Saying that communication is hard sounds like the ultimate understatement, and fairly so. In a business context, communication with stakeholders is a particularly tough challenge. The fact that it is so vital for any project’s success only makes it harder.
So, how do you communicate effectively with your project’s stakeholders?
What exactly is stakeholder communication? How do you identify your stakeholders, to begin with?
As you’ll see, while this is certainly no walk in the park, it is doable if you approach it with the right mindset and are equipped with sound practices.
So, after a couple of fundamentals, you’ll find valuable, yet easy to apply tips to make your stakeholder communication more efficient and effective, resulting in better business outcomes and stronger relationships.
Let’s get started!
Here’s how Investopedia defines “stakeholder”:
A stakeholder is a party that has an interest in a company and can either affect or be affected by the business.
In other words, a stakeholder is someone that have something to lose with an organization’s downfall, and something to gain from its success.
That’s the criterion to identify the individuals or groups that are stakeholders of an organization:
• investors make and lose money according to the company’s performance
• employees gain from company successes (think of bonuses, profit sharing, equity) and certainly suffer when the organization isn’t healthy (recent layoffs saddly bear me out here.)
• customers can enjoy quality and variety in products and services when the organization is doing well
• business partners, such as suppliers, will also enjoy better business outcomes when the company succeeds.
In any given project, there are different types of stakeholders. Of course, they all want to see the enterprise succeed. But they have distinct personal interests and different opinions regarding how to achieve that success.
Stakeholder communication is the communication that occurs between different stakeholders of a project or company.
For projects, it’s the project manager’s responsibility to keep all stakeholders abreast of what’s going on.
The different interests of different groups of stakeholders can make this communication rocky.
Language is also a common barrier: a software engineer working on an app will likely have a different vocabulary and jargon than the company’s CEO or its shareholders.
And then, there is the curse of knowledge.
Sometimes, individuals who are experts in a particular topic or concept may find it difficult to explain it to others who do not share the same level of understanding. They often can’t help but make assumptions about the other person’s knowledge, overlooking vital information and skipping steps in their explanations.
So know you know how to identify your project’s stakeholders, what stakeholder communication is, and the challenges you have to deal with, let’s equip you with tips that’ll help you do it as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Sure, it’s cliché as it gets, but it’s true: for effective stakeholder communication, the first step is understanding who you’re talking to.
Use language that is easy to understand and as free of jargon as possible.
Consider the stakeholder’s role and their level of technical knowledge to determine the appropriate level of detail. For example, if you’re presenting to the CEO, you’ll want to focus on metrics that are relevant to the business rather than getting into the details of the technology—unless, of course, the CEO has a technical background and the tech stuff is relevant for the business metrics.
Consider the format of the message based on the business context, such as whether email or Slack is the best medium. Finally, factor in the “stake” the stakeholder cares about, whether it’s financial, strategic, or operational.
People are busy. Keeping messages short and to the point is a sign of care.
Of course, don’t overdo it: don’t make messages so short that they leave out vital details and force the reader “do the homework” for you.
Identify the essentials of the message and focus on those, leaving out any unnecessary details.
Leverage asynchronous communication whenever possible to prevent interruptions.
It’s surprising that this often needs to be spelled out, but here it goes: asking people about their preferences is always an option!
Some stakeholders may prefer daily updates, while others want weekly summaries. While some may prefer email, others swear by phone calls or face-to-face meetings.
In short: ask each stakeholder about
• their preferred communication methods
• the frequency of updates they need
• the level of detail they want.
In doing so, you demonstrate that their time and preferences are important to you and you value their insights and opinions.
This point is a logical follow-up to the previous one.
Since different stakeholders have different preferences regarding communication channels — and other facets of communication — it just makes sense that using multiple means of communication increases the likelihood of your messages reaching the intended audience.
So, according to audience size and stakeholder preferences, consider using a combination of messaging channels, such as email, messaging, video calls, or newsletters.
If you have stakeholders spread out across several countries, take into account the reality of different time zones and languages.
Accept the reality that, when communicating inside an organization, you’ll make mistakes.
Own them, learn from them, and move on.
But, perhaps most importantly, be ready to listen seriously to act upon candid feedback you may receive from stakeholders.
Receiving negative feedback is never fun, but instead of getting defensive about it, try to understand the issue and find a solution. Use the feedback to improve your communication approach and strengthen your relationship with the stakeholders.
Frequent and open communication is essential for building trust.
If you want a solid relationship with your stakeholders, it’s crucial to be as transparent as possible.
For example: when problems occur, don’t try to hide them or downplay their importance.
Let the relevant stakeholders know about them as early as possible and with much detail as needed.
This increases the likelihood of the problem being solved as soon as possible, and the stakeholders will value your openness and the speed with which you brought the issue to light.
Let’s talk about meetings.
No one likes them, but there’s no going around them in the corporate world.
What to do?
Business meetings, as important as they might be, are somewhat “same-y” and tend to get old quite fast.
When someone experiences a dozen zoom calls a day, it’s understandable when they zoom out — pun 100% intended — and have difficulty getting focused.
The tip here is to, every now and then, experiment with the format of meetings to make stakeholder communication more engaging.
Instead of the old, boring brainstorming session, you can try dynamics such as wicked questions from Liberating Structures, for instance, when engaging with stakeholders about a project.
It’s essential to follow through on the commitments you made to stakeholders.
If you promised an update or deliverable, keep that promise.
On the rare occasion (well, it should be rare) when life happens and makes that impossible, be open about that and update them on what and when they can now expect the update or deliverable.
That way, you prove yourself to be a valuable and trustworthy partner, making the relationship ever so much stronger.
Stakeholder communication, like any other form of human communication, is no walk in the park.
And, by the way: it’s also crucial for your project’s success — as if you need any more pressure!
Still, armed with the tips in this article, you’re all set for a better stakeholder communication strategy.
With the right mindset — believing it’s worthwhile and possible —and the right set of practices, it may be hard, but it’s doable.
What’s more, it’s totally rewarding.
Because when you get it right, your stakeholders will be even more on your side and keen to help you succeed.
If eight tips are too many to keep in mind, remember this.
At the end of the day, it all boils down to empathy.
Put yourself in your stakeholders’ shoes and understand their needs and concerns. It’ll help you anticipate their questions and have your answers ready.