Unraveling the ball of yarn

or, working with project teams

“Our project is ready, we need to communicate” – this is a request that is heard regularly in the life of communications professionals. I heard it a lot. In the best of cases, we are involved at an early stage. But most often we are asked to do our magic and provide a communication plan minutes before the launch. And that’s where the fun starts.

story line

Helping projects teams in my experience, is like unraveling a ball of yarn. I actually looked up the yarn definition before writing this article, and stumbled upon this: It depends on the brand of yarn you are using whether or not you can pull it from the inside or the outside. Some mills wind their balls so that the yarn end from the inside is easy to reach and they are intended to be pulled this way, some wind so that only the end on the outside is easily accessible.

This is a bang-on definition that illustrates my relations with Project teams along my career: the most difficult thing is to extract The Storyline that will be the backbone of the communication plan.
Because, typically, a project team wants to tell everything. In their view, everything needs to be known by everyone, so everyone in the organisation will understand the need for the IT roll-out,  new process, new tools, or standardisation. And everything is important – from how the team did it, their internal milestones, to the end result (usually forgetting the ‘why’ along the way) – because they have spent months working hard to deliver their project. Understandably, it’s their baby.

Every communicator who’s ever tried – and succeeded – to communicate on projects will get the gist. Think Technology, think Finance, or any other functions – we all, regularly, face a battle against “we need to tell everything. All of it” (“here is our ball of yarn, nice and complete”).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for transparency. Transparency is one of the ground rules of my work. But ‘sharing it all’ has more to do with muddy water than with crystal-clear stream.

So how do we help projects unravel their yarn?
I will not delve deep into communication trade knowledge, but just go straight to the 3 main points every Project team should consider.

1- Keep it simple and relevant
For this, we only need an answer to these questions: Why do you actually want to communicate (what is your desired end result? Is it adoption? Awareness? Leadership approval?) And what does the intended audience actually have to know to reach your desired outcome?

2- Focus your content
In terms of projects communications, keep in mind that generally nobody is interested in what happened in your kitchen, but what’s now on the table. Think along the lines “what’s in it for me”, what will really change for the stakeholders, the scale of the impact, the return value. Everything else is only ‘nice to know’.
The ‘kitchen content’ is important for your team, and of course, cause for celebration. But don’t use this content for a communication roll-out.

3- Organise your content
For the same project, a Finance Director will not be interested in the same topic as your end-users for example. Tailor your content accordingly. What’s the most important message for the intended recipient? Place it in the first lines (if written) or first 30 seconds (if live). It’s still very common to see the most important message, when drafted by project teams, in the last line/page/slide/conclusion. It’s so common that, when reviewing drafts, I used to go directly to the last line, with the secret bet that this was where I would find the ‘information gem’. It never failed.

This is because projects teams typically work with a timeline mindset, and logically, they adapt their story to the history/chronology of their project – rather than unraveling the yarn and articulating the main points that will be relevant (and current) to their audience.

So, whatever end of yarn you use, make sure it can provide the thread you need.

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