Chapter 7 - Communication

Part 2

Communication

There are many different definitions of communication

The common denominator is: Communication denotes the exchange of information. It is therefore a specific form of social interaction.

How communication works

There are informal and formal types of communication.

Informal communication

  • Enables an unofficial exchange of views between one or more stakeholders
  • People tend to be more forthcoming in informal conversations than they are at official meetings
  • Not governed by formal rules
  • Is indispensable as a supplement to formal communication to ensure flexibility and ability to develop

Formal communication

  • Prescribed by the management and carried out by official channels
  • Required when project scope needs to be changed or new specifications need to be agreed formal communication is required

Communication is based on the classic "transmitter/ receiver" model: Transmitter sends a signal which is collected by a receiver; information flows only in one direction. Project communication, on the other hand, is all about interaction. Both sides alternately send and receive information. The objective is to enable the recipient to respond to information rather than simply to acknowledge it without having any opportunity to react. If the sender is able to receive information and the recipient has the opportunity to respond with personal comments about the information he has received, he will be able to influence the future course of the project.

Communication between transmitter and receiver is reciprocal and both benefit from each other.

Real information value is achieved by ensuring that it is properly structured and evaluated. But sometimes misunderstandings can occure because

  • different people generally interpret information in different ways (which may be ambiguous),
  • they are inevitable if the sender is not able to convey his message so that it is "correctly" understood by the recipient,
  • and written information (e.g. in e-mails) is often misunderstood because the sender is not able to support it with gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. Emotional undertones are therefore difficult to identify.

Ambiguous and flawed communication can cause real conflicts, e.g. arising from misunderstandings when colleagues and partners talk at cross purposes or do not listen to each other properly because hasty accusations and subliminal aggression set the tone.

Senders and recipients can also have entirely different assumptions about

  • each other,
  • the objectives associated with transmitting the information and
  • their prior knowledge of the information content.

Some of the things that these assumptions are based on include

  • the sender's own prior knowledge,
  • values and attitudes, as well as
  • experiences in situations or involving other people that match the sender and recipient's own assessment of the situation and the other person.

The way that information is interpreted depends to a great extent on the context in which the sender and recipient view each other.

Non-verbal communication

Although a combination of written and oral communication is the best way of communicating - in the daily job as well as in projects, non-verbal communication should not be underestimated. Unlike written and oral communication, non-verbal communication focuses on body language. Facial expressions, gestures (use of the body in conjunction with language), gesticulation (use of physical gestures independently of spoken language), stance, distance to the other party, external appearance, voice, talking speed, dialect and accent are all forms of expression that enable people to form an opinion about the person they are talking to and provide a context within which information is interpreted.

When dealing with other members of the team, project personnel should therefore make an effort to recognize and control their non-verbal signals and to observe those of the person they are talking to. Saying "Nice to see you" with an angry expression on your face will be interpreted as "I don't want to be at this meeting". Someone who is sitting at the conference table with a smile on his face and folded arms is indicating defensiveness, disinterest or irony.

Communication rules

In case a conflict already arose, there are some rules for communication which should be kept in mind in those situations. Nevertheless, they are also generally applicable:

By bad communication conflicts can arise, by good communication these can be eliminated or prevented.

Feedback

Feedback is a voluntary provision of information. It allows people to observe their actions and behaviour from a different perspective, which sensitises them to the expectations and preferences of others.

The following recommendations and guidelines apply to feedback situations.

Receiving feedback

  • Other people's perceptions can differ from self-perceptions
  • Feedback is an opportunity to obtain additional information about yourself
  • Feedback is not a request for change

Giving feedback

  • Clarify whether feedback is desired
  • Describe your own experience
  • Describe the effect of the actions ("I"-statements), but do not pass judgement or interpret things
  • Formulate feedback concisely and precisely
  • Only mention things that can be changed

Presentations

Presentations have become an everyday aspect of project managers' work. However, even project managers who routinely make presentations should ask themselves: "Have I thought of everything?" It is also necessary to ensure that a project presentation is not a boring monologue. It will be far more convincing if it incorporates interactive elements because the presenter wants to get the audience on his side.

Three key messages should be communicated to the audience's subconscious:

  1. Competence: "Professionals are at work here!"
  2. Power and dynamism: "We've got the project under control!"
  3. Affinity and communication: "We're nice people and we like talking to you!"

Environment

An environment appropriate to the occasion and the audience is essential for a successful presentation. It includes

  • a room where people feel comfortable (e.g. suitable location and furniture, temperature, pleasant lighting, cleanliness, tidiness, quiet atmosphere),
  • efficiently functioning technology (e.g. electronic devices),
  • drinks and snacks, as well as
  • a presenter, dressed for the occasion, who has well-ordered and smartly-presented documents.

Time of day

The best times of day for presentations are

  • in the morning between 9 am and lunchtime or
  • in the afternoon between 2 pm and 5 pm.

Many people tend to be still tired at 8 am and unable to assimilate information. After lunch, few people are capable of outstanding mental feats. And after 5 pm, many employees are already mentally on their way home to their evening meal.

Structure

The presenter can structure the presentation in three steps:

  1. Description: "What is the status quo?"
  2. Arguments: "Why should we change it?"
  3. Necessary measures: "How can we change it so that we are all satisfied?"

These questions are answered in the various sections of the presentation, which has been arranged in a logical sequence by the presenter. He should ensure that a "thread" runs through the entire presentation. Positive suspense should be gradually built up and then reduced again towards the end of the presentation. Ideally, the audience should always be curious about the next part of the presentation. In the preparatory phase, the presenter should check after each section that the structure sustains the "thread" and positive suspense.

The first part of the presentation could include an example of project work or a scenario that is slightly exaggerated to grab the audience's attention. It doesn't hurt to make them laugh, smile or shake their heads.

Graphics and tables that provide a clear overview of facts and figures make a welcome change to slides with a lot of text. However, they should be reduced to a clear and immediately obvious key statement, be graphically simple yet professionally presented. It only makes sense to use a chart if the audience can understand it at first glance.

Information

The presenter should aim to generate images in the audience's mind and not just on the wall.

Design

A successful presentation is logically structured and the texts are well-spaced so that the audience can remember the content. Transparencies that contain too much text are a waste of time because they bombard the audience with too much information at first glance, which means they don't make the effort to read it.

If the presenter is using slides, he should observe the following rules:

  • Size should be not too small
  • At least single line spacing
  • Maximum of three content statements per slide
  • Paragraphs with sub-headings should be used
  • No passive constructions (e.g. it is better to say "The project manager says" than "According to the project manager")
  • Highlight important points (e.g. in bold type) and, ideally, only highlight one point per paragraph
  • Use only one font, two type formats (e.g. normal and bold) and only three type sizes per slide
  • Arrange the elements so that there is plenty of blank space on the slides (uncluttered pages)
  • Use the same visual aids (e.g. symbols) throughout the presentation
  • Don't just use text, but also images, charts, diagrams and tables
  • Don't forget the project logo positioned in the same place on every slide

Dealing with nerves

Dealing with nerves

Even experienced presenters suffer from nerves. Being nervous before a presentation is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it's entirely normal. If you are plagued with fears about the presentation you should

  • view the situation as an opportunity rather than a threat,
  • use positive thoughts ("Everything's fine") instead of negative ones ("I should have prepared more thorough"),
  • tone down expectations: nobody is perfect and the audience only expects a well-structured and interesting presentation,
  • remember challenging situations that you have dealt with well in the past,
  • take two or three deep breaths, ideally at an open window, when nobody is watching,
  • pace up and down the room, focusing on the task ahead,
  • smile and
  • keep in mind: The more practised you become, the less you will suffer from nerves.

Stakeholder communication

Stakeholder communication needs to be timely, proactive, regular, honest and interactive.

Communication concept

At the outset of the project, a project manager and his team develop a stakeholder communication strategy. A communication matrix, based on the information obtained in the stakeholder analysis, helps them to record the information requirements of project stakeholders. Its structure is similar to that of the reporting schedule and it shows which measures are to be implemented, in what way and when.

The stakeholder analysis provides the project manager with information about which stakeholders are important for the project, which could damage the project and which could be of use to him. The team then develops tailor-made communication measures for each stakeholder group.

In small-scale projects, only one member of staff is usually assigned to the implementation of the measures. In this case, the project manager has to assume responsibility for this task but delegate the work (e.g. writing texts) to his team. The team should clarify the form in which each stakeholder wishes to receive information and provide feedback. They can use a communication matrix to do this.

Elements of stakeholder communication

When communicating with stakeholders, the project team selects the intended methods from a catalogue of measures, which can include:

  • Project meetings (including telephone and video conferences)
  • Project reports
  • Websites or social networks
  • Events
  • Idea competitions

Meetings

Meetings are an indispensable tool for the coordination of project work. They are crucial, not only from a professional point of view, but also for stakeholder management. In order to get good results quickly, both the person chairing the meeting and the participants must adhere to specific rules and know what they have to do to ensure the meeting's success.

Characteristics of a good meeting

Various indicators provide information about whether a meeting will be worthwhile:

  • Before the meeting
    • The meeting has been well-prepared and pursues one or more clear objectives.
    • The participants have received information in advance of the meeting.
    • An agenda was prepared and the meeting follows this.
  • During the meeting
    • The only people attending the meeting are the ones who are really needed (e.g. to make decisions).
    • Each participant has the opportunity to state his opinion and the chairperson encourages shy participants to speak.
    • All participants have equal rights, irrespective of their position in the organisation's hierarchy.
    • The chairperson or a person nominated by him uses a binding speaking order.
    • All participants and the contributions they make to the meeting are treated with respect, killer phrases have to be avoided.
    • Differences of opinion are resolved immediately at the meeting; if immediate resolution is not possible, a date is fixed for a meeting to resolve these differences of opinion.
  • After the meeting
    • Each participant is able to summarise the results in his own words.
    • Each participant can explain the tasks that he has been given at the meeting.
    • Each participant leaves the meeting feeling positive.
    • Rough minutes of the meeting are prepared and signed by all participants; it is best to include the comments that are written on flip charts or Metaplan walls in the minutes of the meeting.

If these characteristics are respected, mishaps can be avoided.

How the story ends…

John read so much about communication, meetings and presentations that he decides to take part in Dr. Roger's afternoon meeting with his project team. He checks the time and recognizes that it was nearly over. Nevertheless, he goes to the meeting room to hearing the final words.

"Great, team! This was a very successful meeting. I know I've given you a lot of information. I don't want to overwhelm you, but it is important to me that we all follow the same rules regarding communication. Do you have any questions before it's time to go home?" Harry Anson, John knew him only by hearsay, nods: "We haven't talked about communication guidelines." "Yes, you're right. We'll do some catching up on this topic tomorrow. First, I wanted to find a common ground with you concerning the communication. Now I would like to ask you to think about communication guidelines. And as usual, we are going to develop them tomorrow as a team. But can anybody do a favour to me and explain the importance of communication guideline to John, our intern?" A woman in her thirties raises her hand and says: "Hi John, my name is Karen Wilson, nice to meet you. Communication guidelines are defined to specify which communication tools are to be used by project personnel when contacting stakeholders and for what purpose. So, for example, if we contact a supplier, we use different communication tools, than when we contact our senior management."