Communication: Tailoring to Your Audience

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We communicate every day with the people around us in so many ways. Verbal and non-verbal interaction are as natural as breathing. So why is effective communication so hard to master?

The number one piece of advice that I give to anyone entering the field of project management is that communication is the priority. Among all of the different knowledge areas, processes and activities that go into managing a project, effective communication is the one single area that can make or break your project without you knowing it happened.

Expressing ideas is not difficult. Expressing them in a way that transcends language differences, cultural differences, personalities, personal objectives, and all of the other lenses and filters that people see through… well, THAT is the challenge.

One of the ways to get your message across is to know your audience. Tailor your message to fit the people you are speaking with. High level executives who see things from the 30,000 foot level (“the forest”) are not interested in the details (“the trees”). The minute you go into specifications and technical jargon, you will lose them. On the other hand, technical audiences will not be satisfied with a bullet point approach. In their world, using a semi-colon when you should have used a colon can have a devastating effect on the outcome. They are all about the details.

And what happens when you lose your audience? You lose their faith. I witnessed a very smart woman derail her career because she had trouble communicating effectively with executive leaders. The issue was not a lack of knowledge, but rather the inability to express herself in a way that they understood. Consequently, their impression was that she was not qualified and that they needed someone else who was more knowledgeable.

Was it her fault that they didn’t understand? Well, yes, it was. As the sender of the message, it is your responsibility to make sure that message is received. If your skills in that area are not up to par, get some help. Communication skills can be improved with practice and planning.

And the good news is that while we are working on improving our verbal and non-verbal communication skills (which never stop needing improvement), there are other tools and “cheats” that we can use to help us achieve greater understanding of and with our audience. Below are some of my favorite tips that help with communication management on a project (and in life in general).

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Know Your Audience

Knowing your audience is key to successfully delivering your message. This does not mean that you have to personally know the people you are engaging, you just need to understand the type of person who is in your audience and what their likely preferences are for receiving communication. Luckily, there are some ways that can help us understand who we are addressing without knowing them directly.

Areas of Expertise

The area of a person’s expertise is a great indicator of what kind of information they are used to dealing with and how they prefer to receive information. As in the example mentioned earlier, developers often deal with intricate details that others never consider. Details matter to them. On the other hand, executives who deal with the overall vision of the company do not have time for the details. They are interested in feasibility, viability, cost and return on investment.

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And you have to consider more than just their general field. In IT for example, the network admins are going to focus on very different things than web developers will. And even within web development, priorities among the front end folks (design) are very different from the back end people (programmers and data miners). As another example, the transactional accounting staff have a far different viewpoint than the corporate accounting managers.

What a person does on a daily basis is a good first indicator as to what approach you should take.

Personality Tendencies

There are many different personality assessment methods that can be helpful in figuring out the best way to communicate with someone. Introverts have different stressors than Extroverts. You do not want your message to be lost simply because someone was uncomfortable with the environment or too focused on things not relevant to the conversation.

Common personality assessments include the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), DISC assessment and Big Five Personality Traits among others. They are great guidelines for helping you understand how people perceive the world and receive communication. And, once you begin recognizing where people fall in these broad categories, you can begin structuring your meetings and other forms of communication to target their needs and ensure better reception of your message.

Past Experience

One of the things that often gets in the way of effective communication is past experiences of both parties. As the speaker, you should learn from past experiences, but treat each new engagement as a fresh opportunity to get your message across. Throw away what happened in the past and start clean without assumptions. For example, do not assume she is going to interrupt you again like she did last time. Things like that might cause you to rush your point or speak quickly in order to avoid interruption. This is not conducive to communicating your message.

In addition to minding your own past experiences, consider your audience’s as well. Have they been through a similar project with less than desirable results? If so, expect some resistance. And know that they are going to be keenly interested in how this project will be different and why they should be excited about it. Spend time in this area developing how you will address these concerns.

Language and Cultural Differences

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Many books have been written on the topic of language and cultural differences. I have seen it happen. Misunderstandings can occur on very simple things. And in today’s global economy, where we work with people from other countries and other cultures constantly, it is important to know how those differences may affect perception and understanding.

Even when countries like the United States and England share the same native language, you still may need experience translation issues simply because the same words have different meanings. For example, a slang British word for cigarette is quite offensive in the U.S. and a common women’s name from a few decades ago in the U.S. will raise eyebrows in Great Britain.

Quick Tip: Do not use contractions, slang or colloquialisms when writing emails and other documents. They are confusing to non-native speakers who have likely learned the language through formal education and without the benefit of growing up with your colorful grandmother from West Texas. Sometimes it is not easy to recognize that something is, in fact, a regional saying. Not everyone around the world knows that “fixing to” really means “about to”. I learned that quickly on my first trip abroad when my British colleagues asked me what it was exactly that we were fixing.

Other Tools and Practices

So now that you know your audience and are prepared to engage them, how do we keep those communication lines open? Communication, after all, is a loop and we need to feed it constantly to ensure that it remains open and working.

Study body language.

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There have been many studies and articles written about the importance of non-verbal communication. It has been reported that anywhere from 65% to 90% of communication is non-verbal. Regardless of the actual percentages quoted, all studies conclude undisputedly that non-verbal communication is utilized far more than actual verbal communication. It is imperative that you learn to read body language. This gives you important feedback on how well your messages is being received and if you need to focus more on any specific details of the general message.

One of the best anecdotes I can share to emphasize how very important this skill is occurred on a project to upgrade an in-house application. I was meeting with the developers on the project, three in the room and one via conference call. While discussing a particular issue, the developer on the phone suggested making a change that immediately had the three in the room stiffening in their seats. When no one spoke up, I asked for more details and the discussion became more detailed. Eventually, we identified issues with the suggested approach and dismissed it. After the meeting, the junior project manager who was assisting asked me how I knew all of this stuff… how I understood what the developers were talking about because he was lost in all of their tech-speak. I told him that I did not understand the technicalities of the discussion, but based on the body language of the others, I knew there was a problem with what she had suggested and we needed to dig in a little deeper. If I had not picked up on those signals, it is likely that we might have gone astray and created more issues for the project.

There is a lot of information on the Internet on the subject. This article, Body Language — Picking Up and Understanding Nonverbal Signals by MindTools is a nice introduction to some of the key concepts.

Always follow up.

You can have the best meeting or presentation of your life, get everyone on the same page and feel ready to conquer the world. Then the meeting ends and everyone walks out that door to deal with other issues. People are busy. While this project might be your priority, it is not necessarily their priority. You must follow up. It can sometimes feel like babysitting, but it is effective. (I truly believe the person who coined the phrase “herding cats” was a project manager!)

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Tip: Send out an immediate summary of the meeting and include an action list with due dates. Do it as soon as you can while the details are still fresh in your mind. Set a follow-up reminder for the recipients and a separate follow-up reminder for yourself to follow up on the follow-up. (Yes, repeating the phrase “follow up” was intentional.)

Be consistent.

It sounds silly, but sometimes you have to train your audience (team, stakeholders, etc). When you are consistent with your approach you will get results, whether we are talking about meetings, communications, responsiveness, etc. While consistency is not the mother of invention, it is definitely a contributing factor in earning faith and trust.

A small but powerful example is how I execute project meetings. I always start on time. Always. If anyone is late to the meeting, it is their loss. We do not back up and reiterate anything for anyone. I do this because time is important to people. If you use their time wisely, they will appreciate you and will give you their attention. If you waste their time, you have lost them and their cooperation. My experience in using this method has been that team members who are late to the first meeting are rarely late to the second.

Status Reports

One of my favorite tools in my arsenal is the Status Report. It took me some time to develop the right format for delivering a periodic status report that kept everyone interested, but the first time I used this one, I received praise from the upper echelons of the company. And I have received the same positive feedback on it with every project since then.

This Status Report is only 1–2 pages in length and has the following four sections:

  1. Introduction and Audience — Explains what this communication is about and who all is receiving a copy. (You will find that noting who is receiving a copy can become very important on occasion.)
  2. Items that Need your Attention — Used to highlight a decision that has become imperative and needs immediate attention. (Often empty, but effective when needed. Do not overuse this as doing so will reduce its effectiveness.)
  3. Upcoming and Ongoing Items — Bullet point list of items in progress.
  4. Completed/Closed Since Last Update — Items from section 3 go here upon completion. Items completed since the last update are kept in the regular font color and previously completed items are changed to a gray color to de-emphasize.

The fourth section, Completed Items, is significant for very subtle reasons. It is important to continually remind both stakeholders and team members of what has already been accomplished and the successes we have experienced so far. This method gives you a way to do that without sounding like an over-exuberant cheerleader. Because the Status Report is meant to be short (1–2 pages), this section must constantly be revised as more items are completed. Maintain this section by removing low importance completions from the gray list first. Next, you can often summarize related tasks into one in order to free up space. Because the purpose of this section is to maintain visibility of past accomplishments, you only want to do remove content when it becomes necessary.

One other thing to note about this Status Report is that I often do two different versions: the executive version and the team version. The executive version is the official version. The team version has more detail that is relevant to team members and not desired by executive sponsors. Also important… send them out consistently. You will find that people come to look for them and will question you if you miss the usual deadline.

Hopefully, this has given you some ideas on how to improve your communication skills and some tips that can help you with your project communication efforts.

~May your deadlines be reasonable and your budgets be ample.

(This is an updated version of the article originally published at

Project Manager who believes in continuous improvement, which includes myself. Learn something new every day!

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