Published here, June 1, 2012


Musings Index

Using the Right Vocabulary

Bob McGannon challenges: Need to Communicate? [Then] Choose the Right Vocabulary![1] Bob explains that many of the business analysts, project managers and organizational leaders with whom he works, lament their inability to communicate effectively to influence their respective stakeholders. Indeed, he says they seem to spend significant energy trying to get a point across or to inspire some required action. Often the message appears to fall on deaf ears, or gets lost in "the tsunami of information we all have to handle."

Bob suggests that the messages of these people are not necessarily wrong or misplaced, but rather fail to use the right vocabulary for their particular target audience. As we shall see, Bob goes on to describe three "levels" of vocabulary. We are inclined to differ here. Not only is it necessary to use the right terminology, it is also necessary to use the right grammar, structure and media suited to the occasion, if you are to reach the individual or audience efficiently. All four must be in alignment for the message to be fully effective.

But where will you find the necessary terms that you are looking for? And when you think you have found what you want, will you really understand them? Clearly, this is a case for using the Wideman Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms recently updated to version 5.5.

Using this Glossary, you can jump around using the embedded links not only to find what you are looking for, but also get a thorough understanding of the various nuances that various authors have adopted. And, of course if you don't like what those authors say, you can always develop your own interpretation so long as you include your definition in your communication. But I digress.

In summary, Bob's three levels of vocabulary are as follows:

The Strategy or Mission Vocabulary for Top Management

Bob says this is the language of senior leaders, multi-tasking managers and those in charge of significant initiatives within the organization. In other words, the terminology used must match the specific interests of senior and top management - particularly in terms of opportunities or problems that need priority action. At this level, these people have to scan a large number of documents and letters, as well as hundreds of Emails each day. And in each case decide whether to act, delegate, file, delete or simply ignore. As Bob says, this is a daunting chore.

Thus, for this level, the message must be very short, succinct, and to the point. By "short" I mean half a page at the most! Bob advises that the focus should be on overall objectives, key process indicators, or direct outcomes. Open ended questions, or requests for advice and direction are out. If high-level policy issues or conflicts are at stake, then these must be followed by your recommended solution, or possibly by multiple choice options complete with corresponding benefits. Bob further suggests that in the current business climate short-term focus gets more attention than long-term focus, and items that yield benefits that also have positive long-term trend indications are universally welcome.

At this level, terms such as: "Adaptive Project Management"; "Competitive Benchmarking"; "Corporate Strategy"; "Interested Parties" and "Market Demand" are the sort of terms that should attract high level attention. Definitions of all of these can be found in the latest Glossary of Project Management Terms.

The Goals and Objectives Vocabulary for Middle Management

At this level, line managers are struggling to deliver business value according to their assigned departmental responsibilities. According to Bob McGannon, issues such as prioritization of scarce resources or the delivery of specific mission-critical products are at the heart of their world. The attention span in this case is obviously longer but the subject matter must still be presented in plain and straightforward language. Adverse reports of deliverable shortcomings, forecasts associated with deadlines or of budget overruns particularly attract attention.

Such communications can evoke strong reactions and must be crafted with the utmost care. However, simply avoiding such tidings is not an option. In fact, the sooner bad news is exposed the better. After all, the luckless manager also has to report higher up the chain. Therefore, a clear exposition of the corrective action that you plan to take, or seek approval for, or the options for corrective action, complete with upside and downsides that you see, and the one you recommend, is imperative. The news may be bad but your approval rating will escalate and the necessary fast response can be expected in most cases.

At this level, terms such as: "Appropriation of Funds" (e.g. contingency or reserve); "Bundling" (not to be confused with 'bungling'!); "Claim"; "Commissioning Plan"; "Disruptive Technology"; "Life Cycle Cost Optimization" or "Marginal Contribution" and "Project Justification" are the sort of terms that should grab middle management attention. Definitions of all of these can be found in the latest Glossary of Project Management Terms.

The Tactical or Operational Vocabulary for Production Teams

This is the level at which the language must be suited to those who do the real work of the business. These are the people who "battle in the trenches", or "at the coal face", consistent, persistent and backbreaking. Their concerns are for today and tomorrow, the expectations that they are counted on to meet, and their expectations of the timely delivery of resources and/or obstacle-removal necessary for them to perform at their best.

Communications at this level must be clear, simple, specific and ideally expressed as to-do checklists presented in short logically-assembled tabulations not exceeding five to seven bulleted items in each. The focus should be on how to get things done, the relevant policies and procedures involved, and where to go for help. Descriptions of relevant metrics and measurements also attract attention, as well as corresponding roles and responsibilities. In other words, expressed as who does what, how, and by when.

Terminology at this level likely includes such items as: "Base Cost"; "Change Management" (not to be confused with 'Management of Change'); "Current Estimate"; "Deliverables"; "Functional Breakdown Structure"; "Integration"; "Lessons Learned"; "Performance Objectives"; alternative "Problem Solving" modes; "Reality Check"; "Value" and "Value Engineering". The latest definitions of all of these, and more, can be found in the Glossary of Project Management Terms, version 5.5 - see Appendix A.


1. McGannon, Bob, Getting attention, communicating at the right level, accessed 4/11/12
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