Project Communications – Part 2

Good communications is one of the key skills of successful project management.  In Communications Part 1, I discussed how to gauge when and how often to communicate with project stakeholders. Other elements of communication include; the mechanisms we use to communicate, timing the communication and the content of the message. In this installment I will discuss the mechanisms we use to communicate.

Communication Mechanisms

It is generally agreed that when people converse roughly two-thirds of the message is conveyed through non-verbal communications. Our words account for only about one-third of the total message. Yet today, the majority of us communicate through phone, email, instant messaging and other non-face to face means. Much of this is out of necessity; In our personal lives we tend to be on the go, as are many of the people we want to speak with. At work, our colleagues, customers, suppliers and even our boss may be miles away, or half way around the world. Sometimes though, we have a choice in how we deliver our message, and it is primarily these situations I’ll address here.

As mentioned in Part 1, communications generally have a specific purpose, either to convey information we have or obtain information we need. (I’m not forgetting the friendly or casual conversations which occur all the time, they just are not of interest here.) If communications need to achieve a result, and we want to ensure that our message is properly received and processed, then we need to create the right circumstances for the message to get through.

Too often I see people convey a message, whether through instant messenger (IM), a text message, email or even by phone, and feel their communication responsibility is fulfilled. There are many situations where delivering the message is all that is required, (e.g. wishing Aunt Martha a Happy Birthday or maybe announcing extended hours for the cafeteria), but for project managers who are ultimately responsible for a project’s success, and in numerous other cases, the message also has to be received and understood to produce the desired result. Typically project managers message to obtain information, to move someone to action, provide information to others or to manage expectations. Here, simply putting the message “out there” may not be enough.

Let’s examine the 4 mechanism we use most to communicate through and some of the advantages and disadvantages of each.


Probably the least effective mode of communication is Email. That may surprise some people but consider that:

  • It is asynchronous, there is no immediate feedback
  • Delivery is not guaranteed
  • You don’t know the mood or the circumstance in which the message is read
  • Often written it in a hurry, sometimes without clarity
  • Potentially can be made public
  • It is impersonal

Like me, you probably know of countless instances where an important email was glanced over, ignored, of maybe never even received. Sometimes the message is not received in the spirit it was sent and evokes the ire of the recipient. Perhaps the biggest faux pas occurs when something meant to be private ultimately reaches the wrong eyes (and sometimes everyone’s eyes).

Email can be incredibly useful when used in right circumstances. Use Email when:

  • Information presented or requested in easily understood and thoroughly unambiguous
  • You want to send the same messages to multiple people at once
  • A written record is needed
  • You also need to share visual information (i.e. attachments)
  • Don’t need a quick answer

Instant Messaging (IM & text messaging)

Similar to email in all respects except that feedback is generally immediate (within a few minutes or less) and you can be reasonably sure that your message was read if you get a response. IM and text messaging also affords the opportunity to clarify any miscommunications, provided you sense your message was not understood or the other person asks questions.

IM is great when simple and unambiguous communications is needed and you want immediate feedback

(Note: Twitter et. al., generally sent as a one-way conversation is not considered, but does share some aspects of email and instant messaging.)

Face to Face

By far, the most effective communication mode is face to face. Here the dimensions of sight and sound complement the words, providing multiple sensory inputs to evaluate the message. For example, with sound alone you can here emotion or confusion in someone’s voice; You may get a sense of personality from an accent or the other persons tone; Shouting, all by itself says something. Sight enables you to see facial expressions, body language and attentiveness. Together, these all provide additional clues as to whether you message is being understood and the effect it is having on the recipient.

 Face to face communications can also impart a personal or intimate component to the message, especially when you have the option of delivering the message by some other means but instead make the effort to do so personally.

Most people will communicate more effectively face to face, but this isn’t always possible to do. Those situations where you should make every effort to meet include:

  • When the subject matter is complex or ambiguous and an interactive discussion is needed.
  • You need immediate feedback
  • When there is an emotion component to your message
  • The message may elicit strong emotions from the recipient (i.e. relaying particularly good, bad or unexpected news.)
  • When the message may evoke an unpredictable response from the recipient. (In a face to face encounter you’re positioned to most effectively deal with the possible range of responses your message may generate.)

There are some instances when you may want to avoid face to face communications, but I usually find it is these encounters which most need to be handled in a face to face manner.

Phone Conversation

The last mode I’ll discuss is communicating by phone. Better than text or email, but clearly a step below face to face since we’ve don’t receive any visual clues during the conversation. Unfortunately it is often the best choice available when we need to speak with someone.

 Clearly, how we choose to deliver our message can affect the message itself. Often we don’t give it much thought, but in this very brief discussion I hope I’ve made you aware of the importance of considering which communications mechanism to use and the affect it might have on how the message is received. So next time you just want to zip off a quick response to your boss, stop for a moment and consider what that message will look like from her perspective.

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