I have been in development and project management field for more than a decade now, and if you ask me what is the most important skill after problem solving in this field, I would probably say without any reservation that it’s “Written Communication Skills”.
While verbal communication is very effective in most of the fields, in the outsourcing business, it’s mostly the written communication which matters most. In fact, in the role of Project Manager, effective written communication is even more important than programming and other software development roles. Normally, there is always some valid excuse for most of the development related issues. If nothing works or apply, you can save yourself by just saying “Human Error!”. However, I don’t think this applies when it comes to communication. One bad email, and there are great chances that you will loose that project and/or client forever.
So, in this post, I’m going to discuss few tips and suggestion for the building up good communication skills. As these are based on my experience, so most of these apply to Software Development field in particular. However, I think most of these tips are valid in general project management too.
Finally, due to the nature of the topic, it’s going to be longer than my usual blog posts. Thus feel free to read this post as the time permits. I’m going to split this post in multiple sections with headings. So hopefully you can easily read this in multiple sessions (if you prefer). Lets start.
1. Avoid Spellings, Grammars and Punctuation Errors
Mind Your Language
If you are in outsourcing business, there are very good chances that English is not your native language. So, may be you think that having poor English being a non-native is a valid excuse, and you don’t need to worry about spellings and grammar when communicating with you clients. If you are a junior programmer, then I think this excuse will work for you, but if you are Project Manager, or someone who works directly with clients, then poor English is going to get you in trouble sooner or later. So, get ready for this and take actions to avoid this situation.
To explain this scenario better, let’s say you ask your subordinate to write a program, and when you get a copy of the code, it’s full of syntax errors. How are you going to react on this? I’m sure you are going to think that the guy is pretty dumb, as this is something which compiler can easily do for you, and if someone doesn’t do this and pass the program on, either he is very careless or doesn’t know what he is doing.
Same is true for spelling errors. This is something which a computer can do pretty easily for you. So, if you share something with spelling errors with someone else, you are passing a very careless image of yourself. On the hand, grammar and punctuation errors may not leave that bad expression, but still I would highly recommend you to keep trying to improve this part as well. For this Microsoft Word and few other word processor already do some pretty good job, and report fairly common mistakes. So use these tools when available.
Another tool which I commonly use to check my phrases and grammar is “Google”. Surprised? If yes, this sounds strange, but Google bots have archived billions of pages over the years, and there are good chances that what you are trying to type is already written by someone else and is already in archives of Google in hundreds (if not thousands). So, just try to type part of the phrase, and Google will bring in common usage and suggestions.
Let’s try this for example. Suppose I want to give advance notice of upcoming holidays to my clients. A wide used idiom for this, at least in US, is “heads up”. So, I search “heads up example” on Google, and the very first result on Google answer this very well as shown below:
Heads Up Example
Now sometime Google may not bring in very accurate results. When that’s is the case, try to shorten the phrase, or change wording of it. This is something which will take time to learn and master. Using Google for finding and mastering wording structure, and examples have been of great help to me. You can try this yourself, and see how it goes for you.
Tips & Tricks for Improving English
Now if you are convinced, and want to master English language, or improve your current level, there are mainly two ways. One way is, as it’s taught in Schools, where you read the grammar rules, practice them, and try translations. While this works great too, there is another rather fun way (or at least I find that it way). Here are few tips for this second approach:
I. Get hold of someone to Proofread your Documents/Emails
I think one of the best way to learn your mistakes, and improve this skill, is to have someone in your team proofread all your important documents (development plan, analysis, design, test plan, etc) and emails. Once you get the updated content back, see what was paraphrased, rephrased or restructured. If you use MS Word, you can ask that person to turn on change-tracking before doing any changes. This way, MS Word will highlight any changes done by person, and you can easily compare what was changed.
In my experience, this is the most pain free and fastest learning process. However, the obvious problem here is that you may not have someone in your contacts who is very good at English, and/or he/she may not be willing to proofread your documents too. I was lucky enough to have my seniors do this for me for free. But even if you have to pay for this, I think it’s going to be all worth. So, avail this option as and when available.
II. Watch Drama & Documentary Movies
While you may find actions, thriller or suspense movies more of interest, my personal experience is that watching Drama and Documentary movies are of big help in improving English quickly. If subtitles are available for that movie/video, I would highly recommend to turn these ON too. This will seamlessly improve your both listening and reading skills.
III. Read Books or Novels
Another fun trick to improve this skill is to start reading books or novels of your choice. You may already have few in your watch list, or you can get some good suggestions from www.goodreads.com. Select your category of choice, and just pick one from the top-ten suggestions.
If this is your first novel/book, I would recommend followings:
- Pick a short book i.e. it should not be more than 200 pages. If you pick a long book as first your read, there are good chances that you will give up soon, and that may turn out to be your last book.
- When reading a book, if you find a new word, or some of the words/sentences doesn’t make sense. Don’t stop and look for dictionary. Instead, just keep reading. This may be irritating in start, but once you have read 20-30 pages, you will get used to that, and soon will forget that some of the words doesn’t sounds familiar or makes sense.
- Note that most, if not all, books are just difficult to start with. Remember, first 20-30 pages are always difficult (as character and story building is in process). Once you have read 5% of the book, you may start getting idea of the overall story, and will start loving it. If you are having problem getting pace even after reading 10% of the book, this is probably not a book of your interest. Skip that, and select another one.
My experience is that reading books greatly improves both your reading and writing skills. After you have read 5-10 books, you may start getting a hold on of how to put ideas, how to structure your sentences, and you will learn punctuation and grammar rules in very seamless way.
2. Be Polite and Diplomatic in Replies
Being polite in written communication is of utmost importance. Especially when you are communication with the client. However, I personally find it equally important when doing communication with your subordinates too. Being blunt, stingy and/or sarcastic could make you unpopular soon. When dealing with clients, this mean that you are going to loose you projects soon . And for internal projects, doing this consistently is going to cost you in other ways i.e. employees may leave your company, may not bring in good results, fear you but not respect you, etc.
Sometime, you just need to be clear and to be point on some topics, but still, in that case, a touch of diplomatic words can do very good for long run relationship. I must say that it’s easier said that done. To be kind and gentle even when being irritated/annoyed is not easy. I myself get very upset on stingy and sarcastic emails, but a solid and polite reply at that stage can save you a project and/or client. So, always think of long run consequences of what you are going to type. I will share few strategies for good reply shorty. But before that, lets see some rear word examples of good and bad replies.
Over the years, I have worked with variety of clients in my professional career. Some of them were/are very strict and to the point, some are very polite, and some I would say are diplomatic. I usually try to treat all these with same attitude and that’s a thorough yet polite reply with a touch of diplomacy (only when required). To keep interest, and for comparison, I’m going to share snippets of some of the emails I had with these clients for reported issues. First, let’s see the sample of a strict or domineering style mail:
I was looking at this XX page, and I don’t understand why you are handling it like this way. This is totally wrong way to tackle this problem. What the heck you were thinking?
Now here is another sample from one of my very polite client. For comparison, I have tried to keep the issue same, and have only changed few important wordings (highlighted in yellow).
I was looking at this XX page, and I think they way you are current handling it could be wrong. May be if you have handled it like ABC, it would have been much better approach. Please advise.
Now as you can see with just few additional words and rephrasing, your can totally change the tone of the message while still conveying it fully to your recipients. From these two sample emails, I personally prefer the second one, and there are good chances that you like that too (at least when you are on the recipient end).
So, if you have not already figured these out yourself from sample emails, here are some key suggestions to remember and apply when replying or sending emails:
- Add greetings in email. This make recipient feel good even before they start reading the actual message content.
- Try to use conditional verb even when you are sure that it’s 100% other party problem. Like start the sentences with “I think”, use conditional verbs like “would” or “could”. These add the margin that you could be wrong, and it unintentionally make the other party feel good and less guilty of the problem.
- Always end the issues email in polite style. I kind of always appreciate the ending sentence like “Please advise.” This indicate that you want a reply, but at recipient convenience, and recipient can totally rule out your findings too.
When you get an email from a client with harsh tone and critical remarks. this need a very careful and thoughtful reply. That is because it could break or strength your relationship with that client in very near future. Here are few tips regarding this situation:
- One key trick is that when you get such email, don’t reply that immediately. If you do this, you are most probably going to blow up the relationship with your client. Give it a day or two break (as per priority of the item). During that time try to explore answers for:
- Why did you get that message in the first place?
- Was it your fault?
- Try to analyse the reported problem in detail. Explore the suggested solution, and try to send an educated reply.
- See how you can reply that message as politely as possible while still defending yourself?
- If it was indeed your fault, accept that openly. Apologize for that.
- When possible, share what happened in detail.
- Most importantly, write what steps you plan to take to avoid situation like this in future.
- End that email reply in a polite manner.
To conclude this section, I would say try to never stand on your’s dignity. Sometime, even taking a step back is actually your success. Even if it was not a win situation for you at the end, you can reduce the damage considerably by just being polite and humble.
3. Share Ideas, Analysis and Suggestions
Let’s start this section with an example. So, you come in the morning, and see the following email from your subordinate:
I have been working on problem XYZ, and I’m stuck and have no idea where to go forward form current point. Can you please help?
Unless, you are very cool minded person, there are good chances that you are going to get angry on such email, and start wondering why these new resources are not putting the enough effort. The problem, if you can’t already see, is that the sender is just asking you the question, and not showing any effort from his/her side. Even if that guy did some research or investigation, not mentioning this clearly in the above email is going to leave a negative impression of him anyway. So, if you plan to send an email like this to your client or your boss, you need to show your progress or status more clearly.
Here is another sample email with some more details than just asking for help:
I have been working on the problem XYZ, and I think I need your further input to move forward. I have read the corresponding manual, and still having problem making the right decision for this problem. Here are my so far findings:
- We can go with AA option, but this has XX pros and cons.
- If we go with BB option, it can save some development efort, but have cons of its own like YY.
- Still a hybrid approach would be to pick the first option from AA and then also apply part of BB option to get best of both approaches.
What do you think is the best plan for going forward? Any other ideas or suggestions?
Now there are good chances that an email like this is going to leave a positive impression of yours. Your client/boss may ask you to then go with the option#X, or can suggest any other ideas of his/her own. In any case, they will know that you are putting some considerable effort from your side, and as long as that is being passed correct, you are on a safe side.
Share Your Ideas
The key point of this section is that when sending or replying any emails, try to come up with ideas, suggestions or comments. If you don’t know about any item, search for that, research it (Google is your friend in that case), and then recommend what you think is best. Only share ideas or suggestions, if you think that they makes good sense or are good alternative. If you find something from the web, try to check for the authenticity of it, and share it only which sounds solid and reasonable to you.
When sharing some write-up on research task or analysis, also add a section like “Executive Summary” and try to label that clearly. This is usually for the executives in the emails which just want to get a quick and clear idea of the problem and solution (in few lines), and usually don’t have time to read all the write-up. This is a good way to engage everyone To or CC list of your emails, and get feedback from the top management from time to time.
4. Use Pictures, Mock-up, Prototypes
If you have been in the Software Development business for long, then you can’t deny the importance of the mock-up and screenshots. Using these or not can make a big difference. For a fun comparison, let’s start with tree swing project. There have been various versions of the tree swing pictures on Software Development Life Cycle and Project Management. Here is one such sample:
Now it’s pretty funny picture in its own, and there have been many discussions on this on the web about this project. I personally think that mock-up or prototyping are the best solution for most of the software problems like above. If you can get something very early for client to look, or best to try it, it may get most of the things straighten and clear in very early stage of development thus saving money and time for both parties.
I personally use mock-up and screenshots as much as possible, and exchange it with clients frequently to make sure I’m understanding the requirements or design changes correctly. If the time permits, a prototype is the best way to go with. But of course, this also mean that it will require more effort. In most of the cases a screenshot or mock-up of the dialog or web-page changes is all what’s needed. You can do this using the tool you use for development, or sometime it’s just more easy to do that using the Paintbrush (or whatever graphics tool you are comfortable with).
To demonstrate that it’s not that tricky to develop and do something similar even in Paintbrush, here is what I came up for Tree Swing Mock-up in Paintbrush in under 10 minutes:
Swing Tree Mockup
I must admit that its not a work of art. But the idea is that you don’t need it to be. You just need to represent what you are thinking about the problem, and how you plan to handle that. When you have that concept in some form where client can visually see it, you can quickly get it verified by client, and then start work on your master piece.
For the final product, you need to do a very good research and work with best resources to get a product which not only the client is comfortable working with, but you should be proud yourself of that work. If that’s not the case, you need to better stop and think what you are doing.
5. Move the monkey, Get things done quickly!
Who’s got the Monkey
If you haven’t already read the legendary “Who’s Got the Mokey?” by. William Oncken Jr. and Donald L. Wass, I would strongly recommend to read it first. In this article, monkey actually represent an assigned task, and William and Donald discuss how you can effectively move the monkey (tasks) between your subordinates to have more control on your project and do better time management than doing all the work yourself.
Even though, this article is primarily related to the effective time management for Managers, and at first, it seems completely unrelated to the this article about Communication Skills. But I think you can use this technique for effective communication as well. The core idea is that if you have to come up with some good and detailed reply, you need to do extensive research and analysis of the problem before you can start typing the reply. If you want to do all this by yourself, you are the kind of manager which William discuss in his article (with lot of monkeys on his back).
So, to be effective, you need to divide the task and assign it to your subordinates for research and initial analysis. What I usually do is that when I get some task which needs the investigation and/or analysis first, I assign it to one of my team member, and ask them to setup, reproduce and analyse the problem. Once the basic investigation is complete, I also ask them to do an initial write-up of that problem. Once that part is done as well, I look at their findings, review or tweak the document with more suggestion or ideas (based on my experience), and then forward it to client.
If I would have to do all this myself, I think I will only be able to reply just 1-2 emails only. But using above strategy I can easily reply on 4-5 issues per day, and still get enough time to work on other development tasks.
Next time you get the monkey, try to move it as soon as possible. The less monkeys you have, the more your can focus on your writing and dvelopment tasks.
6. Read it 2-3 Times
Ever been asked by your teacher to “Write it 10 times”? If yes, then you may know how effective that strategy is that. Of course it sounds boring, but I personally think it works very well. Actually, by writing something you are unintentionally reading it one or more time per writing, and that’s where you brain is building the neural network accordingly.
However, when I say that you read it 2-3 times, I don’t want you to memorize it. Instead it’s because reading it the 2nd or 3rd time is going to make a big difference between a poor written document/email or an excellent reply. If you want it to be piece of art, you may have to do even more than 10 passes for a single page document unless your are natural talented writer.
Reading it multiple times is little different either you are reading a document which you have written yourself, or you are reading a requirements or specification document sent to you by someone else. So, I will discuss the tips of each reading strategy accordingly. But one thing is common for sure, and that’s you need to read it multiple times.
1. Reading Self Written Documents
Let’s first start with the strategy of the reading your own written document. For writing a draft, email or document, I recommend that you try to write it in a single pass. If the document is long, you can take breaks, but just do this section by section. Once the full document or chapter is ready, do a second pass review. This time look for overall sentence structure, grammar errors, and content flow. In this pass, there are good chances that you will rewrite few sentences to make the more these clear or easy to read.
Now if you have the option, give it to someone else (your subordinates, colleague, technical-writer, etc), and have them do a quick proof read of the document. Finally, before sending that update document to client, do one more pass. In this pass, if you find more than 5-6 sentences change per page, it means you are due another pass. Keep doing this until you have a document ready without any modification from your side.
Once all this is done, take a deep breath, and forward it to your client. Good luck!
2. Reading External Documents
The strategy for reading documents created by others is a little different. Here more than 2-3 passes may be required, but the concept in this case is different. Instead of checking sentences for grammar, flow and clarity mistakes, you are trying to understand the content of the document. If you find any grammar or spelling errors, don’t report it back unless you have been asked so.
Here is what I usually do for reading specification or design documents:
- In the first pass, just try to skim through the document. If anything doesn’t make sense at that stage, don’t worry about it. Don’t click on the inter documents links, and just read the document in a natural flow.
- The second pass should be done with a break (from 1 hour to 1 day, as time permits). In this pass, your goal should be to develop as much understanding of the content as possible. If you come up with a wording or term which you don’t know before, search for it. If the document is referring to some screen or web-pages, open these screens, and look carefully at all the controls or objects on that web-page or dialog. Don’t skip any part of the document. Your goal should be to develop a clear understanding of all the requirements as you go in this pass.
- The 3rd pass again should be after a break. Before this pass, you should have pretty solid understanding of all the content of the document you are going to read. So, this pass is just a verification process to make sure that you have got all the ideas clearly. Here you go through document quickly, and if you come up with concept or idea you haven’t read or explore before, mark/highlight it. If you come up with more than 2 highlights per page, you can assume that you did a poor job in the previous pass. This also indicates one more round is due. Repeat that until you have got a very solid understanding of all the document content.
Please note that this is not a entertaining task at all. I find myself very tempting to skip sometime the 2nd or mostly 3rd review. But usually I force myself to do that, I realize how helpful these reviews sessions were only when I’m done with these.
So, this strategy demands you to be cautious rather than being self confident. Learn to master that, and you will see great rewards.
That’s all for my side for now. Few more ideas are coming into my mind, but may be I will write these as separate article, or will update this article in near future. But, for now, I think these are enough to starts with.
Please note that the ideas discussed within this post are not something you will be able to master just right reading this post. It will require some serious effort and work from your side, and it may take from few months to a year to reach at satisfactory level. Keep the article bookmarked, and feel free to share your feedback and findings.
P.S. To be more effective, I would highly recommend to read this post more than one time. Ideally, with some breaks like 1 day, 1 week, and 1 month. You will realize how effective this strategy is when you read the post even the second time.
Tags: Communication, Project Management