PM Tips: What’s Your Message?


I have noticed that there are a growing number of PMs that don’t necessarily identify with the service or product that their project is delivering. They almost seem to think that the templates, reports and plans ARE the project deliverables. In their mind, these documents represent the tangible fruits of the project manager’s effort.

In the case of IT, this may be a strange phenomenon of having had managers come up through the software coding ranks. Now that the individual has achieved the coveted position of project manager, they feel somewhat naked without having something tangible that represents their contribution. However, being able to communicate a message and gauge whether it’s being successfully received many times requires that you step outside of your deliverables. It requires a different skill set.

Vertical Agility

I had a teacher early on in college who would not allow answers on exams to be word-for-word recitations from definitions in the textbook. The key, she explained, is that you don’t truly understand the material until you can answer it your own words and from a few different perspectives. Otherwise you’re just memorizing what’s in the book, and that does not mean that you understand it or can apply it. In my mind, this is horizontal agility–being able to come at something from a variety of directions.

Vertical agility, on the other hand, is the ability to succinctly and rapidly move anywhere from the technical elements of your project to the executive summary quickly and efficiently, all while keeping the important points at the right level of detail and never losing your particular audience along the way. Vertical communication agility in project management is crucial to keeping all of your internal and external stakeholders up to date.

You can think of vertical agility as being the translator for your project. You are able to speak with each group of stakeholders from engineers to business users to the financial department in their vernacular. The ability of the PM to effortlessly shift between groups through the course of a business day is the essence of vertical agility.

Communication agility, in a form explained by my former college professor 20 years ago, has never rung truer for me as it does today. It is not until we can apply the practice with the finely honed ease of a journey tradesman that we can deliver on the overall perceptions of the project management promise.

What’s Your Message?

Once you have adjusted your tone for your audience, you now have to deliver the message. As the project manager, you have to be a master communicator. You don’t have to be a great orator, but you do need to have a firm grasp on your project and the ability to target your message to your audience.

Think about any of the reality television talent shows. When a would-be singer starts his or her song, you know pretty quickly whether they know how to sing or can hold your interest. They only have a brief window to connect with you before you start to tune out. Think about that the next time you are communicating to your audience about your project highlights.

The most important part of creating that message is to make it easily communicated and understandable for your audience. Any message, whether project related or not, is best viewed from the perspective of your intended audience. Asking questions like, “If I am in their shoes, what would I want know?” or “Why is this important to them over, for example, some other points?”

As I craft my message, I am constantly viewing it from the perspective of those about to hear it. The majority of my most effective communication has been scrubbed of all but the most important project lingo. Terms like “effort-driven” and “task constraints” don’t make you sound intelligent as much as it shows your inability to connect with your audience at its best, or make you seem arrogant at its worst.

This is especially effective with clients and business-oriented team members. They are typically not fluent in formal project lingo. Try to keep it to a minimum. Being able to see how your message is being received and having the skill to adjust and correct that message for maximum impact can be called “connection agility.”

One word of caution, however, is not to make your message too simplistic sounding, either. Talking down to your audience is a sure way to lose them out of the gate. By the same token, don’t hesitate to use project jargon with your team, the verbal short-hand will save time and insure rapid understanding. Always treat your listeners with respect and will come out ahead.

Maximum Impact

Every time you are asked to give an update on your project, your message should be succinct, to the point and memorable for that audience. Think about what the two to four points are that you want this person to take away with them. On occasion, you have time to prepare this message beforehand; often you don’t and have to craft this message on the fly.

If you have to give a five-minute overview of the project to the CIO of the company, you should already know that “number of tasks started on time” probably doesn’t mean much.

If I had five minutes to update the CIO on my project, what I would want to communicate is: 

·       This is what the project is delivering to the business

·       This is where I am at in the timeline

·       This how much I have spent and what I have left to spend

·       As of today I am (on schedule/behind, but we can recover/behind and we need help)

·       Any other hot issues that the CIO needs to be aware of

I would use this same type of approach but at varying levels of details (vertical agility) to address business clients and technical team members. Knowing your message and thinking through both its relevance and appropriateness to your listeners will make you a star.

As a project manager, you must absolutely understand that until your project delivers its product or service, the only thing your stakeholders have is your communications. The project manager is the project’s chief spokesperson and is in the best position to express the project’s status and merits. The project management framework gives you some good tools for communication, but ultimately you need to craft the right message for the right audience using vertical agility, and “that hasn’t changed in (at least) over 30 years.”


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