlook allows you to request read receipts. This allows you to check who read the message without having to bother the recipients. An option even correlates the receipts with the original message and removes the receipts from your inbox. You can open the sent message and view who read the message and when from the “tracking” tab.
Understanding how people read in today's fast pace environment enables us to tailor the message to the reader and, thus, greatly improve the quality and effectiveness of our message. Make sure you show you are in control and make it easy for the reader to process and respond to your message. Using modern tools for written communication, such as email, can greatly enhance the effectiveness of the project manager.
Brians, Paul. Common Errors in English. http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/index.html.
Chambers, Dennis 1998. The Agile Manager's Guide to: Writing To Get Action. Bristol, VT: Velocity Business Publishing.
Dutton, Dennis. 1998. Winners of the Fourth Bad Writing Contest. http://www.cybereditions.com/aldaily/bwc.htm
Project Management Institute. 2000. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide - 2000 Edition). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.
Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA