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 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 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.
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.
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.