GPM First
Chapter 4 of Communicating Projects (978-1-4094-5319-2) by Ann Pilkington

Creating Great Content

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Having completed the strategic planning phase, attention can be turned to creating communication content. This is often seen as the more fun part of the communication role, but it is important to wait until the strategic planning stages are complete because only then can the content be designed to help deliver the objectives in the strategy and be appropriate to the stakeholder. Making the mistake of jumping into creating content without an understanding of what needs to be achieved or who the content is aimed at is unlikely to produce the desired outcomes.

Communication content can be written, visual and verbal. Generating content is an area of communication where good technical communication skills are needed. Drafting written copy that is well structured and engaging in style comes with training and practice. It calls for a different type of written style to report writing or the style of an essay written at university. If the skills don’t exist within the project communication team it is a skill that may be worth buying in. Busy stakeholders will be grateful for a communication that gets to the point and doesn’t need to be read more than once to get the gist. Visual content too should look professional, it may be the first experience that a stakeholder has of a project and first impressions count. Professional doesn’t mean glossy and expensive – in fact that may do more harm than good especially if the project is aiming to realise financial benefits. In terms of video, the growth of social media has enabled individuals to record and share content on personal devices. As a result audiences are much more accepting of content that is less ‘produced’ and which often has a more authentic feel. Verbal communication needs to be thought about just as carefully. Just because someone is a good project manager or senior sponsor doesn’t mean that they will be comfortable standing up in front of the team or stakeholders. There may be a need for coaching not only in the messages to be delivered but in the style of delivery too.

This chapter is designed to help the project communicator develop great content that is engaging and right for the stakeholder, it covers:

  • tone of voice including branding;

  • story telling;

  • joining up messages;

  • stakeholder-centred communication;

  • written communication: hints and tips.

 

Tone of Voice

Tone of voice is as much about how something is said as what is said. Successful brands have a consistent tone of voice and projects are no different. Tone of voice isn’t only about using Plain English – which is essential for any project – but it is also about the personality that comes through in the communication. The tone of voice becomes part of the message – the way something is said has as much impact as the message that is being communicated. Is the tone of voice for the project friendly and chatty or serious and official?

Getting the tone of voice right for the project matters because:

  • It demonstrates the project’s attitude to its stakeholders – for example, content that is full of project jargon suggests that nobody on the project has thought or cares whether it will make sense to anyone else.

  • It brings with it consistency in language across all communication which helps with understanding.

  • A consistent tone of voice looks professional, helping to win the respect of stakeholders.

 

Where the project is part of a wider organisation, it needs to consider whether its tone of voice should match that of the organisation. Generally speaking the answer to this question is that yes it should. However, there may be a case for the project adopting a different tone of voice if it is bringing about change or the wider organisation does not have a defined tone of voice (which is sometimes the case). So if the project is designed, for example, to bring about modernisation or improve customer service, adopting a friendlier more informal style than the wider organisation usually uses may be appropriate. However care needs to be taken not to alienate stakeholders by being so ‘out there’ that they disengage.

The Trouble With Jargon

Typical project jargon includes acronyms, technical language and ‘business speak’. It is inconsistent with a Plain English approach to communication.

Jargon can be useful shorthand for project colleagues, long complicated names and descriptions can be reduced to a handy ‘TLA’ (three letter acronyms). The problem is that not everyone in the project will know what is meant and their use can spill over into communication beyond the project team leaving stakeholders baffled and alienated. A glossary of terms can be useful, but this isn’t any substitute for using Plain English so take care not to solve the problem of impenetrable language with a glossary; far better to address the root cause and avoid jargon in the first place.

Some language will be understood easily by project colleagues (for example the name of an IT system such as ERP which stands for Enterprise Resource Planning) but is unlikely to be understood by many stakeholders so should be avoided. Never assume that everyone on the project understands either. People may be reluctant to speak up for fear of looking silly, so the role of communication should be to champion Plain English within the project and to speak up when communication isn’t clear.

What’s in a Name?

One of the early decisions in the project lifecycle is what to call it. This can be one of the first communication opportunities and is important to get right – it sets the tone of things to come. Think carefully before embarking on a naming competition. This is often a misguided attempt to engage people in the change. The chances are the result will be a selection of contrived acronyms, Greek myths and metrological phenomenon. This trend for names that bear no relation to the work in hand is fair enough if the output of the project is competitively sensitive – for example a new product is in development, but many projects want the complete opposite – awareness and engagement.

By selecting a name that explains what the project is doing, the message being sent is that the project is open and accessible. A name that has to be explained before it can be understood sets up barriers instantly. Stakeholders have to be ‘in the know’ or waste time trying to find out what it’s all about.

However, coming up with such a name can be easier said than done – finding a form of words that encapsulates the project yet is short and easy to say is difficult. The danger is that whatever name is given, people will try and reduce it to an acronym. It is worth spending some time to get it right and perhaps test it with a few people outside the project.

Brand Identity

Think of any well known and respected brand; it will, without a doubt, be consistent in the way that it presents itself. There will be coherence in its imagery and tone of voice, whether internal or external. It does this because a strong brand identity aids buying decisions and represents a set of brand values. Brand identity covers things like the colours, fonts and images but also language and values.

The project is going to produce documentation and probably communication materials (brochures, web pages and so on) and there are similar, strong advantages to creating a consistent look and feel:

  • easy recognition of the project by stakeholders;

  • alignment with a wider corporate identity (or perhaps programme or portfolio identity);

  • professional look and feel.

 

It can be tempting to create a separate identity for the project, but be cautious here. There are many advantages, but also pitfalls in creating a specific identity:

  • The project can look transient – yet another initiative with a wacky name and logo that is here today and gone tomorrow. Drawing on the corporate identity of the organisation of which the project is a part sends the message that the project is a core part of the overarching organisational strategy and there is commitment to it at senior level.

  • It creates a confusing picture for stakeholders who can be left wondering how the project fits with everything else that is happening in an organisation.

  • Potential clashes with the organisation’s central communication function and brand team whose role it is to protect the brand and corporate identity.

  • Cost. Who is going to do the design work? It is expensive and time consuming to come up with a brand identity from scratch (if it is to be done well, which of course it should be).

 

Should it be decided to adopt a brand identity specifically for the project, then it must be protected in the same way that any popular consumer brand would protect theirs. Again, remember that design is a job for the professionals. There is a template design brief as part of the Project Communicator’s Toolkit at the end of this chapter. Having said that, it isn’t always desirable or possible to spend a lot of money on design work, so invest some time upfront in creating a suite of materials that is flexible and can be adapted within the project while maintaining design integrity.

If the project is going to adopt the brand identity of the organisation of which it is a part then there will probably be a set of brand guidelines in existence. These will set out how the logo should and should not be used plus the fonts, colours and maybe even photography or other images that support it.

Whatever approach is taken, once adopted, brand guidelines should be adhered to. Avoid the temptation to adapt, tweak or stretch the logo, it will only end up looking messy and amateur.

Story Telling

Story telling comes naturally. It is part of every culture with stories being told through books, theatre, film and music and of course every day people are telling each other stories about things that have happened to them. Everyone loves a good story. They are easy to remember – most people can still explain the essence of a movie that they have seen some time after having seen it and usually do so in no more than a few sentences. Stories are told and retold within organisations too; people use them to make sense of what is happening now by talking about what has happened in the past. These stories contribute to the development of a corporate culture and listening to the stories that are told is one way of beginning to understand the culture of an organisation. Of course, these stories are created and shared informally without the purposeful involvement of the organisation itself, but story telling can also be used to good effect by a project to explain what is happening. Some people may find the term ‘story’ off putting; they may feel that it doesn’t sound serious enough for the task in hand. The word ‘narrative’ can be used instead, although this does sound rather like ‘corporate speak’ but if it helps project colleagues and sponsors buy in to the idea of story telling then it is worth using. Listen how politicians will often use stories to make a policy point much more interesting: ‘I met a lady in Birmingham who had been waiting for a knee operation for six months’ is much more powerful than a simply factual statement that says, ‘Hospital waiting lists are too long’.

Story telling can be used in a number of ways in projects for example to explain:

  • the rationale for a change project;

  • how a project fits in with wider corporate objectives;

  • how a new product, system or way of working was arrived at;

  • how things will feel once the project is complete, perhaps through a ‘day in the life’ story.

 

What Makes a Good Story?

There are many books specifically on the topic of corporate story telling, but one quick and easy way to understand what makes a compelling and memorable story is to look no further than the media. Look out for stories that are told and retold across different media, stories that friends and colleagues are discussing and then analyse what makes them so interesting. There are some common themes:

  • something unexpected;

  • something incongruous;

  • human interest;

  • something that people can relate to ‘that could be me’.

 

A good example of something incongruous was the story about the body of King Richard III found under a car park. This was a major news story in the UK during 2013. The body of the last Plantagenet king was discovered under a car park in the city of Leicester. The fact that the discovery was made under a car park was the main thrust of almost every news story and is probably the thing that most people remember. It works as a story because it ‘paints’ a picture and because of the contrast and incongruity of the situation – royalty and car parks don’t normally go together. Had the discovery been made under some romantic abbey ruins in a leafy cathedral city in southern England would the story have had the same impact or been told in the same way? Probably not.

Another good example is the UK Prime Minister’s new baby daughter sleeping in a cardboard box. When a new daughter of Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha was born prematurely while the couple were on holiday in the Cornwall in the south west of England, she spent the first few nights of her life sleeping in a cardboard box decorated by her older sister because – not expecting her arrival – the couple did not have a cot for her. The story was widely reported and again is memorable because one would not expect the Prime Minister’s child to sleep in a box!

Of course people will read this story differently according to factors such as their political views. Some may think it a lovely story that paints a picture of happy family life. Others may see it more cynically as a story placed with the media to make the couple seem more human. Stories will be interpreted according to the stakeholder’s experiences and views of the world. What may seem a charming and innocent story to one person can look calculating and like propaganda to another. There is more about the theory of communication and how we interpret messages in the Vignette at the end of this chapter.

Telling a Story About the Project Vision

Communication of the vision should be ongoing because it provides the context and rationale for all project activity. Communicating the vision doesn’t mean simply displaying it on posters or on leaflets. While these tactics have their place the vision should form part of the story – or narrative – that is told about the project, its milestones and achievements.

This is an important function of leadership communication with the project team. The project manager and senior sponsors should fit things like achievements and new tasks in to the context of the vision. This should be done across all channels, for example verbally in team meetings and in written communication including project documentation.

If working in a programme or portfolio environment, then this approach should flow throughout. Communicating the vision by telling a story is not only effective, but it enables people to put things into their own words while still staying true to the vision. There is more about vision statements in the Vignette at the end of this chapter.

Joining It All Up

Joining up project messages with other messages going to the same stakeholders makes good sense. It shows people how everything fits together, rather than leaving them to try and work it out for themselves (they probably won’t bother). It can also reduce the amount of communication that people receive, meaning that messages are more likely to be heard.

If the project is part of a programme and maybe a portfolio, then this is the first place to look for content for that joined-up story. Links can also be made to the wider organisation and the external environment – it is here where the rationale for the project can be found, see Figure 4.1. The rationale from the project comes from the top down and the project story must also support the organisation, portfolio and programme strategies.

Piggy-backing on other messages is also a good way of raising awareness in the early stages of a project when there isn’t much to say. It may not be appropriate to go out with standalone messages when delivery is a long way off, but incorporating awareness messages in other communications that are happening is an effective and controlled way of starting to tell the project story. Any project will be part of a wider strategy or vision, so whenever that bigger picture is being discussed, ensure that project messages are being included as appropriate. This means working closely with other communicators at the corporate level or on other projects to ensure that this can happen. For example if a company CEO is talking to staff about the vision or plans for the year ahead, any project that is contributing to this can be mentioned at the same time helping to demonstrate how everything fits together and creating awareness of the project in context.

 
Figure 4.1 Telling a joined-up story, the flow of messages

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Leadership Communication

Effective leadership communication can make a big difference to the success of the project communication effort. To do this it needs to be credible, authentic and ‘on message’, suggestions to help achieve this follow.

Credibility

Project leaders need to be credible communicators. Credibility comes from a number of factors. Perloff (2008) identified:

  • Expertise: the communicator is seen as having special skills or know-how.

  • Trustworthiness: the communicator is perceived as honest and of good character.

  • Goodwill: the communicator who displays goodwill shows that he or she has the listeners’ interests at heart, understands the views of others and is empathic towards the problems that the audience may be experiencing.

 

The project communicator can help to draw out these characteristics in project leaders. Ways that this might achieved can include:

  • feature articles talking about the person’s background, previous projects and so on;

  • ensuring that all communication is open and honest;

  • ensuring that the concerns of stakeholders are heard and acknowledged.

 

Authenticity

Leaders also need to be seen as authentic. It can seem counter-intuitive to talk about managing communication in order to achieve authenticity, but this style of communication can seem alien to project leaders who have been accustomed to very formal methods of communication and feel compelled to say everything is fine when it isn’t. They may need coaching and support in being themselves when they communicate. This is particularly important when using social media as a form of project communication. This is a medium that is all about authenticity and content that is clearly corporate and highly managed will undermine trust and confidence. Readers can always tell when a blog post has been written by the communication team, not the project manager!

Of course not every leader is a Steve Jobs or a Richard Branson and the key is for them to find their own style and feel comfortable in their role as a communicator. The style still needs to be appropriate for the audience, the message and the channel. Announcing that the project is in difficulties will demand a different tone to announcing that a major milestone has been achieved.

There may be hurdles to overcome in helping leaders to achieve a more authentic communication style, but this is where project communication can add real value by providing coaching and support. Some of the blockers to an authentic communication style are outlined in Table 4.1.

 
Table 4.1 Overcoming blockers to authentic leadership communication

Blocker to authentic communication, project leaders may:

Project communicators can help by:

Feel that long words and lots of corporate management language is what is expected of them.

Gathering feedback on communication to share with the leader, showing where language that is too corporate is alienating stakeholders.

See it as ‘dumbing down’.

Try sharing authoritative writing that is written simply with project leaders to show how effective it can be. Even broadsheet newspapers are written so that they can be understood by a seven year old child. Achieving simplicity in language is highly skilled.

Be concerned that being too open will encourage questions to which they don’t know they answer.

Remind project leaders that they do not have to know the answer to everything. Equip them with handling strategies when questions arise. This may be as simple as promising to find out and respond or explaining why the answer isn’t known and when it will be. Being honest about not knowing will win the respect of stakeholders.

Worry about saying something commercially sensitive or inappropriate.

People respect honesty, if some information can’t be given because it is commercially sensitive, simply say so, but take care that this doesn’t look like an excuse for not sharing information. Equip leaders with possible responses to questions that fall into this category so that at least some information can be given.

Believe that saying everything is fine when it isn’t, is motivational.

Everyone on the project will know what the real position is. The project leadership needs to acknowledge any problems and set out how they are to be addressed. People will respect this honesty. Anything else will feel like ‘spin’ and can seem insulting to colleagues who feel that they can’t be trusted with the truth.

On Message

Even the most natural communicator can need support from the communication function in ensuring that the right messages are being delivered and in a way that is right for the audience. Taking every opportunity to remind project leaders of the key messages will help to avoid confusion in the project and with stakeholders. Confirm and agree key messages:

  • before any stakeholder meetings, presentations and so on;

  • at the end of meetings such as checkpoints and project boards to ensure everyone goes away with a consistent understanding of what has or hasn’t been decided. In addition to agreeing the messages, be clear about to whom and by whom they will be communicated. This is essential otherwise some will leave the meeting unsure about what they can say so say nothing, while others will head back to their desk and tell their teams everything.

 

Stakeholder-centred Communication

The stakeholder needs to come first when preparing communication content. This sounds obvious, but it can be easy for projects to forget this and think about what it wants to tell people, rather than what people want to know.

In the following example the programme leadership goes into a communication event with a clear idea of what it wants to say, but no thought given to the audience.

Two companies were merging and a new director had been brought in to head up the new organisation. Managers across both organisations knew that the merger would result in less management jobs being available.

The merger programme set up a series of briefings where the new director spoke to managers. He opened the meetings by saying that he was not going to discuss jobs but wanted to focus on the vision for the new organisation. He wanted to motivate the managers and ensure that they understood the vision. However, the managers felt that he didn’t have any empathy and didn’t care about what mattered to them. As a result they came away disillusioned and couldn’t even recall what had been said about the vision.

What the director should have done was acknowledge the job issue at the start and set out a timeline for when decisions about jobs would be made together with the process and how they could help to shape the outcome. It is arguable whether this was the right forum to discuss the vision at all, given that most of the audience were more concerned about their jobs. The programme and leadership team missed the fact that this important group of stakeholders was at a different point in the change curve (see Chapter 2, Figure 2.3). The leadership team – who were all confirmed in their roles – were clearly several steps ahead in terms of being ready for the change but had failed to acknowledge the need to support others who were some steps behind.

The lessons from this example are that before crafting a communication ask:

  • Who is this message for?

  • What will they be concerned about?

  • How do they like to receive communications?

  • What might be their preferred communication style? For example, highly detailed or quick and easy to digest?

  • What else is happening to these people that might influence the message?

  • Are there any cultural considerations?

 

If in doubt, the thing to do is ask people; involve some stakeholders in reviewing and signing off content. Testing something before issuing it is time well spent and also a good opportunity to get stakeholders involved. People will be happy to help and pleased that someone took the time to ask them what they thought.

Written Communication: Hints and Tips

Making written communication clear and engaging is a skill, making it unambiguous is almost impossible! The way that somebody interprets the message will always be influenced by their own personal view and circumstances. However, there are some principles that project communicators can follow that will help to ensure that messages are clear and as easy as possible to understand.

KIS: Keep It Simple

Often in the workplace, people can slip into a form of writing that is overly wordy and full of jargon because they think that this is what is expected. Project communicators need to challenge this.

Simple, clear writing is highly skilled. Whatever one may think about the tabloid press, to be able to condense a complicated story into a couple of paragraphs takes skill. But it isn’t just the tabloids that keep things simple, all media write their stories in a way that is easy to understand. Journalists are taught to write their stories as though writing for a seven year old – even on a traditional broadsheet newspaper.

This is an important point, because it proves that clear writing is not necessarily associated with dumbing down a message.

What is the Desired Outcome of the Communication?

There needs to be a clear objective for the communication that is relevant to the audience that will receive it. What is the desired outcome? If this can’t be identified then there may not be a need for the communication at all. It isn’t sufficient for a member of the project team to want to tell people something, there has to be a good reason, otherwise it isn’t an audience-centred piece of communication.

Get the Structure Right

Once the objective is clear, think about the structure. Put the point of the message at the start. Tell people if it contains something that they need to do or if it is just for information. This will be appreciated because it helps people to manage the flow of communications that they will be receiving from a number of sources – they can prioritise more easily.

Think of a written communication like an upside down pyramid (see Figure 4.2) with the most important message right at the top with the importance of the content reducing the further down you go. Once written, a useful test is to cover up everything but the first paragraph and see if it contains the key point. Try this test on a story in a newspaper to see how it works. Essentially the test is to make sure that if someone reads no further than the first paragraph, they will still have read the most important message.

 
Figure 4.2 Good written communication gets straight to the point

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What Does It Mean to Me?

Check that the communication explains what it means for the reader. Often people talk in terms of ‘what’s in it for me?’ but this implies that the reader must be ‘sold’ the message which may not always be appropriate and is a very one-way approach to communication. There won’t always be a positive outcome for everyone and projects need to be honest about this. So instead think in terms of what it means to individuals; for example how will it affect their jobs?

Creating a House Style

A house style sets out how things will be written. They are used extensively in the media but also have a place within organisations and of course projects. Having a house style means that there is a consistent way of using language. Just as brand guidelines set out how an organisation’s logo can and can’t be used together with what colours and fonts should be employed, a house style does the same for language. It can also be extended to address some of the common grammatical errors that can be made.

Consistency in language is important because it:

  • looks more professional;

  • helps to avoid misunderstandings;

  • helps ensure accuracy;

  • helps avoid use of terms that are considered unacceptable in the particular workplace (for example, perhaps because they are outdated or there are cultural sensitivities in different countries);

  • can link the project to the wider organisation.

 

The first step when introducing a project house style is to check whether the wider organisation of which the project is part has one in place (or whether there is one at programme level). If it does, this should of course be followed and project-specific information added to it. There are so many variations on what could be included depending on the project that it isn’t possible to list them all, but as a guide project-specific content may include:

  • How to refer to the project, for example can the name be abbreviated?

  • Names of any systems or services that are part of the project and how to refer to them.

  • How does the project refer to those with which it is working? For example, as suppliers or partners?

 

If no house style is in place it is a good idea to create one for the project. A typical, generic internal house style will include guidance on:

  • use of upper case letters (for example are they used on job titles?);

  • how numbers are written;

  • how dates are written;

  • how the project is referred to;

  • when and what abbreviations are acceptable;

  • grammatical guidance and style of punctuation.

 

The house style can be owned and maintained by the communication function or by the project management office (PMO). Wherever ownership rests, project communication should be involved to ensure that it promotes consistency and Plain English communication.

An example house style document is given at the end of this chapter as part of the Project Communicator’s Toolkit.

Sign-off Protocols

The final step in creating great content is to get it approved. Communication messages and materials will need to be approved by someone senior within the project team or maybe by sponsors.

Agreeing how this will happen and setting this out in a set of sign-off protocols at the start of the project can save time because everyone will know what their responsibility is and the timescales to which they must work.

Getting formal sign-off can be onerous, but it is important to do for the following reasons:

  • it helps to ensure accuracy;

  • it may highlight misunderstandings within the project;

  • it helps to get buy-in to the communication activity;

  • it raises the profile of the communication function and provides a good opportunity for the communication function to enter into a dialogue with the project leadership.

 

Achieving signoff can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the project communicator’s job, sometimes by the time something is signed off the situation has changed and the communication is out of date. This is because projects move at a fast pace and, particularly in the initiation, design and test stages, things are changing all the time. For this reason the sign-off of project communications has to be as quick and flexible as possible.

This is another reason why project communication needs to be represented at the top of the project – the greater the understanding that the communicator has, the more likely it is that communication is going to be accurate, fit for purpose and signed off quickly with minimum changes.

The sign-off protocol can sit as part of the communication strategy, or be a document in its own right. It can be extended to cover who should input into the formation of communication messages. There is an example in the Project Communicator’s Toolkit at the end of this chapter.

Summary

This chapter has looked at how to produce great content for project communication. However, even the best crafted content can’t produce the best outcome if it isn’t delivering a well thought through strategy. Often the communication function is expected to jump straight into ‘delivery mode’ but this is a mistake because how will the communicator know what to say and to whom? The best outcomes result from content that is audience-centred and delivered in a clear and engaging way.

Project Communicator’s Toolkit: Example House Style Guide

The following template provides a useful starting point for the project or programme communicator wanting to create a house style. It provides guidance on things like grammar, Plain English and words that can cause confusion (see Table 4.2). Items in italics show where the guide can be adapted to the project or programme.

 
Table 4.2 Words that can cause confusion

Words that can cause confusion

Government

Usually with a lower case ‘g’, unless at the start of a sentence of course. Or where referring to a specific government, for example the French Government.

Parliament

Usually upper case, unless talking about a country. For example ‘the French parliament’.

Internet and intranet

Neither need a capital ‘I’ (unless at the start of a sentence).

Online

Use a lower case ‘o’ and make it one word.

Home page

Is two words.

Include any other terms that might be specific to the project/programme or the organisation.

About This Guide

This guide is for people working on the (name) project/programme. It is designed to help us write in a clear and consistent way. It should be read in conjunction with the organisation’s house style (where this exists, include link or location).

Having a clear and consistent style makes things easier to read, makes us look professional.

Plain English – Some Tips

  • Before you decide what to write, ask yourself who your audience is and what they want to know. You need to be clear about who you are talking to before you decide what information to include and what tone to use.

  • Always use language that everyone can understand. Plain English is good English, not ‘dumbed down’ English.

  • Use common, everyday words and avoid technical jargon or formal words.

  • Use short sentences (ideally 15 to 20 words).

  • Avoid using too many acronyms and abbreviations. If you need to use one, always give the name in full at first, followed by the acronym or abbreviation in brackets. After that, you can use the acronym or abbreviation only. Let’s try not to create any new ones.

  • Use active rather than passive verbs, essentially this means attaching the verb to whoever is doing something. For example:

    • Active: the company launched the system.

    • Passive: the system was launched.

     

  • Try to use ‘we’ and ‘you’ where appropriate. It makes the tone much friendlier and it also helps to make the meaning of your text clearer.

  • If possible, get a colleague to read your text through before you publish it. If your colleague cannot understand what it means, try to rewrite it until they can.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

Although in general you should avoid abbreviations and acronyms, if an organisation’s name or a particular term appears frequently, you should refer to it in full the first time followed by its initials in brackets, and from then on by just the letters. Everyday abbreviations (such as BBC, DNA and IT) and acronyms such as laser and radar do not need their full names. (Specific instructions about any acronyms or abbreviations in common use on the project or programme can be added here.)

Bullet Points

There are two ways to write bullet points.

If the introduction to the list is a complete sentence, each bullet point should also be a complete sentence. You do not need to use semi-colons to separate them. Each bullet begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop. An example is given below.

Everyone on the project must observe the house style because it helps good communication.

  • You need to check when it is and isn’t appropriate to use capital letters.

  • The house style provides a useful guide to words specific to the organisation.

  • Following the house style make the project look professional.

If the opening sentence does not end with a full stop (or question mark) then each bullet point starts with a lower case letter and be separated by a semi colon. An example is given below.

Working closely with your communication team is important because:

  • they understand the best way to communicate with stakeholders;

  • it can help you to ensure that the project reaches its milestones;

  • you can concentrate on your role, while the professional communicators manager communication activity.

 

Capital Letters

Use capital letters sparingly and only when appropriate. Never use them for emphasis; they are actually harder to read than normal type.

  • Job titles: generic job titles usually start with a lower case letter. For example, ‘manager’, ‘customer service assistant’.

  • Companies and organisations: these are names, so should have an upper case letter.

Dates

For specific dates, write the day first in figures (without ‘st’, ‘nd’, ‘rd’ or ‘th’) followed by the month and the year in full. Do not separate the parts of the date by commas (for example, write ‘1 January 2008’).

For general dates, you need to include ‘st’, ‘nd’, ‘rd’ or ‘th’ to make the meaning clear. For example, ‘Team meetings are held on the 12th of the month.’

Type Size and Legibility

Use the simple, clear typeface Arial (or other font as directed by the programme or organisation).

Use a minimum text size of 11 point, although 14 point is recommended if you want to be accessible to more people. Estimates show that 75 per cent of visually impaired people can read 14 point text.

For PowerPoint, Arial or Verdana is recommended and no text should ever be smaller than 18 point when used for presentations. As a general rule, if you have to tell your audience ‘you won’t be able to read this but...’ don’t use the slide!

Cultural Terms

Any culturally specific terms and guidance should be included here.

Glossary

A glossary can be a useful addition to your house style, it can:

  • define key terms;

  • clarify words and terms which should and shouldn’t be used (for example a role title that may have been reviewed and updated);

  • explain acronyms and abbreviations (although remember that these should be kept to a minimum).

 

Project Communicator’s Toolkit: Sign-off Protocol

As part of the communication strategy it can be helpful to set out how communication materials will be signed off. This ensures that everyone knows the process and what is expected of them. An example sign-off protocol is given below at Table 4.3.

 
Table 4.3 Project Communicator’s Toolkit: sign-off protocol

Type of communication

Input required from

Reviewed by

Timescale

Final approval

Timescale

Weekly newsletter*

Work stream leads Project manager

Content providers review their items

Two working days

Project manager

Two working days

* For a weekly communication, consider adding the day and possibly time that sign-off will be required and put it into the appropriate peoples’ diaries.

Project Communicator’s Toolkit: Briefing a Designer

The design process should be a collaborative and enjoyable one but to achieve this, the designer needs a good brief to work from. It helps to avoid misunderstandings and keeps costs down by minimising rework. The following is a suggested structure for a design brief.

  • Background: explain in a couple of paragraphs what the project is doing and why. Include how it fits into the organisation’s strategy and whether it is part of a programme. If it is, explain the aim of the programme.

  • Target audience: explain who the design concept or collateral will be seen by. Give as much information about them as possible.

  • How the design or materials will be used and distributed: do print materials need a long shelf life? Will they be posted or handed out?

  • Timescales: provide details of what will be needed and by when. Remember to build in contingency time. Ensure that the timescales reflect the timings in the communication plan and project plan, which should in turn be aligned with project milestones.

  • Outline the look and feel that the project wants to achieve: can it be expensive and high quality or does it need to appear cheap and cheerful? This decision will depend on what the project is setting out to do, the brand of the organisation and budget available.

  • Who will sign-off the design work and what will the process be? The designer will need to understand the sign-off process and factor it into his or her planning.

  • Budget: provide the budget if this is required (if using in-house resource this may not apply).

Vignette: Project Vision

Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.

Vision statements should be just that – a vision of the solution that the project is going to deliver. What will it feel like? What will it look like?

The famous story of President John F. Kennedy’s visit to NASA headquarters illustrates the role of vision. On his visit he met a janitor who, when asked by Kennedy about his work simply said: ‘Sir, I’m helping to put a man on the moon!’ Now whether that is true or not, it makes the point that a vision should be:

  • inspiring;

  • forward looking;

  • simple;

  • concise;

  • resonate with the project team and stakeholders;

  • unambiguous.

 

Visions matter because they give focus. Organisations use them to inform their corporate strategy. There shouldn’t be a place for activity that doesn’t contribute to the vision. So it follows that a project will have been established to deliver an aspect of an organisation’s vision or facilitate the achievement of the vision.

The project communicator needs to know and understand the vision of the organisation of which the project is a part, as well as any mission statement and corporate values because project communication should be aligned with these. If in any doubt, seek guidance from the central corporate communication team (or marketing communication which may have responsibility for brand values).

In addition to a vision, at the organisational level there may also be:

  • A mission statement. These usually explain what the organisation actually does – its more about its present state than its future state.

  • Values: these are behaviours and ways of working that are core to the way the organisation operates.

  • Brand values: what customers can expect from the organisation and its products.

  • Strapline: a concise, easy to remember and recognise statement that sums up things about an organisation and its values. It can also be called a tag line or slogan.

 

Developing a Project Vision

Responsibility for the creation of the vision probably won’t rest with the communication function but it needs to be involved. The vision needs to be communicated and needs to be crafted with this in mind.

The best visions are developed collaboratively. People are more likely to buy in to the vision if they have helped to create it, plus the vision is more likely to be a realistic reflection of what the project can achieve. It can be easy to be too ambitious with vision statements and over-promise what the solution will deliver. Bringing in some stakeholders to help introduces an outside perspective which can be helpful. At this stage of the vision process, the role of the project communicator can be to:

  • help ensure that other voices are heard in the process;

  • advise on how the vision may be perceived by those who haven’t been able to get involved in its formation;

  • make sure it is written in Plain English avoiding jargon and acronyms;

  • check that it is aligned with any other relevant vision statements (for example at the organisational level).

 

Good vision statements are specific to the project. A vision that is very general and could apply to any project won’t inspire or bring focus. Every project wants to be the best, well respected, deliver on time and to budget, put customers first and so on. Take the following vision statement:

Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.

 

Many people could guess that this belongs to Amazon.

It is concise, written clearly and very specific to the brand. Aim for the same with the project vision. Keep it short – some project visions go on for several paragraphs and sometimes pages. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but the key thing is that it can be summed up in a couple of sentences and is easy for people to explain. A vision that can’t be explained without going back and checking the document isn’t going to be effective. Visions like this will end up filed with all the other project documentation and never looked at again. It can be helpful to share powerful and inspiring visions such as the Amazon one during the development process to show they can be made to work.

The vision must be unambiguous. This can be hard to achieve as people will always interpret something in the light of their own experiences or world view. However, testing of the vision with project team members and stakeholders can go some way to overcoming this. Even when a vision has been developed collaboratively, it can still pay to test it outside the group that developed it.

The development process can take time and be challenging, but this is to be expected. It is often through this process that differences of opinion or understanding are drawn out, which is helpful as they can then be addressed. Everyone involved in the development process should walk away with a shared understanding of what the project is there to achieve.

Vignette: Communication Theory

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Communication must be easy, after all everyone communicates so how hard can it be? Surely it’s a ‘soft skill’? It’s certainly not as difficult as building an IT system or relocating a factory – is it?

Well yes, everyone communicates everyday but an organisational, managed communication process where there is a desired outcome is difficult to get right and anything but a soft skill. This is an interesting area of theory and this Vignette can only give an introduction to some of the more useful concepts. Further reading will be needed to understand them more fully. However, an appreciation of the richness of communication will in itself lead to better communication highlighting as it does the folly of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach and the misconception that communication is easy.

One of the earliest models of communication was drawn up by two telephone engineers – Shannon and Weaver – back in the 1940s (see Fig. 4.3). Their model was linear and based on the way a telephone worked, that is, one simply had to send a message along a channel, and it would be received and then understood at the other end. Of course the communication process is actually much richer than this and all sorts of things influence a message between sender and receiver. Fortunately the theory of communication has moved on since the 1940s but all too much of communication practice is still rooted in this linear model.

It is a mistake to think that because a message has been sent it has a) been received; b) interpreted in the way intended; and c) brought about the desired change in attitude or behaviour. It was George Bernard Shaw who said: ‘The greatest problem with communication is the illusion that it has been accomplished.’

 
Figure 4.3 Shannon and Weaver’s early model of communication

graphics/fig4_3.jpg

Source: Shannon and Weaver (1948), ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’. Bell System Technical Journal.

Most people would agree that communication is rich and complex, yet still much organisational communication follows a linear model and assumes that simply by sending out a message a desired result will be achieved. Project managers may complain that stakeholders don’t understand the project and what it is setting out to do. However, there is really no such thing as ‘misunderstanding’ a message. Someone may understand it differently to the way intended by the person who sent it, but that doesn’t make them wrong. Looking at communication from this perspective puts the onus firmly on the sender of the message to understand the perspective of the receiver – to put themselves in his or her shoes. And of course, everyone wears different shoes! However, this is what makes a communication role so challenging and interesting. So, how does communication actually work?

There are a lot more factors in play during the communication process than Shannon and Weaver’s model acknowledged. Many things influence the way that a message is interpreted and some of these are captured in Table 4.4.

 
Table 4.4 What influences the way that a communication is received?

Influences

Relevance for project communicators

The recipient’s perception of the sender.

The project leadership team and the project itself need to be trusted. If they aren’t, then communication can be met with cynicism.

Trust can be difficult to maintain on projects when deadlines and scope change. The important thing is to keep the conversation going and ensure that if a commitment is made to do something then it is done and if not, stakeholders are kept informed with a rationale for the change. On a similar note, things shouldn’t be done without telling people, this will result in suspicion.

Trust is even more important as people rely more and more on social media channels for information. They are less likely to listen to traditional authority figures and more likely to look for authentic, trusted sources.

The channel used to send the message and the recipient’s perception of it.

The channel is an intrinsic part of the message. Important messages – for example about people’s jobs – should be delivered face to face. Sending sensitive or important information by email for example, can make it seem as though the project doesn’t really care about the recipient.

The method of communication should be matched carefully to the content of the message to ensure that it is appropriate.

The world view and opinions of the recipient.

Everyone selects media according to their own world view. People are less open to different perspectives than they like to think. For project communicators this explains why opinions are hard to change simply through one-way communication. For example, somebody may hold the view that all employers are out to exploit employees. That is a hard attitude to change and any communication will be seen through this lens.

The views of others.

People may seek the views of others before they form an opinion. This may be a friend, work colleague, journalist or blogger.

 
Figure 4.4 Mass communication models

graphics/fig4_4.jpg

Source: McQuail, D. and Windhal, S. (1993) Communication Models for the Study of Mass Communication, London: Longman.

Mass Communication Theory

Mass communication is the term given to communication that targets large audiences – for example printed media such as newspapers and magazines. It is a one-way form of communication. The mass media is very good at telling people what to think about, but, because people consume media that reinforces their existing ‘world view’ it is less good at persuading people what to think. Like the linear model of communication, this is a very simplistic view of communication. It suggests that a message can be sent directly to lots of people at the same time and it will be received in the same way, or that it is received and interpreted by others before being passed on to a mass audience (the two-step flow model). This is shown in Fig. 4.4.

Much communication within organisations is based on this mass communication model. Newsletters, intranet stories and traditional conferences are examples. Understanding the limitations of a mass media approach is important, because an over-reliance on this as an approach alone is unlikely to be effective when a change in attitude or behaviour is required.

One-way versus Two-way Communication

The definition of one-way communication is quite straightforward – messages are simply delivered, there is no feedback loop and so the sender has no knowledge of whether the message was received and, if it was, how it was interpreted.

Two-way communication is more complex. Many communication methods are termed two-way simply because a conversation takes place, but this does not necessarily mean that it actually is two-way. True two-way communication involves a willingness on both sides to adapt their position as a result of the dialogue. Tactics such as question and answer documents for example are one-way because they are imparting information.

There is a place for both and it is important to understand the difference so that the right strategy can be chosen for the communication objectives set. Identifying the need for two-way communication but then rolling out a tactic that isn’t truly two-way will result in a failure to achieve the desired outcomes.

Personality Approaches to Communication

Understanding personality types can be helpful in designing effective communication. This Vignette points to one of the most interesting from a communication perspective: Myers-Briggs. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a profiling system that measures how people view the world and make decisions. Many organisations use this with staff to help understand team dynamics, but it is also very useful for the communicator. (Further reading will be required if it is to be used effectively.)

An understanding of MBTI and preferred communication types can inform one-to-one communication but also communication targeting groups. Typical differences in communication style can be a preference for detail compared to a preference for theory and concepts

As such it can help the project communicator in a number of ways:

  • in personal one-to-one communication with peers, senior colleagues and stakeholders;

  • designing communication approaches that will appeal to stakeholders across a range of typologies;

  • guiding project spokespeople in how to recognise their own communication style and adapt it as appropriate to the communication situation.

 

Understanding the communication preferences of another can be a revelation and help to avoid conflict. Take for example the scenario where a project manager who has a preference for detail is working with a communicator who tends to talk in concepts:

Project manager: ‘Which stakeholders received our latest communication?’

Communication lead: ‘Everyone.’

The project manager, exasperated, wonders why her communication lead is being so evasive.

The communication lead, annoyed, wonders why the project manager feels that she needs to check up on him all the time.

The communication lead later finds out about their MBTI profiles. Next time the project manager asks the question he responds by saying: ‘Everyone on our stakeholder list received it, that’s 200 in total covering managers down to grade B in the finance and procurement communities.’

‘Thank you, that’s great,’ says the project manager.

‘You’re welcome,’ says the communication lead.

 

This is a demonstration of the value of MBTI on an interpersonal level, but the same can apply when communicating with groups who may have a preferred communication style. It is also useful in leadership communication. Even the best leader may find that he or she is alienating colleagues because of a tendency to communicate in a particular style. Recognising this and making a conscious effort to adapt to other communication preferences can lead to more engaging leadership communication.

Changing Behaviour

Many projects require changes in behaviour in order to realise their benefits, for example different ways of working. Appreciating the complexity of the communication process brings with it an understanding of why changing behaviour through communication is more difficult than simply sending out a message. Theory proposes that people go through a number of steps (Wilcox et al. 2005). Table 4.5 suggests how communication can aid this process.

  1. Awareness

  2. Interest

  3. Evaluation

  4. Trial

  5. Adoption – idea integrated into belief system, ‘I read...becomes I think...’

 
Table 4.5 How communication can support people to adopt a change

Step towards change

Practical step

Awareness

One-way communication techniques and channels such as a news story, poster, newsletter or intranet. Provide accurate information.

Interest: people seek more information

Provide access to more detail. For example, a follow-up feature story, more in-depth detail online, inclusion in team briefings with more details provided as the basis of discussion. Invite people to get involved in shaping the change.

Evaluation: views sought from others

Create champions who have more information, support the changes and can discuss with colleagues, facilitate others giving their views publicly perhaps through a discussion forum, organise focus groups where opinions can be shared.

Trial: the ideas are tried out with others, saying ‘I read...’

Adoption – idea integrated into belief system, ‘I read...becomes I think...’

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