How to Improve Projects with Communication (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of a three-part series. You can read Part 1 in our Journal. 

The long and patient slog

Compared to the excitement of kickoff and the frantic pace of launch, the middle of projects feels kinda like a slog. You a few highs and lows, but it’s more like a steady jog than anything else.

Your communication will mirror this, too.

But don’t let a dip in excitement mean a drop-off in your communication. What you do in the middle is just as important as the beginning and end, too.

Here are five areas you want to focus on.

1. Touch base with the client, every week

as in, EVERY week

Remember, what’s obvious to them isn’t obvious to you. And what’s obvious to you isn’t obvious to them.

Even if things are hardly moving and very slow that week, send the client a weekly update. Let them know what’s happened, what’s going to happen, and touch base on anything important.

Depending on the week, these updates may be really long or really short.

My weekly update template

Here’s what I use for most of our clients. It saves me a lot of time and provides consistency for the recipients. 

It’s intentionally un-fancy.

If your customer is more formal, you might want to tweak the language. Remember that voice of customer data. If there’s a specific bug or issue you’re tracking, you might want to add a status section on that.

This is really customizable.

I’d emphasize that clarity is key here, though, and that’s what’s driven my language choice for my template.

You’re not trying to impress them with this layout or your vocabulary. (If the client is noticing those things, there’s a good chance you’re doing it wrong.) You’re trying to clearly, respectfully tell them exactly what’s going on. Make it as easy to digest as possible, especially if you need an answer to a question.

I normally send these on Friday, in our project management app, Teamwork. I’d recommend you check with your client and see if they prefer another day. Maybe Monday is better because that’s when they get stuff done. Or Wednesday, because that’s when they meet with their team. Ask them, and you’ll find out. 

Whatever you do, keep sending them

My favorite way to think about this is:

Have you ever tried to turn the tires of your car while you’re parked?

It’s really hard, right?

Now think about how easy that same action is while you’re already moving. With just a fraction of the effort, you can change lanes.

Newton’s first law of “no, you get up first.”

A similar concept applies to projects.

If the project halts, it takes a lot of energy to redirect it or kickstart it back to life.

But if it stays in motion, even a little bit, it’s much easier to make adjustments, not to mention progress. 

2. Un-suck your emails

You don’t have to be a people-person, an empath, or a wordsmith to write good emails.

Our developer writes great emails. Our designer writes great emails. You don’t have to have any kind of specific role to write a good email. You just have to slow down and care about the person receiving it.

Effective communication framework

With your emails, you want to get through the five steps of successful communication, outlined below. 

Courtesy of “Making Things Happen” by Scott Berkun.

A lot of times, our emails get stuck at one of these five points:

  • A wifi issue prevents the message from being received.
  • The words you use prevent the receiver from comprehending.
  • The idea you send is preposterous or the receiver has a different opinion. You fail to reach an agreement.
  • The necessary action isn’t obvious. Or requires too many steps. Or any number of things. So the email isn’t converted to useful action.

Email rules guidelines

For the next month, keep these guidelines in mind to help you get through those five steps of effective communication. 

Start with why. When you go to craft an email, make sure you have a reason. Like a good reason. Not you feel the need to be productive and sending emails accomplishes that (I’m guilty of this). Make sure you actually have something to communicate.

Keep it simple. Ask yourself, “what am I trying to say?” Then go back and see if you’ve said it. This is harder than it sounds.

Keep it kind. Use words your client can define and speak their language (that’s where voice of customer data comes in).

Keep it focused. What question do you need them to answer? What action do you need them to take? Focus your few words on that. Target ONE thing. Best you can, center your email on one question, one to-do or one ask. This is way more effective — something CTAs, drip campaigns, and purchase pages all show us.

Emphasize important information. Whether you highlight it, bold it, add emojis…find some way to make important points in important emails stand out. (Disclaimer: please don’t do this in every email.)

Enable undo send. The only button you should be quick to hit is delete. Enable Gmail’s undo send for those moments you realize, “I shouldn’t have said that” or, “that email was totally unnecessary.”

Three resources to help you write better emails

1. The Hemingway App 

My husband is a brilliant math guy, a wonderful people-person, and a pretty terrible emailer. At least, he used to be.

One evening, when he came home frustrated over coworker emails, I introduced him to the Hemingway app. It’s focused on simplifying and clarifying your writing. It’s not much help for poetry, but when research shows that people respond best to emails on a second or third-grade reading level, this is magic.

colorful means keep trying
white and clean means ready to send

2. Julie Zhuo’s examples and guidelines

Julie Zhuo, VP of Design at Facebook, has some really good examples over in her post, Escaping e-mail hell:

If you check those out, you’ll notice a trend – a great way to un-suck your emails is to shorten them!

Shortening your emails isn’t just more efficient, it’s respectful of the other parties’ time and interests. Quite frankly, they don’t care about your logistics. They care about theirs. 

Recognizing that the person you’re emailing has their own time constraints and interests is one big way you can be kind to them.

By the way, something else you can do to un-suck your emails is to make a template stash of good replies. (Or canned responses in Gmail.)

One day this month, set aside some time to craft a template for thank yous, follow-ups, apologies, and other common emails you’ll send. Save these somewhere readily accessible so the next time you need a good email, you have a starting point.

3. Get your timezones right  

Timezoning is hard, amiright?

For the love of all that is good. If you’re sending a time in your email, take an extra 30 seconds to remind yourself where the client is. Then communicate times in their timezone. Not yours. Not some weird standard you think should be a standard. Theirs. Because most of the time, especially if they’re skimming or busy, people will read their context into the time.

So save yourself ten emails and save the client some embarrassment by always using their timezone.

If you don’t know how to timezone or sometimes have trouble with it, use everytimezone.comIt’s damn near magic. 

3. Give great feedback

In the middle stretch of the project, you’ll have to give feedback on something.

Maybe it’s on design, the direction of the project, an idea, or development. When that inevitably happens, here are some things to keep in mind.

Have you ever given or received feedback that followed this formula:

  • praise
  • thing you should work on
  • praise

I used to be a big fan of that formula but Claire Lew over at Know Your Company produced some content that made me question it. She calls this formula, “shit sandwiches,” and, in her experience, they’re extremely unhelpful.

That’s primarily because people pick and choose what they want to hear. It’s also because people know about this technique so, when they receive it, it feels disingenuous.

And shit sandwiches are usually a whole lot more about making you feel comfortable than the person receiving it.

A better way to feedback

Claire suggests the following based on years of talking with CEOs and gathering employee data.

  • Come from a place of care
  • Come from a place of observation
  • Admit fallibility
  • Come from a place of curiosity

In your projects, coming from a place of care can look like framing up your feedback around a shared goal or the other person’s success.

Ideally, this actually is the reason you’re giving the feedback.

Not everyone is jumping at the gun to hear criticism. Framing things up around a shared goal or the other person’s success makes criticism much easier to take.

It becomes obvious that you’re coming at things from a place of concern, not malice, or simply taking a bad day out on them.

Coming from a place of curiosity means wondering what the other party thinks and observes.

To play that out in a project, you deliver feedback then ask questions like the ones above.

This is a humble, caring way you can solicit the other party’s input and work together toward a better result.

4. Own apologies

Despite what an all-star you are, you’re going to mess something up – or your team is going to mess something up – and you’ll need to apologize.

great phrases to never say to clients

You’ll get sleep deprived, or you’ll move too fast and break something, or you’ll just have an off day.

Whenever you do screw something up, it’s important you know how to effectively apologize so both parties can keep moving forward without the weight of shame, frustration or bitterness dragging the project down.

How to make an apology

These five elements of an effective apology are taken from Helpscout, one of the best customer support platforms out there.

From the sheer volume of tickets they deal with, they know a thing or two about screw-ups and owning mistakes.

How to trash an apology

None of these actions will benefit you. In fact, they’ll not only crush your apology, they’ll make it even harder for you to communicate for a while – perhaps even for the rest of the project.

Most of the time, the customer just wants to hear your admission, validation for their emotions, and a prevention strategy. It won’t kill you to do that.

an example apology. no one was injured in the making of this.

Be clear and straightforward.

Don’t over-apologize but do outline what happened, why it happened, and what you’ll do about it. Be genuine, validate their emotions, and then move on – this kind of apology will help them move on too.

5. Remember your team

With the beginning and the middle of the project, we’ve mostly honed in on your communications with the client. But that last bit on feedback and apologies leads us straight into some things you’ll want to do if you’re working on or with a team as well.

updates aren’t just good for clients, they’re good for your team as well

Below is an example of the kind of update you can give if you’re heading up the project.

You can say it a lot of different ways but the ingredients stay the same:

  • outline what specific items you need
  • when specific items are due
  • and who you need the specifics from
If you’re not in the South, you can omit the “y’all”

Give your team an opportunity to respond to this as well.

If, instead, you’re working on a piece (not leading it), you’ll want to send more of the following kind of update:

Even if your team or project leader doesn’t ask for one, do it anyways. Trust me, they’ll love you for it.

There’s an ingredient list for this one, too:

  • Specify what specific items you’re working on
  • When you’ll be working on them
  • When you’ll be done working on them
  • How your team can help you

Don’t forget your team is human

Every week, with every teammate, make time to talk with them. Especially if you’re in leadership or managing the project.

But you don’t have to be in any kind of leadership position to do this. You can learn quite a bit about how your boss is going to react to things that week if you ask these questions of them.

Admittedly, this is something I’m trying to get better at. I can get really caught up in tasks and to-do lists and forget about the people around me. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember to do that. I still think it’s incredibly important.

It’s not bad to generally ask how you can help. But remember a general question usually gets you a general answer. It’s better if you can suggest a specific way you could help. This will usually jumpstart the person on thinking of something you can do.

And the last question (how are you?) – very important. If someone is buying a house, starting a new travel season with the kids, getting married, going through a divorce, in a period of grieving….these are all life factors that – like it or not – bleed into your project. People are not as neatly segmented as we sometimes would like them to be, so remember that your teammate’s life provides some context for their work as well.

So long as it’s not seen as intrusive, ask them how they are. You’ll learn a lot from that question.

This is Part 2 of 3 of Laura Bosco’s WordCamp Birmingham ’18 talk. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and online readability.

Authored By

Project Manager

Laura leads team efficiency by communicating with clients, tracking hoards of details, and providing timely support. She likes challenging recipes, hedgehogs, beautiful words, and bourbon.

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