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Topic 4.3: Written communication

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Every project manager needs to skilled in written communication.

We have already discussed some of the (written) documents you will need to master when managing projects, and will continue to introduce others as we advance through this course.

The benefits – indeed, the primary purpose – of these documents is to communicate to stakeholders exactly what is going on, what is required of them, and their relative place in the overall project.

Nevertheless, because these assets are a multi-layered and (as we shall see) regularly changing series of documents, it requires dedicated effort to maintain them throughout the project’s life.

There is also the risk that they can be readily circumvented by project team members and stakeholders who just want to ‘get on with it’.

Writing something down is one thing – holding yourself and others accountable to these words still requires the actual intervention of the project manager.

Beyond these, you will also be expected to regularly communicate with your stakeholders via email and, increasingly, text messages and social media.

For now, though, email is by far the most ubiquitous communication medium in modern business.

It is quick, global, easy to use, can hit multiple recipients in a single stroke, and provide a permanent (and often legal) record of correspondence.

Just another manic Monday

As with all media, though, there is an appropriate time and place for its use, and some of those benefits can also work against you.

Many organisations find email is over-used: information is overloaded; people get unnecessarily cc’d on things; there is pressure to reply; messages lack context – attempts at humour are regularly misunderstood; and once sent, things are all-but impossible to recall.

The best emails are simple, to the point, specific in the action they require of the receiver, and reinforced through other messaging, such as a telephone chat.

We will discuss short form and other social media communications later in this Unit.

So what else makes for good written communication?

Information that isn’t presented clearly creates confusion.

This can lead to missed opportunities, mistakes or complaints that take a project manager’s (constrained) time to sort out.

Plain language is a way of presenting information that helps someone understand it the first time they read or hear it.

It allows them to get the information they need, decode it easily and act if they need to.

It also shows respect and consideration for readers, which can help build better relationships.

There are plain language movements in many parts of the world, including the UK, USA, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal, Mexico and Europe.

A simplified form of writing known as Easy English is also being used more frequently in certain communications.

Helpful for people with intellectual disabilities, low literacy or where English is not their first language, it uses images and icons to support text, large font sizes and lots of white space on the page.

Here are four steps that will take you from staring at a blank page to having a well-informed reader.

Think about your reader

No matter what type of document you’re writing, from a short email to a long report, it’s important first to be clear about your reader.

  • Who are you writing this document for?
  • Why are you writing it?
  • How familiar are they with the words and terms you are likely to use?
  • What subjects can you assume they understand?
  • How will they read the document? Will they read it straight through or skip through to the sections that interest them?
  • Will they need any background information?
  • What action do you want them to take? Is there something you want them to do, think or feel as a result of reading or hearing it?
  • Is there more than one reader or group of readers? If so, do you need to write separate documents?

For longer documents, you might find it useful to write a brief plan before you start.

Write your content

There’s nothing wrong with long words, but there’s no need to use them when short words will do.

The same applies to sentences. While there are no strict rules about sentence length, try to keep sentences to an average of 15 to 20 words.

If you do need to use specialised language or jargon, make sure you explain what it means.

Watch out, too, for wording that bogs down your message, such as:

  • Wordy phrases – using more words than you need to say something
  • Noun strings – groups of nouns joined together
  • Tautologies – two words that mean the same thing
  • Double negatives – two negative words where a single word will have the same effect

Finally, be aware of any sub-text that colours your writing.

Sub-text in written communication is revealed in formatting, font, tone, and the use of punctuation, images, emoticons and the like.

As an example, watch how the meaning of the following sentences changes through sub-text.

I think Larry did a great job on this project!

I think LARRY did a ‘great’ job on this project 🙁

Sub-text is often subtle and subconsciously informed by your mood.

Even if you carefully choose your words, an email written in an angry mood will often be loaded with sub-textual venom.

This makes the next step very important…

Check what you have written

Structural (or substantive) editing

Here you are looking at the overall structure and shape of the document.

  • Is the information set out in a logical order your reader can easily follow?
  • Is everything your reader needs to know there?
  • Does it include information your reader doesn’t need? If so, can you cut that?
  • How will the reader feel at the end of the document?

Copy editing

Here you are looking at the sentences and words.

  • Are your sentences as clear and direct as they can be?
  • Have you used everyday words that your reader would be familiar with?
  • Are all the words and phrases as concise as they can be?
  • Have you been consistent in how you have spelt words and used terms?
  • Is what you have written accurate?

Proofreading

This is about doing a final check for any errors or typos.

  • Are all the words, names, addresses, emails and websites spelt right?
  • Are all the numbers, including phone numbers, correct?
  • Is the layout alright? Are the page breaks in the right place? Is everything that needs to be in the document in the right place?

Test your document with readers

When writing about complex, critical or controversial matters, you should finally test your document to ensure that people will understand it quickly and easily.

Even if it is an internal email for a small number of staff, it is still worth asking people for their opinion. People who know nothing about your area are sometimes the best at spotting unclear text.

It may also be worth testing your document with some of the people who are likely to use it.

Testing saves you money, time and energy in answering questions or publishing corrections later.

Did you know…

An Australian private health fund changed the wording of a letter about a premium rise and saved the company $2 million in call centre costs over two years.

A team in a US government department that handles unclaimed property rewrote 400 form letters into plain language. A year later, they had 18,000 fewer phone queries than the previous year. Staff processed more claims and also felt better about their jobs because they weren’t answering the same questions over and over.

These examples and this lesson were directly sourced from “Communicate Clearly – a Guide to Plain English” published by 26TEN.

And as part of our continual improvement process, we welcome your feedback on our use of plain language!