How to Engage Project Stakeholders With Good Communication

There’s no denying that stakeholder management processes, documents and analysis are a great tool for project communication.

But you don’t create engagement or change behaviour by filling in a power and impact grid. You need more than stakeholder assessments to make people understand what you are trying to do.

You need actions.

In this article, I’ll share some simple things you can do to boost stakeholder engagement through good project communication at all levels.

Get a good story

First, get a good story. Think about why you are doing your project and how it meets the business’s requirements. How is it going to change their lives for the better? You’ll probably have heard this before but it’s the answer to the question: What’s in it for me?

If you can work out the ‘what’s in it for me’ for each of your stakeholder groups you can target your project communications more effectively and talk about the benefits.

You don’t have to work on many projects before you hit resistance to change. People don’t like change and a good story helps you remove the road blocks, or at least minimize the impact of them.

The story starts with your vision for your project.

Create a vision

Your project’s vision should be simple – something that can be clearly stated. It’s the road you are traveling and where you are going.

It should be aligned to the business goals, departmental goals or the overarching corporate strategy (or, even better, all of those). And you should be able to articulate how that is going to happen. This shows that there is value being delivered that helps move the organization forward.

Alignment sets your project in context and makes it relevant to the work and experiences of your stakeholders.

Finally, your vision should be achievable. People should believe that you are going to deliver it. It should be realistic as no one will support a plan that they feel has no chance of achieving the stated outcomes.

Stakeholders won’t want to be associated with something that they can’t believe in and that they already consider a failure.

Ultimately your project’s story should enable people to clearly see what’s in it for them and what’s in it for the wider business. It’s promotional. (Let’s assume the simplest situation for now, which is that there is a positive story to share. I know that isn’t always the case.)

Start with the team

Mostly we think of project marketing and communication as something we do to people outside the team. But you have to have your team on side.

The team are ambassadors for your project and they need to be consistently selling the story of your project and promoting the benefits with the people they work with and meet.

They will provide you with updates for your standard communications but they’ve got to be behind you in any marketing effort too. They should be able to champion the project and they need to believe in the vision too.

Top tip (and lesson learned from my own experience): As well as being champions, they mustn’t undermine your efforts, and that’s surprisingly easy to do with a few off-hand remarks. Even if they didn’t mean to.

Project communication is everyone’s responsibility

Make project communications everyone’s responsibility. There’s a benefit to this which isn’t just delegating the work of communication to others.

Messages count for more if your stakeholders hear it from their peers and not from you. You are supposed to be positive about the project because it’s your job.

Your message has a greater impact if they hear those good things from other people as well, so ask your team to talk about the project informally, especially when you have hit key milestones or delivered something.

People follow the lead of those in power so identify which of your stakeholders have that power (and remember it comes from different sources so experts may be impressed by other experts but not by hierarchy).

Build a network of positive supporters

You can also build a network of positive supporters and draw on them to spread the word. Use your stakeholder analysis to work out who they might be.

There is a practical issue here of making sure that everyone understands that the job of communication isn’t just down to the project manager. Tell them what you expect – don’t assume they’ll suddenly become communication ambassadors for you.

Spell it out:

  • “Can you talk to the rest of your team about this?”
  • “When people ask you about the project, this is how we’re explaining the benefits…”
  • Can you mention our project when you brief the board on Friday please? In particular, the fact that we’re still waiting for a decision on X.”
  • “I’m meeting with X on Thursday. Do you know anyone in that team? It would be good that their manager hears the same thing, and I wondered if you’d be OK with passing on the same messages.”

Senior managers have a role to play in unblocking issues and moving roadblocks, and communication is part of that. They should be as ‘on message’ as you are.

Meet your stakeholders where they are

Outside your team, there are a lot of ways to reach stakeholders but your messages won’t get through, however good the story, however engaged your own team, if you aren’t hanging out where your stakeholders are.

I’m currently working on a software upgrade project and now I use Skype because the business team I’m working with do. It wasn’t my preferred method of communication before this, but it’s easier for me to change my habits than expect my project customer to do something different than how they normally work.

Project managers have to expect to flex their styles and tools to suit the needs of their stakeholders – we shouldn’t expect stakeholders to adopt new ways of working because it is convenient for us.

There is more work involved when you adopt that approach because it means using multiple channels to suit the needs of different groups of stakeholders. But it’s part of the job. Project managers are primarily focused on creating participating in projects and if you want to boost participation, build engagement and promote your project then tailoring your communication is part of what needs to be done.

Your next steps

In this article you learned how to use stakeholder communication on your project to support engagement. With the right story, a vision, the support of the team, a network of positive supporters and the attitude that meets your stakeholders where they are, you’ll find it easy to make more of an impact with the communication and engagement work you do.

Your next steps to put this into practice are:

  • Review your project communications plan (get a free communications plan template to help).
  • Identify who are the key influencers on your project so you can include them in your team of supporters and champions.
  • Identify where you are most likely to meet your stakeholders and start hanging out there.

Want to take this topic further? Check out my list of the top books on stakeholder management.

A version of this article first appeared in 2016 and it has been updated to keep it relevant.

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