By Jessica Fender
Project managers face all the normal challenges of their work – keeping a good team in place and on point, meeting deadlines, resolving issues as they arise, assisting individual team members who have problems, manning scheduled meetings and, in general, being the person where the “buck stops.”
Add the pandemic to this mix, and the increase of remote teams and another big challenge rears its ugly head – how to keep everyone on the same page; how to keep open communication between and among team members, and how to best communicate with everyone as the team manager.
There is certainly something to be said for tools such as Zoom meetings, but managers must also face the prospect that not everyone hears the same things, nor do they interpret verbal communication in the same ways. For this reason, it will always be important that these types of business communications be reduced to clear and precise writing, to avoid misunderstandings.
Inter-Team Communication is Not the Only Type of Business Writing Required of Project Managers
Consider all the types of writing that project managers must actually conduct – emails, progress reports to team members, clients, and superiors, final reports once a project is completed, memos, handbooks, and meeting agendas.
While some writing can be a bit informal (e.g., emails to certain individuals), most must be more formal, well-organized, structurally sound, and grammatically perfect.
The other key to business writing is that it is definitely not the same as the type of academic writing that students produced in college. Business writing tends to use less sophisticated vocabulary (unless it is a research or technical document), and far fewer complex sentence structures. Ask any freelance writer, and he will tell you that language, style, and tone of various types of writing differ greatly.
Business writing is unique, and a project manager who is uncomfortable with his expertise has several ways to improve his skills.
9 Steps Project Managers Can Take to Improve Their Business Writing Skills
1. Assess your overall writing skills. How did you do with writing assignments in school? If you struggled with grammar and composition, you would need to repair this first. There is a wealth of online English composition courses, and you should enroll in one and complete lots of practice. You can also use any number of online tools to correct your writing errors and explain why those corrections are necessary.
2. Identify exactly what you need to say, who is receiving the piece, why they need the information and is there a timeline involved? If you must, craft a brief outline, so that you have a structure to follow that includes all that you need to say, in a good sequence.
3. Be as brief as possible. You have your brief outline. Stick to it. Obviously, there are pieces of writing that will be lengthy – final reports, for example. In these cases, be certain that you divide that report into sections with bold headings for easy reading.
4. Don’t try to impress with sophisticated vocabulary. Being clear and succinct is the “rule.” Review your writing and see if there are words you can simplify. This is not a Master’s thesis.
5. Develop agile practices regarding your writing style and tone. When you send out an email to your team or other colleagues with whom you have somewhat personal relationships, you can certainly be far more casual. If, on the other hand, you are emailing your CEO or a project client, your tone will be less familiar or casual. Still, unless it is required, tone down the jargon and highly technical language. The simpler you can communicate, the greater will be the understanding of the recipient.
6. Use active rather than passive voice. Consider these two examples: “This phase of the project should be completed by early next week” vs. “We will have this phase of the project completed by early next week.” The second example is in active voice and is just much stronger and direct.
7. Reduce memos, emails, and other short communications to a single message. If you are communicating with your team members, stick to one message per piece of writing. Here is a bad example: “We will have our next scheduled zoom meeting on Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. Bill, will you please be ready with a report on your progress on that backend development of the chat software for the client? Jane, can you please provide a summary of your last conversation with the client? And Tom, can you please be ready with a visual of the prototype? I also want everyone to present any current issues they may be having with their elements of this project.” This is just way too much information for everyone to wade through.
Here is the better approach. “We will have our next scheduled Zoom meeting on Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. Plan to be present. I may need some specific things from some of you, but I will email those individually.” Now, no one has to wade through parts of this email that do not relate to them. All they need to do is make sure that they calendar this meeting.
8. Be clear about any call to action in a memo or email. If you need a team member or a client to do something, make it very clear and give a deadline date if necessary. “Sally, I need you to call this client back by Friday and then let me know how the issue was resolved.”
9. Find and use the right project management tools. There are just so many great project management tools out there right now. They can work with you to customize any project you and your team are facing. Find one that works for your current project, and let the software do the heavy lifting. This frees you up to have a far better understanding of the project progress and the ability to engage in more personal interactions with individual team members.
In the End…
Business writing is unique, but it is not as complicated or challenging as project managers may think it is. If you study these nine strategies and follow the suggestions and examples that are provided, you will find that, over time, you will have mastered this skill.