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A blog that looks at all aspects of project and program finances from budgets and accounting to getting a pay rise and managing contracts.

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Ask The Expert: Jack Appleman

Categories: communication


In today’s installment of my occasional series interviewing experts in their field, I caught up with Jack Appleman. He’s a proponent of clarity and communication – and he wants people who write for business to just do it a bit better.

Being able to get your ideas across in writing is so important. Without that, you can’t convince, negotiate, delegate or engage your stakeholders. So, let’s dive in.

Hello Jack. What's the mistake you see most from people when it comes to business writing?

The two biggest mistakes are overwriting—conveying the same point multiple times with too many words—and inserting pseudo-sophisticated text in an attempt to impress the readers when most people want clear and straightforward language.

Yes, I see that in comms I get. Hopefully not in what I send out! What tip do you think would most benefit project managers writing about their projects at work, say, in an email or proposal?

Start with a paragraph that succinctly explains the bottom line because readers are increasingly impatient.

For example, begin a project proposal with a compelling paragraph that sums up the most important information and then provide required sections such as goals, required facilities, deliverables, etc. This offers readers a choice: Those who just want the top-line information can stop after the first paragraph while others who want more details can keep reading.

Many project managers get promoted from operational or technical jobs where everyone knows the jargon, to a job where people don't. How can people reframe what they know about technical writing into business writing for a wider audience?

Apply the same principles for both types of writing. Technical writing typically involves communicating instructions or information about technical issues or specific projects, which must be clear, succinct and well-organized—the same skills needed for business emails and other documents.

Often, technical documents are unnecessarily filled with jargon. When writing to a non-technical audience, either avoid the jargon or explain any term that readers may not understand.

OK, great. How can people develop their writing skills?

Use common sense when reviewing what you’ve written. Ask yourself, “Is this good? Would I be satisfied if I were reading it?”

Try to complete your first drafts faster so you can allot more time on the all-important editing phase. You should also consider taking a live or online business writing course or signing up for one-on-one writing coaching.

Effective business writing—for project managers and everyone—is about getting your message across in a clear, concise and well-organized way so the reader understands it and takes your desired action. It’s not any more complicated than that!

Much of what project managers do is computer-mediated communication, either email or instant messaging, or through a project management tool. What are the pitfalls of that and how can project managers get round them?

Today, virtually everyone communicates via email or text messages. Apply the same principles of effective writing regardless of the communication channel, and practice proper etiquette (e.g., complete sentences, no weird abbreviations and correct grammar).

Plus, recognize when the message is too complex or sensitive to send via instant messaging or a text.

Good advice, thank you! How can people find out more about you?

Go to or email

About Jack

Jack E. Appleman, APR, CBC, business writing instructor and author of the top-selling 10 Steps to Successful Business Writing (2008, ATD Press), has developed innovative teaching methods to help working professionals achieve better results with their writing. The principal of Successful Business Writing, Jack has led workshops, webinars and coaching programs for organizations including HBO, Johnson & Johnson and the U.S. Olympic Committee, which have consistently earned outstanding evaluations. 

Posted on: June 13, 2017 09:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

How To Make Your Project Communications Trustworthy

Categories: communication

This month we’re talking about all things outsourcing and there’s nothing more important than communication when it comes to making an outsourcing partnership work.

More specifically, there’s nothing more important than trusted communication. People can be sceptical about outsourcing arrangements and if you want the partnership to really work it has to be built on trust.

In other words, you want them to believe the information that is in your status reports and other comms and to take what you say at face value. They should trust you to report the right things and they should trust the content in the report itself to be truly representative of the project today.

Here’s how to make your project communications trustworthy, and it’s easier than you might think!

First, there should be no surprises for your sponsor.

Whether you are working for a client or internally, reports aren’t the best way to find out about major project problems. There are other ways that you can do that. You should put big problems in your reports but only once you have cleared them through other communication routes.

Share The Reports With The Team

You should send your reports to your team members as well. I mention that because I know not everyone does it by default. Sometimes reports only go to stakeholders, clients, users, customers but not the people who are doing the job.

The fastest way to build trust between you and the team is to not drop them in it. You don’t want your reports to be full of blame and things that come as a surprise to them. This isn’t the way that they should find out about changes or schedule amendments. You have other routes open to you to inform them about those, although of course they should be mentioned in your reports once everyone knows about them.

Mostly we think of formal project reporting and communication as something we do to people outside the project team. But you have to have your team on side. They are ambassadors for your project and they need to be talking about it and promoting the benefits of your project with the people they work with and meet.

They will provide you with updates for your standard communications but they’ve got to understand current status and be able to field questions from your users or their colleagues as well, and they can do that better through understanding the big picture, whether they are on the outsourcing side or the customer side.

Stay on Message

Everyone hears the same version of the story, whatever their position. It undermines your communication efforts if different stakeholders are receiving different versions of the truth.

Staying on message limits the impact of your message being changed as people share it with their colleagues.  It’s also surprisingly easy for a team member to undermine your efforts about talking positively about your project, even if they don’t mean to, with a few off-hand remarks.

Finally on this, you’ll be more trusted as an individual if your team feels that you are representing their work properly in your reports, and they’ll believe that you are sharing everything with them if the reports are a transparent reflection of the work. If they see – whether they are a colleague or part of the management team – things in there that they weren’t expecting then they could start to feel that you are hiding things or simply that you aren’t on top of it all.

The Benefits of Trustworthy Reporting

The main benefit to come out of being trustworthy when communicating about your project is simply that people trust you. This is huge in project management and leadership because someone with good credibility who is trustworthy will find it much easier to get work done through other people. Your reputation counts for a lot.

You’ll also save time because you’ll believe what they are telling you and you won’t have to go routing around for a different version of the truth, or spend too much time trying to put what they’ve told you in a way that’s acceptable to the stakeholders.

When people feel confident that they can give you the truth about a problem and you aren’t going to turn that against them, then you’ll find it easier to make your reports accurate because they’ll tell you the truth from their side too.

Outsourcing relationships can work and be hugely successful (and I’ve seen some of those in action) but you need great communications based on trust and teamwork to really get the benefits of why you outsourced in the first place.

Posted on: July 04, 2016 12:00 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)

Minimising The Impact of Miscommunication

Categories: communication

Staying on message limits the impact of your message being changed as people share it with their colleagues – and this goes for positive marketing messages as well, not just crisis management communications. Having said that, ultimately you can’t stop people talking to others about your project, and from a marketing perspective when the message is positive, you absolutely want them to be talking about it.

These days everyone has an audience. They always have had, as colleagues have convened at the water cooler or around the kettle in the office kitchen. Today they have the tools to share information more quickly with their networks through social media, internal social networks and they’ll add their opinion there as well.

Remember that it’s people who stop projects, not crises. So being prepared in your communications planning for problems gives you a better chance of controlling gossip and unhelpful communications and thus limit the overall impact on your project.

This diagram is very linear but it’s important to recognise that the more you can hear what’s being said by the people hearing your message, the easier it will be for you to either correct the story or respond to their concerns.

Create Feedback Loops

Feedback loops are an essential part of your marketing communication because you need to know what is working. If isn’t working, ditch that method of communication and try something else.

A simple way to start gathering feedback today is to tell people how to give you feedback, for example in the last line in a newsletter article – provide your email address and a call to action to send you their comments. When you do receive and act on feedback close the loop by telling them what you have done with it.

On projects there’s also a formal feedback loop in the form of the post implementation review at the end of a project.

You do get more immediate feedback than that with communication activities, especially if you are talking to someone face-to-face, but I believe it’s worth building formal feedback loops into your marketing activities.

This gives you the chance to track how you are doing and correct your course if necessary. Here’s an example of a project I’ve done this on.

Feedback Improves Satisfaction

We tracked customer satisfaction results monthly. I gave each stakeholder group the opportunity to rate the project team across four measures: management of top issues, communication, planning and delivery. The stakeholder group that gave the project the worst scores was actually the IT department, and that’s the graph you see here. A bit embarrassing because that is the team I work in. The issue was spending so much time communicating to stakeholders outside the project team and my department that my immediate colleagues were getting a rough ride.

There were too many last minute requests from my project team, or assumptions made that didn’t allow the rest of the IT department to do their jobs efficiently. Once I put in place monthly stakeholder satisfaction scores and understood what was going wrong it was a slow but achievable job to turn around the perception of the project and build engagement.

We managed that by using each monthly conversation with department heads to explain how we were addressing their concerns and asking what else we could do to improve the experience of being on the project. We proactively marketed what we were doing differently so they felt listened to.

By taking the feedback into account and acting on it, I was able to manage expectations and improve the both satisfaction and project management practice. It was an exercise in marketing the project and the achievements and there’s a lot more about how it worked in my book, Customer-Centric Project Management if you’re particularly interested in that.

From this project we learned two things. First, you have to be able to adapt what you are doing. And second, satisfied, engaged stakeholders are a huge asset when things go wrong on projects. Putting in the effort helps you build great relationships and that’s a massive advantage when you need to take difficult decisions.

For more information on project marketing and the tools you can use to communicate about your project, watch my PMXPO talk on the topic. You can get it here (and claim a PDU at the same time).

Posted on: February 17, 2016 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Making the Most of Tools for Communicating About Your Project

Categories: communication

If you want to let people know about your project, you need to tell them.


And in lots of different ways.

In my last article about project marketing I wrote about the different ways of getting your message across that you could use from your intranet to a leaflet campaign.

Varying the tools you use to talk about your project is important because people need to hear the same message between 3-5 times before they start to believe it. After that it begins to lose its effectiveness.

It’s more interesting for them to hear it in a variety of ways. And you’re more likely to catch people who have a personal style that means they respond better to different approaches. For example, the intranet isn’t going to be very useful in reaching people that don’t spend a lot of time in front of a PC, like your catering staff. They might prefer to hear about your project through the staff magazine. When you vary your tools you improve the chanced that some of what you are talking about is going to go in.

It’s also beneficial for individuals to hear the message from different people, including someone more senior than them whom they respect. Look for ways that you can include quotes from your Project Board members or invite them to attend events with you.

Avoiding Information Overload

With all this communication happening and the different tools, and the repetition, you’ve got to be careful about creating a balance so that you can avoid information overload. People can and will be fatigued by your messages. You could probably give me examples of marketing messages and advertising that you see so often, like billboards at the side of the road, that you stop noticing it’s there.

Unfortunately, there’s no scientific method for working out when that is going to happen, so I can’t give you a rule to apply. My best tip is to create a communications calendar to run alongside the rest of your communications plan so you can easily see which messages are going out when and to whom. Then you can judge if one audience is receiving too much at any one time, or conversely, not receiving enough.

Be visual

Another way to help balance your messages is to be visual.

YouTube is the second largest search engine after Google, with over 1 bn unique visitors per month. Pinterest was the fastest growing social network in 2014, seeing a 97% growth in active users. There’s no doubting that pictures help get your message across.

A study from at the University of Minnesota found that presenters who used visual aids were considered 43% more persuasive (pdf), and as you want to be persuasive about your project it will help you to include images.

Go visual with video

You’ve also got the option to use video. It’s not expensive and you don’t need professional kit to do it any longer.

Here are some screenshots from a video we made about a big software implementation. Originally the project sponsor and I planned to travel to each of the 40 locations to discuss the impact and answer questions directly from a wide group of stakeholders. When we looked at the logistics it wasn’t practical for us to take that much time away from managing the project to solely focus on this communication strand. So we made a video what we would have told them face to face.

You can see here a mix of talking heads, tour round the new servers, screenshots of the software and panning shots of people at work. This was a software project, so even if you are creating something like software that isn’t as visual as, say, a construction project, then you can still create interesting videos with a mix of participation from the project team. It’s fun and engaging for project team to do as well.

This video was watched by key people at all locations and we had excellent feedback on it. You can see how many times your videos are watched through a simple count on YouTube but if you do publish on YouTube then make sure you do so as a private video so only those people with the link can see it.

For us, the video was a simple way to promote the project, reach a wide audience and give people a consistent message without having to meet them individually. On the plus side we probably reached more people than town hall style meetings. On the negative side I had to rely on phone calls, emails and capturing queries via the intranet instead of hearing and responding to questions face to face in real time. There are payoffs and choices in every communication decision!

For more information on project marketing and the tools you can use to communicate about your project, watch my PMXPO talk on the topic. You can get it here (and claim a PDU at the same time).

Posted on: January 11, 2016 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

Marketing Your Project 101

Categories: communication

Stakeholder engagement doesn’t just happen. You need to work at it, and marketing your project is one way to do that.


OK, let’s start with a definition of marketing as it relates to projects.

Marketing is a planned series of tasks with the objective of promoting your project to a wide audience.

It goes beyond project communications planning because it’s not just about sharing status updates or communicating because you have to. Marketing is the promotional activity to get people to believe in what you are doing and to want in. It’s making sure that your communications plan has an impact beyond the paper it is written on and beyond what’s simply communication on a functional level.

Taking a marketing-led approach to projects does impact project success. In research done by Peter Taylor in 2014, 87% of respondents said that marketing activities have an impact on project success, with nearly half saying it’s a critical activity.

You’ll see that there’s one typical response missing from the graph – the ‘no impact’ response. That’s because no one replied saying that marketing was unimportant. I thought that was interesting – generally people believe marketing is a good idea.

Tools for Marketing in a Project Environment

So if that’s what’s marketing is all about, what tools have we got available to us to do it?

The tools I use most often to communicate with my team and stakeholders are:

  • Web conferencing
  • Instant messaging
  • The good old project status report

This is the one I use to communicate project status to my sponsor. It’s a weekly report. I still send it in a Word document format and it’s one big table, even though I know that tables don’t display well on BlackBerries and the people who are reading it are likely to be travelling and using their BlackBerries a fair amount of the time.

Despite technology moving on, in many respects the way we communicate with our project sponsors follows the tried and tested route.

These tools are good, and form the backbone of any project communication strategy. But there are dozens of ways you can communicate and you don’t have to only rely on them.

Here are some other tools that you can use, many of them are free or at least low cost, so they won’t have too much of an impact on your project budget.

Even if your communication plan and stakeholder analysis tell you that a particular stakeholder likes to receive information by email you should vary your tools from time to time. It helps keep the message fresh. It helps reach a greater audience – and marketing is about reaching a wide audience to spread information about your project.

You can also look for less obvious sources of good PR such as providing information or resources to other teams at short notice – activities that don’t have a blanket reach and might not feel like traditional communication activities but they will create positive engagement on a much smaller scale. That engagement is likely to be deeper than in the case of receiving a mug with the project’s slogan on, so that’s the benefit.

However, you should also bear in mind that communication is a two-way street. Just because you tell someone to do something or ask for their involvement doesn’t mean it will happen. Project communications and marketing can’t just be about pushing messages out there – your tools should include ways to receive messages too.

Some of these tools, especially the ones where you are meeting face-to-face, give you the opportunity to get those messages back. In my experience you’ll still have to ask for them, so ask for feedback and then act on it.

For more information on project marketing and the tools you can use to communicate about your project, watch my PMXPO talk on the topic. You can get it here (and claim a PDU at the same time).

Posted on: December 19, 2015 11:59 PM | Permalink | Comments (7)

Don't ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.

- Robert Frost