5 Critical Elements of Project Communication Plans
This post was orignally published on January 18, 2016 and was updated with new information on August 25, 2017.
Establishing a project communication plan is the first step in ensuring a successful campaign.
Much of this rests in formalizing your existing internal processes into a binding, yet flexible, plan. A good plan equips your team with the necessary steps on internal communications—and enables them to work effectively and efficiently.
What are the key elements of project communication plans? How exactly do you go about creating one? And what should you look for when creating project communication plan templates?
I’ll answer these questions, and more, in this article.
The Project Communication Process
Like most people, you have an implicit understanding of communication: a back and forth between two (or more) parties where information is shared.
While this informal understanding is good enough for most situations, project management requires a clearer conceptualization of communication. You need to understand how communication occurs at a human as well as at an organizational level.
This might sound overly theoretical, but it will help you communicate with greater clarity.
In communication studies, communication is defined as:
“The process of understanding and sharing meaning”
The key word here is process. That is, communication is dynamic and contingent on the situation. How you communicate changes based on who you’re communicating with and who all are listening in. You talk to your best friend differently when you’re alone vs. when you’re in a large room filled with strangers.
8 Components of Project Communication
All communication, regardless of the content or the intent, can be broken down into 8 components:1. Source
Self-explanatory: the originator of the message. The source thinks of the message, its audience and its time of delivery.
The content of the communication.This extends beyond the actual words and includes everything such as style, grammar, medium of delivery, etc.
For example, a business speech delivered in a formal suit has a slightly different connotation than one delivered in jeans and a t-shirt.
The medium of communication such as email, phone, face-to-face, etc. The channel changes the content as well as style of communication. You might use smileys and informal language in chat which you would avoid in a formal letter.
The intended recipient of the message. The receiver understands and analyzes the message for both its visible and invisible meanings. For example, a message that ends with a smiley might be interpreted differently by the receiver than one without.
Feedback is the response (or lack thereof) you get from the receiver. Feedback is crucial for establishing clarity in the communication. If you ask a subordinate to do something and don’t hear an affirmative ‘yes’, it’s not clear whether your message was fully understood or not.
The environment is the space in which you relay the message. This includes both physical and virtual environments.
Environment also describes a psychological space. You think differently in a packed conference vs. on a Slack group chat in your own house.
The context defines the setting and expectations of the communicating parties. Context is highly subjective and one of the biggest contributors to failed communication. If a person walks into a conference room wearing a well-tailored business suit, the people in the room expect a business speech, not a pantomime routine.
For project management, it is vital to establish a baseline context to make communication easier.
Interference is noise - anything unexpected and external that blocks or changes the meaning of the message. A person talking over you in a meeting is ‘interference’. Getting lost in your thoughts and not paying attention to a client’s comments is also ‘interference’ (“psychological noise” in communication studies).
The Transactional Model of Communication
There are several models of communication but in the project management context, the most pertinent one is the transactional or interactive model.
Graphically, this is represented as follows:
As you can see, this model is based on the components mentioned above. The communication process itself is self-explanatory - the sender ‘encodes’ the message and sends it to the receiver through the communication channel.
The receiver, in turn, decodes the message, understands it and offers ‘feedback’ to the sender.
Both of these can happen simultaneously.
The important thing to understand here is encoding/decoding. This is the process of using words, symbols, gestures, etc. to relay and interpret ideas and thoughts.
What symbols/words you use will have a big impact on the clarity of the communication. A single symbol can change the entire meaning of the message (such as using a “wink” smiley instead of a “smile” smiley).
You have to take the receiver’s position, cultural background, current amount of knowledge, etc. into account before encoding a message.
In the next section, I’ll show you how to take these factors into consideration when you create your communication plan.
6 Elements of a Successful Project Communication Plan
In another article, we shared how to create effective client communication plans. This is a three-step process, namely:
- Identifying key stakeholders.
- Creating a stakeholder management plan.
- Creating communication plans for stakeholders.
While this describes the ‘how’, there are still a number of qualitative concerns you must address in your communication plan.
1. Map Stakeholder Preferences and Potential Conflicts
At the heart of the encoding/decoding problem I described above is a mismatch between yours and stakeholders’ expectations. The context - cultural, operational, organizational - you operate in is different. Not taking this into account opens the door for failure.
The problem becomes even more acute when you’re dealing with stakeholders from a different culture, industry or age range. Jargon that might be second nature for you might confuse the stakeholders. Idioms that you use every day might be misinterpreted.
Therefore, one of the core elements of a project communication plan is mapping out these differences and avoiding conflicts.
In your plan, consider the following:
- Language preferences: Are the stakeholders as proficient in English (or any other language) as you are? If not, what can you do to mitigate this lack of proficiency - hiring translators, using simpler language, minimizing idiom use in communication, etc.?
- Industry knowledge: Be careful of using jargon or industry-specific terms when communicating with stakeholders. Don’t presume knowledge of a subject unless the stakeholder has already demonstrated otherwise.
- Cultural context: Do the stakeholders come from a different culture? If yes, is there anything that might be misinterpreted because of cultural differences? This can be a big source of misunderstandings so be sure to map this out.
- Technical proficiency: Figure out how comfortable stakeholders are with technology. Strive to align your communication with their competence. If a stakeholder prefers phone calls, don’t force them to use video calling.
2. Clear Default Protocols
While your communication needs will vary from project to project, you need to establish a set of default protocols familiar to everyone in the organization. These should act as the failsafe in case there is any confusion.
Think of your default protocols as an internal “how we communicate” document. You will modify it for specific projects but by and large, you’ll stick to the norms established herein.
This document should cover the following:
- Your preferred communication channels
- Preferred channel for different types of communication (say, urgent messages, low-priority updates, daily briefings, etc.)
- Alternative contacts in case a key stakeholder/manager/resource can’t be reached.
- Default communication style, especially with outbound communication (formal, conversational, “end emails with a smiley”, etc.).
- Who to communicate with and how in case of emergencies and contingencies.
- Event-specific requirements. For example, you might send a data collection form at every client kick-off meeting, or require participants to share notes after every progress update meeting.
- Preferred communication tools.
- Default document sharing tools, processes and resources (i.e. where to find and share project-specific documents).
- Communicating with outside contractors and freelancers, including sharing protocols.
Take this only as an illustrative list. You can expand the document as you see fit.
3. Match Preferences to Work Style
When it comes to implementing a communication plan, it’s important to realize that no team uses just one method to communicate effectively—especially in our digitally diverse age, where many freelancers work remotely.
It’s up to you to discern what methods will work best for this particular project.
One way to do this is to survey your team and build consensus as to what communication methods work best for them. Do this by:
- Shortlisting a handful of communication channels (email, Slack, Skype, etc.).
- Asking your team (including freelancers) to pick their preferred channel and from the shortlist.
- Getting the rest of the team to adopt the majority-preferred channel.
You can minimize stakeholder conflicts by maintaining two communication channels - one for internal communication, another for stakeholders.
Once you’ve identified preferred channels, create a document outlining your communication protocols for this particular project. If there are no preferences for certain things (such as ‘preferred tools’) defer to the default protocols you identified earlier.
By requiring all project participants to adhere to specific communications methods, not only do you standardize your internal processes, you reduce confusion and optimize productivity.
4. Transfer Ideas into Information
Building your communication plan involves funneling the details of daily data into digestible pieces of information. It’s your responsibility to boil down key issues and decisions into executive summaries that make it easy for stakeholders and team members to understand.
To help build a successful plan, consider the following components:
- Reporting: What regular reports will be distributed—who will handle the process and verify information? Who will receive these reports? And what is the process for implementing new reports?
- Alerts and updates: What milestones or crises should trigger an alert? Who will receive these priority messages—and in what format will they be delivered?
- Stakeholders’ requests: How is information from stakeholders processed? Do all participants have access to archived data? What is the process of making project changes?
- Transparent, public-facing information: What information will be made public? Who will be responsible for tracking information and metrics?
Gathering this data isn’t enough; you also need a way to turn this data into easily digestible communication.
Create templates where you can plug in the data to share with stakeholders when necessary.
5. Take Project Details Into Account
Your project communication plan is your roadmap to a project’s success. It should be thorough and answer questions about your project’s details.
Consider the following information when creating a communication plan:
- Goals and objectives: Define your goals, as they pertain to your specific project, as well as the metrics to measure them. Just FYI - a goal is a broader aim ”increase social shares”) while an objective describes a narrow milestone (“create social share buttons”). Define both in the communication plan.
- Material and resources: Aside from human resources (which should be your number one concern), it’s important to establish exactly what materials you will need for your project.
- Budget: Without delving too deep into budgeting—a concern that warrants its own blog posts—a project communication plan should account for budgeting. After all, it is your primary driver for any given project.
In short, a communication plan should detail exactly who to target, what messages you intend to convey, and how this communication will be delivered.
What Does a Bad Project Communication Plan Look Like?
You can often learn more from failure than from success. The same goes for communication plans.
While good communication plans have a few things in common - as we saw above - failed ones, too, have a few commonalities, such as:
1. The Plan is Too Confusing
Think of it this way:
Your project communication plan is your roadmap to success.
It should be thorough and easy to understand. It should blatantly outline goals and objectives as they pertain to your project. It should outline all materials and resources. And it should account for budgeting. In short, a project plan should detail exactly how your team will communicate. No questions asked.
Not outlining communication tools and methods is a surefire way to crash and burn—especially in our increasingly digitally-dominated age. By selected preferred tools and methods, your team will reduce redundancy and increase productivity.
Below are some possible communication methods to consider:
- Meeting summaries
- Status reports
- Formal presentations
- Informal small-group meetings
- Lunch or happy hour workshops
While newsletters and email blasts are certainly efficient, they aren’t always effective. Consider how many emails you receive per day—and how many of those are unintentionally misread.
We highly recommend utilizing a robust, integrated project management tool to make sure that internal messages are received and tracked. Not only does software keep track of communication, it shows availability and updates schedules, to ensure that project teams are updated in real-time.
2. The Plan Doesn't Set Expectations
Just as important as clarity is setting expectations across your project team. As project manager, it’s essential to set the tone for a project. Setting standards for how, when, and why communication will take place ensures that everyone is on the same page.
A big part of setting expectations is defining roles and their corresponding responsibilities. Here are a few common roles to consider—especially if your current plan is unsuccessful:
- Project Manager
- Steering Team
- Project Lead
- Project Team Member
- Project Sponsor
3. The Plan is Inconsistent
One of the most important elements of any communication plan is that it should be recreatable and consistent.
From outlining goals and expectations, to ensuring that deliverables are timely, they should accurately inform stakeholders what channels will be used on the project, how stakeholders will be informed of updates and decisions, and your main points of contact.
4. The Plan Doesn't Encourage Development
Not only should it be able to be used throughout a project’s duration, a project communication plan should facilitate growth and improvement across your agency. In addition to serving as the basis for your team to work together, it should enable them to feel comfortable and creative so they work effectively and efficiently.
A communication plan should ensure that your employees optimize their talent—which is why you hired them in the first place, right?
How Do Successful Project Managers Communicate With Their Teams?
A project communication plan is only one part of project communication success.
Much also depends on the project manager and how she communicates within the team.
What do successful project managers do right? Digging in, we find that they follow a few rules on all projects:
1. Keep Project-Based Discussion on Task
This doesn’t mean you can’t catch up with your team members about how their weekend went or their personal lives. But it does mean that when you’re talking about the project, keep the conversation focused on the specific task at hand. Don’t stray to other deliverables without first buttoning up the initial topic. Keep everyone focused and driven by wrapping up all of the project discussion before going back to personal matters.
This way, you can focus your team’s attention, as well as your own, and efficiently communicate project status and future work. If you let other topics creep in during this focused time, you lose the audience (your team), and you also run the risk of missing the mark for the discussion.
2. Stay Between Brevity and Verbosity
As project managers, you have to walk the thin line of making sure that you say what you need to say while making sure to maintain the team’s attention. While off-topic conversations are easy to quell, thus shortening the time it takes to convey your message, it’s a bit harder when the root cause hits closer to home.
If you're someone who has a hard time stringing sentences together, then you need to make sure your message is long enough to actually count as verbal communication.
On the other hand, if your speeches tend to be lengthy, then it’d be wise to shorten things. You need to be able to provide enough direction to actually be useful, but not so much that your team doesn’t remember what you were talking about in the first place.
3. Adhere to Your Communication Plan, but Adjust as Needed
Creatives might talk about breaking rules, but as a project manager, you need to follow your plans. Especially when it comes to something as complicated as communication.
However, your time spent constructing a communication plan isn’t complete once you have everything filled out, though. You still need to monitor how well it’s working and tweak it when as needed.
If your team isn’t functioning efficiently and the communication is to blame, alter the way that you're bringing up important topics and how you’re disseminating information.
A plan is just that - a plan. It's not an honor bound contract. Feel free to change things around if you feel that things aren't going the way you'd hoped.
Clear and effective communication is one of your biggest strengths as a project manager. How well you communicate will often impact the success of your projects.
Creating a project communication plan requires a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of communication. You need to be aware of the requirements for each channel, the environment you’re communicating in and the biases/preferences of stakeholders.
All in all, your communication plan needs the following elements:
- An understanding of all stakeholders’ preferences and requirements.
- Default protocols to be followed across projects.
- Your team’s internal work style and communication preferences.
- A structure to gather key project data and turn it into readily digestible information.
About The Author
Rod has had years of experience in the video production and IT industries and has worked for companies such as Universal Studios & IBM.