Communication Wake-Up

In my 40 plus years of project management, I have found most new project managers (PMs) lack skills around giving presentations, conducting meetings, and listening. This gap in communication can be particularly large if the new PM comes with a background in a very technical area, such as database management or IT security.



When I started my career, my own communication abilities were not up to the challenge either. Seeking to improve, I joined a local Toastmasters International (TI) club. TI is a non-profit, worldwide educational organization that operates clubs for the purpose of promoting improved communication, public speaking, and leadership skills among its members Through practice and positive feedback from the group, I saw my communication abilities, management capabilities, and self-confidence grow. I also gained practice in respecting the ideas and viewpoints of others and found it a great chance to practice finding the balance between speaking and listening—a skill PMs need in a world where most people are more intent on speaking than listening. Learning that the best way to get a true reading on another person is to listen to what they have to say is an invaluable for a PM to have. In short, because of TI, I became a better listener, speaker, and PM. Other club benefits included making new professional contacts and friends.

One part of every TI meeting that initially frightened me, but eventually I came to enjoy was Table Topics. This was run by the assigned Topics Master who chose a topic of the day. He or she would randomly pick a few members and ask a question about the topic, so you really needed to pay attention. If your name was called, you were called upon to immediately stand up and start answering the specific question. The purpose was to practice the skill of quickly thinking on one’s feet with minimal preparation. As a PM (and a teacher), this was an invaluable experience for me.

Toastmasters meetings are typically held one hour per week at a set time and place (they are likely virtual now because of COVID-19). Like anything else in life, the more effort you put into something, the more value you get out of it. I suggest that committing to a weekly meeting like this could help you to advance your PM career invaluably. You can find a local club to visit or join by going to I live in Houston, TX, and here alone, we have over 100 clubs!


The Rest of the Story

Later in my career, I took a job as a senior project/program manager for an international software company. Because of the positive experience I had, I decided to start a Toastmasters club at my new organization for all employees. The CIO heard about it and sought me out to tell me it was a great idea. Client feedback surveys had showed that his IT department did an extremely poor job with communication, and he wanted to improve this situation. So, with the help of a few local area Toastmaster’s directors, I built up the club and membership grew. About eight months later, client surveys came back with the results—IT had made great progress in improving its communications. As a side benefit, the company club helped strengthen relationships among employees, which enhanced the probability of having more successful projects.

I encourage PMs looking to improve their communication abilities to consider Toastmasters or other development opportunities like it. Falling short in these crucial skills is no minor problem in a career where communicating can take up to 90 percent of your time. In fact, recent PMI research indicates poor communication is a primary factor in 30 percent of failed projects. PMs must take proactive steps to improve their skills, and ultimately their projects.

Do you have ideas for improving communication skills? For example, taking an in-person or live online Dale Carnegie course. Dale was an American author and lecturer and wrote the best seller “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Or has anyone out there tried Toastmasters? I hope you might think about looking them up, and I’d love to hear in the comments below if you do.


*This is an update of PMI’s PM Network article from February 2017. Used with permission.


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Written by Ronald Smith

Ronald Smith has over four decades of experience as Senior PM/Program Manager. He retired from IBM having written four books and over four dozen articles (for example, PMI’s PM Network magazine and MPUG) on project management, and the systems development life cycle (SDLC). He’s been a member of PMI since 1998 and evaluates articles submitted to PMI’s Knowledge Shelf Library for potential publication.
From 2011 – 2017, Ronald had been an Adjunct Professor for a Master of Science in Technology and taught PM courses at the University of Houston’s College of Technology. Teaching from his own book, Project Management Tools and Techniques – A Practical Guide, Ronald offers a perspective on project management that reflects his many years of experience. Lastly in the Houston area, he has started up two Toastmasters clubs and does voluntary work at various food banks.

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    Hi Ron, I left IBM in ’98, but I remember my boss recommending toastmasters early in my career, and that sure helped me. I had flubbed my first preso as manager (heck, I was only 25), so my boss (an ex-Jesuit Priest) recommended that I attend a few sessions. I started trying out all my talks there… I think that’s where I got good at stand-up, as well as cartooning, as I would doodle a lot while others were speaking (I know, not so nice). But ya gotta respect Dale and what he started. His books are fantastic, and here in Nepal, I hand them out like candy. I’ve noticed that within this culture, the best way to teach communication is thru role-play and modeling, and toastmasters is very active here (or was until covid hit). Thx for the article!

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