In a previous article I recommended that Project Managers monitor the written communication of their teams closely. Not in terms of snooping or spying or with the intent to chastise, but simply to ensure that all written communication is professional, respectful, and of the highest caliber.
As I inferred in that article (“Why Monitoring Communications Begins With the Ask”), monitoring the thousands of daily project emails would be virtually impossible. As for texts, completely impossible.
Certainly, during the course of a day, the Project Manager receives emails from project staff, copies of emails that originate with the staff, and texts and Instant Messages from staff. These all provide excellent opportunities to monitor the written communications of the project.
Emails and other written forms of project communication are the lifeblood of the project. As such, they reflect on the professionalism and reputation of the organization, whether coming from the Project Manager, employees, or contracted staff.
Yet so little attention is given to this. Project staff are not taught proper email or texting etiquette, but they are reprimanded when they commit a serious error. In my personal observations over the years, Project Managers themselves are guilty of some of the most egregious communication errors and gaffes.
When I work with Project Managers and their leads, I spend significant time and effort in this area. Having lived in the trenches of project delivery for my entire career, I bring a perspective to project leaders that generic written communication courses or HR presentations can never do. This is one of the most critical people aspects of project delivery and can have great bearing on the successful outcome of the project. Communication is where the people of the projects live.
The following are some of the topic areas that I cover with teams, using specific project situations. While I cannot cover these points in depth in a single article, I can leave you with some of the more prevalent communication issues and remedies that you can begin to use on your projects immediately.
- Use email sparingly. I thought I would start with a contrarian point before providing some dos and don’ts of written communication.
Too many emails, especially of unimportant or inconsequential subject matter, clutter recipients’ inboxes and leave a negative impression of the sender. That is not to say that one should not send as many emails as are appropriate. However, before writing that next email, the sender may want to ask herself if there is another way to convey the information or to get an answer.
- Always answer the boss. Always answer the client. Need I say more?
- Use proper spelling and grammar. Professionals write well. They use proper grammar. They spell-check their content. They write in complete sentences. (You may wish to check the following website for some excellent sources to help improve your written communications: Best AI Writing Assistant Software in 2020 | G2)
- Craft meaningful subject lines. The subject line should be short, to the point, and attention getting. “Per Your Request,” “Hey,” or “Meeting” are not particularly informative. Nor are they likely to be opened when competing with comparable emails that have subjects such as: “Your Requested Monthly Productivity Stats,” “Hey – About the Missing Laptop,” or “Meeting to Discuss Next Year’s Compensation.”
Additionally, professionally written subject lines make the emails easier to locate when searched for later.
- Guard against careless content. When I worked summer jobs in construction, my boss frequently reminded me, “Measure twice. Cut once.” I extrapolated this to my professional life: “Read twice (or more). Send once.”
A hasty email sent out in the urgency of the moment may contain unclear information, unprofessional wording, or worse yet, unintended tone. Before sending an email, the sender should read it in its entirety – every line, every word. He should make necessary changes, read it again through the eyes of the recipient, and only then hit “send.”
P.S. I maintain this habit even in my private emails. No use ruffling feathers or creating hurt feelings with careless wording in an email sent too hastily.
- Always be appropriate. Always. Off-color statements, inappropriate language, name calling, accusations, unsubstantiated facts or assumptions, pictures from last night’s party, and other such content have no place in workplace correspondence. Similarly, requests for information that could be found on one’s own are seldom appropriate.
- Be brief. Be specific. I saw one estimate that the average office worker receives over 120 emails a day. During my project management and on-site consulting days that few emails would have been a good day.
But what does this say? It says that with the many emails that inundate the Project Manager, her clients, and her staff every day, it is best to keep them succinct and to the point – and to the main point. Paragraphs should be short, as should be sentences. Sentence structure should be simple. Bullet points should be used rather than long run-on sentences.
- Limit email to a single topic. Personally, I would rather receive three emails covering three topics than one email discussing three different topics. If it is necessary to delegate one of the topics, the single-topic email makes that easy. If one topic needs additional time to address, but another can be responded to immediately, it is easier to handle those requests if in separate emails.
Additionally, when later searching for specific content, it is far easier to find if contained in a single-topic email with a well-crafted subject line.
- Be careful of the tone of your email. This point may somewhat contradict the previous point about email length. However, it is important that the tone of the message comes across well. Sometimes that can best be accomplished by adding extra sentences of explanation, extra words to blunt what otherwise may be perceived as harsh, or even a modest emoji or two.
The sender must always consider his audience. Some recipients need more care and attention. Some just want the facts. Regardless, the email should be read, re-read for tone, and re-read from the perspective of the recipients.
One more thing. It is best to not respond when angry. Although I did learn to use this to my advantage. If ever I was angry with an email, I would write the response as I would have liked to send it in the moment. I would then leave it in draft form (overnight if possible). The next day I would edit it for tone before sending. Those emails were some of my best. They were firm, succinct, to the point, and clear, while maintaining a respectful tone. But I made my point.
- NEVER USE ALL CAPS. THIS NEEDS NO FURTHER EXPLANATION! UNDERSTOOD?
- Avoid email chains if possible. I had two basic rules for my teams:
(1) if an email went back and forth among recipients more than three times, they were to stop and pick up the phone or grab a meeting room to work out the issue; and
(2) when replying to a lengthy email chain, they were to read all the way to the end before forwarding it with their response.
I have learned over the years that most people are sufficiently unclear in their messaging. As a result, email chains develop that could have been avoided with a simple phone call or in-person meeting. I have also learned that people use email to attempt to gather information that would be better collected in-person. It is important to know when to abandon the email and meet in person.
I have also been the recipient of email chains that, when I read all the way to the end, I discovered information that was not for my consumption. Emails with sensitive information should either not be forwarded or the sensitive information deleted.
More importantly, why create email chains in the first place? They waste the reader’s time. They typically have irrelevant (or even confidential) information buried within them. They often veer off into other topics as the chain grows. They show laziness on the part of those who propagate them.
- Do not send emails when a conversation would be better. This is one of the most irritating aspects of project life. Sure, there are times it is necessary to send an email to have the request and response on the record. Yes, there are times when the other person is unavailable at that moment.
What is irritating, however, is the person in the office or cubicle next door who sends emails rather than asking their questions in person. My client counterpart on one of my most recent projects was notorious at doing this:
“Did you remember to call Bill?”
“When should we meet to discuss the status report?”
“Where’s lunch today?”
To be polite, I would get up from my chair, poke my head into her office, and answer verbally.
- Maintain email etiquette. One would not barge into their client’s office and begin talking about some project topic without a pleasantry or two. Nor would they abruptly get up and leave without ensuring the conversation had completed satisfactorily.
The same goes for emails. It is polite and respectful to begin with a pleasant greeting before getting to the meat of the conversation. It is beneficial to end with a quick summary of the purpose of the email and/or a call-to-action. The sender should be intentional in how he begins the email and how he concludes.
A pet peeve of mine – and this may be a personal preference – but those favorite quotes or words of wisdom as part of automatic signatures come across as trite and cluttery. I am most amused by the wonderful captions encouraging me to do something or be someone, when I know the sender himself does not follow his own affirmation.
Name and contact information, that’s all I ask.
- Check for intended recipients. Before sending a response, the sender should check – no, must check – the distribution and copy lists to ensure the intended recipients, and only the intended recipients, are included. If someone is missing, they should be added. If someone does not need the information, they should be given the courtesy of being removed.
The use of “Reply All” should come with a warning: “Do you really intend to reply to all these people?”
In case of common names especially, the sender should check the recipient list for the correct person. How many times have I seen emails returned from a “William Smith” who was not the correct “William Smith”? Worse yet, the unintended “William Smith,” who is tired of this consistently happening, deletes the email without informing the sender. The sender then wonders why the intended “William Smith” is not responding.
It is also important to pay attention to the differences between the “To,” “CC,” and “BCC” lines:
• “To” – the recipient(s) to whom or for whom the email is written.
• “CC” – interested parties who are on a need-to-know or nice-to-know information basis, but from whom no response is required.
• “BCC” – interested parties who do not know each other and from whom no response is required.
Note: As a personal preference, I do not use the “BCC” to blind copy recipients that I do not want disclosed to the main audience. It is too tempting for those on the “BCC” line to “Reply All” and reveal themselves. Rather I forward a copy of the email to them with a note informing them why I was copying them separately.
- Spell names correctly. Always. Even if you must dig for the correct spelling. The sender should check every name in the body of her email, even if not on the recipient list. This shows care and respect for each individual.
- Not every email is urgent. If every email is urgent, then no email is urgent. Using the urgent indication sparingly will get an email noticed when it is truly urgent.
- Do not send nagging follow-up emails. Senders who like to mark their email request as urgent like to send follow-up emails when they do not receive immediate responses. Not every request is an urgency for the recipient. Recipients also have priorities, and these emails may not be high on their lists. Follow-up emails or conversations may be appropriate if too much time has passed, but not as a matter of course.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. Projects thrive on communication when it is professional, orderly, and respectful. Projects fail because of poor communication. Attentive Project Managers will ensure that project communication is monitored throughout the entire project, adjusted as necessary, and reflects well on their teams and their organizations.
Get Your Free Guidebook
Subscribe and receive your free guidebook,
5 Ways to Master the Art of Managing People, Projects and Profits.