Last week, I mentioned the important communications processes that help keep tech writing projects running smoothly. This week, I want to reiterate their importance by rationalizing their use.
For most project participants (and general readers, too), communications processes are basic logistics management: They're in the background, they're boring, and they feel inconsequential.
However, if you’ve worked on a tech writing team (or any writing team), you know that projects often fall (gently or painfully) apart. Project managers forget to reply-all; SMEs miss their interviews; writers edit old versions; proofreaders fail to update and send out style guides.
Most of the time, the problems can be traced back to ineffective communications processes.
A successfully completed multimember team project (where “success” equals an excellent product and the mutual respect and good will of team members), requires a project lead, weekly team meetings, uniform file-naming system, and general team investment in the efficacy of the communications processes.
An identifiable and self-identified project lead updates everyone and holds everyone accountable. Without a recognizable lead, it's hard to identify a "team," and a project may not even get off the ground.
Weekly team meetings that are written into the project calendar make the project an obvious priority. Ad hoc meetings theoretically work, but the work calendar self-populates at a rigorous rate, and it’s almost always impossible—especially with far-flung team members—to schedule a meeting tomorrow that everyone can attend.
The utility of a rigorously used file-naming system is obvious. But it requires use and enforcement. If a project lead doesn’t establish and apply it, a file’s dead versions are resurrected and important updates get lost.
Boring? Maybe. But most definitely consequential. If you work on writing projects (or aspire to), do yourself a favor by establishing the communications processes that will make your project a success.
Partly because they’re team-based, partly because they’re produced over an extended period of time, and partly because production is iterative, tech writing projects require rock-solid communications processes to ensure completion.
Communications processes refer to the ways that team members provide reviews, comments, revisions, approvals, and updates. Sounds (somewhat) simple, but a typical white paper often includes a client, a project lead, one or two writers, two or three subject-matter experts, and an SME liaison (sometimes affectionately called the “wrangler”). This 7- or 8-person team may start their project on the same page, but when a file is misnamed or misplaced, or an SME interview is missed or mis-scheduled, the project can easily run off track.
Wayward writing projects stretch scope, but they also stretch the patience of participants, which can be even more frustrating.
To help mitigate mishaps associated with files or individual schedules (because they can never be completely avoided), establish a sound communications process while setting the project scope. This means:
Next-level communications processes include ensuring team members cc the communication lead on all emails, putting Zoom or other conferencing info numbers and links in all project-specific emails, and sending out a weekly project calendar with relevant updates.
Implementing and practicing effective communications processes can be arduous, but by helping to navigate the pitfalls that throw projects off track, rock-solid communications ease the load and lead to quicker completion.
The good news: your organization is growing. Maybe you've got new funding sources, your client base has expanded, or you've rolled out successful new services. You're expanding your reach, your impact, and your team. All of this requires strategy.
Growing your communications does, too.
In many ways, communications don't scale like other organizational functions. This is especially true of internal communications, which for small organizations may be completely organic. But whereas organic communications processes may be adequate (even efficient) for a team with a handful of people, they quickly become inefficient (even hazardous) when that team grows.
Growing organizations face two big problems when it comes to internal communications: lack of documentation, and lack of formalization.
Because small teams tend to function organically, there's often little or no documentation of roles and procedures. Team members know each other's strengths, pick up tasks as needed, and fall into familiar routines. But when too much lives in employees' heads, an organization can be on precarious footing when it starts to grow.
Ensuring institutional memory by creating and maintaining external records of communications is crucial for future growth.
Similarly, the organic functioning of a small team can hinder the development of formalized internal communications procedures. After all, maintaining a regular meeting schedule or planning and tracking workflow can seem cumbersome when you interact with everyone on your team every day.
But when an organization relies too much on informal communications to keep its wheels turning, it risks those wheels grinding to a halt. By formalizing communications procedures, you create the conditions for sustainable growth.
So what does it actually look like to document and formalize communications?
While the specifics are different for every organization, it means determining and codifying what works. It means finding the right tools—from calendars to trackers to meeting procedures—to accommodate your organization's growth. And it means creating and regularly updating written documents that detail communications operations in a way that makes them clear and easily adoptable for new team members.
Consciously scaling internal communications is crucial when it comes to organizational capacity-building. It's a forward-looking task that helps ensure the health of growing organizations.
We've been doing a bit of mental spring cleaning at MWS—namely, how best to package our most requested services. That's led us to a bit of spring cleaning for our website: check out our new Services page!
Our three packages (Comprehensive Communications Plans, Review of Public-Facing Communications, and Review of Communications Operations) describe the support we provide for the challenges we see most often among our nonprofit clients. We created them to offer the most efficient, effective means of determining and resolving organizations' needs.
But we also offer support for discrete projects such as grants, websites, blog writing, reports, workshops, and presentations. If you don't see what you need, reach out! Let us know what's on your communications spring cleaning list—we can almost always help.
This is the third part in a series about communications plans, which are crucial tools for nonprofits and businesses. Check out part I and part II for more!
A communications plan lays out a comprehensive picture of an organization's communications goals and offers executable steps for how to achieve them. It can be created or updated annually to align with the fiscal year, or it can be developed as a companion to a 1-, 3- or even 5-year strategic plan.
It’s an incredibly useful tool for mapping out future growth. But it's impossible to create without first understanding where you are now.
That's why, when we create communications plans for our clients, one of the most important steps entails laying out a comprehensive picture of an organization's current communications channels. This includes digital publications such as blog posts and email blasts, social media, print publications such as annual reports and newsletters, and events and in-person communications such as fundraisers or tours.
This can be a simple list, but it should be as comprehensive as possible. For some organizations, it might include five channels; for some, it might include 50. And for each channel, all relevant details should be included: give bullet points to the goal of the communication, the target audience, the timeline or frequency of the communication, who is responsible internally for producing the communication, and any budget and production specs available. That way, there are multiple angles available for easily slicing through the communications picture: Which members of your team currently bear the greatest communications burden? Which projects require the largest chunks of your budget? Which audiences aren't hearing from you frequently enough?
By laying out a complete picture, you can begin to see where you're putting most of your energy, what's being neglected or underutilized, where you're doubling up unnecessarily, and how content can be leveraged from one channel to another. If, for example, your primary goal is to grow your organization's membership, but all of your resources are going to annual reports and blog posts, it becomes clear that changing tack is merited.
In other words, this part of a communications plan is from whence the planning commences.
This picture can be used to develop and prioritize new communications projects, strategize ways to streamline workflow, design upcoming campaigns, revamp existing collateral, or create tools or templates for internal use. In short, it's the best foundation for an organization to ensure that it's moving in the right direction to efficiently align its communications with its long-term goals.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.