What you write and how you write it

July 2013 » Columns » PROJECT MANAGEMENT INSIGHTS
Christine Brack, PMP

Everyone sort of scoffs at English Lit majors in college – questioning the validity of such a general degree and wondering what sort of jobs those graduates land upon finishing. By all means, teaching is a great profession and the subject matter no less important than any other, including, say, engineering or architecture. However, despite the rigor of the course of study that engineering and architecture present, too often the skill of good written communication is lost in the process.

The last several months I have noticed a trend in requests (now that training budgets are back in place!) for writing skills demonstrations or workshops for project managers. The issue is typical: The project manager is technically superb, juggles all the moving parts skillfully, takes wonderful care of the client, and is thorough in problem solving. However, his or her emails ramble, include misspellings, incomplete sentences, poor grammar, and tones that are easily misconstrued as harsh and condescending.

Many principals would defend that technical and managerial skills place higher on the essentials list than writing style. Not every project manager is the perfect specimen in all talents, but ignoring the inadequacy altogether also isn't a good resolution. Here are a few reasons why and a few easy suggestions to address them.

Anything written is a representation of the firm – With all the people involved in projects – all the stakeholders that receive communication or read reports – there are too many eyes that literally see the intelligence of a project manager through those written words. If the project team is scattered or remote, or if team members haven't met the project manager author, poor style and bad grammar can quickly diminish his or her legitimacy. At the hourly fees firms try to justify charging for superior project management, quality, and expertise, it's not a helpful sell when, at $200/hour, he or she spells and writes like a seventh grader.

By this point, it's not a surprise – The road to becoming a project manager presents ample opportunity for one's abilities to be well known – some that indicate promise and some that need improving. Because we all operate in email heavily during the day, throughout the week, on any project, one's writing ability is immediately noticed – especially if it's subpar. Willingly advancing someone to take on the role of project manager with glaringly poor writing skills and not suggesting assistance for it is a reflection of poor leadership.

Enroll in a simple course – With the proliferation of community colleges, online learning, distance learning, and self-guided learning, there are plenty of ways to find a basic writing course and many providers that make it easy to fit in your busy schedule. If it's important, you'll find a way to make it work.

It's professional, not remedial – It may be difficult to have a conversation with a trusted project manager and explain to them that their emails and reports are written atrociously. It may even sound demeaning. Consider again the perception built by those on the outside who read these things. This is a professional environment and warrants good grammar and style. It isn't an attack on one's education at any level; it is simply asking for professional representation of the firm.

No one is expecting project managers to be the next Nobel Laureate in Literature. Communication and good practice of it – especially in writing – is a skill that shouldn't be overlooked or ignored simply because it wasn't in the college roster of required courses.

Christine Brack, PMP, is a principal with ZweigWhite specializing in business planning and project management best practices.
She can be contacted at cbrack@zweigwhite.com.

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