We all know the situation. Whether you are standing in line in the cafeteria or walking across the office lobby, you run into people who want to hear what you are working on. It helps to be prepared for these ad-hoc encounters and view them as informal opportunities for building credibility and relationships.
Let’s say you manage a big technical project. You should be prepared for encounters with the following three types of audiences:
- project stakeholders
- technical audience
- business audience
It is helpful to have different messages ready, each tailored to one of the above audience types. Having different messages on hand will ensure that you don’t stumble over your words and also have time to enjoy your lunch! For simplicity, I divide the audience into three groups. Of course, you should also adapt your message to the person you are talking to.
Be prepared to provide a short update anytime and anywhere. For example, a stakeholder may approach you at the coffee machine and ask: “How’s the project going?” It doesn’t matter that you just sent a project status report; it is likely the stakeholder hasn’t read it. Be concise and state the facts. Don’t try to hide problems. You gain credibility by acknowledging problems and communicating how you plan to solve them. For example, if your project is behind schedule, state the reason why and mention what you will do to get the project back on track.
You will also run into project managers or team members from related projects. These people are likely to know about your project and may be familiar with the technology you are using. Focus on exchanging information that may be useful to both of you. Share any knowledge or resources that you have gained that may help the other person. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice on technical issues related to your project. Communicate project status only if you are specifically asked.
You are standing in the lift. Just before the door closes, a senior manager steps in. She turns to you and asks about your new project. Does the thought of this scenario make you break out in a cold sweat? It shouldn’t, not if you are prepared to communicate the value of your project. For a business audience, explain what the project is about, who needs it and why. Most people want to know how something will help them. It can be quite a challenge to distill a complex project into a clear and concise message. You need to be able to pull yourself away from the details and explain something complex in non-technical terms. To prepare, it helps to jot down some key words and phrases.
For example, an information architect I know explains what she does in simple terms. She compares herself to a librarian for the web—she helps people find information. Try explaining to a distant relative what you are working on. A blank stare in return will alert you that you need to say it differently. Also try recording yourself explaining your project. Listen to the recording and make adjustments wherever you sound shaky.
Frank, Milo P. How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less. Pocket, 1990.