Project communication 101: A roundtable with design and editorial

So much of what makes a project successful—and even enjoyable—rests under the umbrella of good project communication. Whether it’s between a client and our team or among one another, being able to set expectations and regularly talk things through is key to a job well done.

However, when we’re all in the thick of a project, both our team and author teams can get bogged down in the work, forgetting to surface and communicate with one another. And editors or project leads may worry about overstepping boundaries or clogging up author team inboxes with updates and recap emails. But as my colleague David Peak said to me recently, “I don’t think you can overcommunicate in this job.”

I recently sat down with two of our senior editors, Scott Leff and Heather Ploog, and our design director, Delilah Zak, to talk about the ins and outs of project communication.

Rachel: What role does communication play in ensuring a project goes smoothly?

Heather: Effective project management is essentially good communication. It’s so important to understand a client’s objectives and expectations from the outset, not just for what the product should look like but also for the process—the path we take to get there. If my team delivers a killer piece of content but the client had a bad experience, then we’ve fallen short.

Delilah: The more we can work together with editors and clients in an openly communicative way, the better the result. And no one is blindsided; everyone knows what the final product will be because of the discussions along the way.

From a design perspective, the more we know upfront the better we can plan our design approach—especially when it comes to project timelines. Knowing whether something is going to be printed or an interactive, for example, helps us bake in the required time to make this happen. Also, knowing if a piece is based on a template or something more novel can get us thinking early about an idea or layout.

One of our clients is great at setting expectations and sharing ideas at the beginning of a project. We have regular communication between design, editorial, and the client team. Sometimes things still get down to the wire, but having weekly meetings with the client, sharing design mock-ups in advance, and setting milestones throughout the project ensure that the client isn’t surprised by anything when it’s completed.

Rachel: Can you describe a project for which the ultimate deliverable was initially unclear at the outset or evolved over the course of the project timeline? How did your and the client’s team communicate throughout the process?

Delilah: Most of the ambiguity that designers experience comes from receiving direction along the lines of, “we want an innovative format.” For instance, we worked on a series of print articles not too long ago—but they weren’t your typical articles and instead compared different scenarios, which didn’t warrant a typical narrative treatment. However, my colleague met with me early in the process to explain the structure of the article and we chatted about “what it could be.” That discussion helped me think about how to approach the project and put together some mock-ups in advance. We were able to come up with a good solution and shared a treatment with the client early in the project process and explained why we thought it would work best. They liked it and we were able to move forward.

Rachel: How does communication enhance your collaboration with the client team?

Scott: We have the responsibility of guiding clients through a creative process, and that often involves some experimentation or exploration along the way. Recently, we were working on a long report with a team that wanted to present its findings in a way that would be more engaging and whet the readers’ appetite to dig into the longer piece. To meet this request, we came up with an idea for an interactive landing page that brought the team’s ideas to life in a new way. Since this approach was uncharted territory for the clients, it required a leap of faith on their part. But we made sure to develop our concept in an iterative, collaborative way so they could weigh in at every step. The format of a piece should always reflect the content and how the target audience will engage with it.

Heather: Good communication facilitates trust—which, of course, is a key element of collaboration. It can also really cut down on the back-and-forth that often plagues publishing projects. In particular, I find that writing good emails makes a world of difference. Making sure that key ideas are up front, that there’s an adequate (but not overbearing) amount of context, and that questions are answered drastically reduces the likelihood that misunderstandings will take place. This, in turn, minimizes iteration and rework.

Rachel: What are some best practices for productive communication throughout the project’s development?

Scott: We have adopted the recap email as a standard tool for communication and transparency. By following up live discussions with clear next steps, it promotes accountability. And it gives clients confidence that we are actively managing the process. We also constantly remind ourselves that every client has a different level of experience in content creation. Some are old hands, while others might be working on their first article or video. It’s incumbent on us to provide the proper context up front so that they have a clear understanding of how the creative process will unfold and their role in moving things along.

Heather: One of the most important things to learn as an editor is how to gracefully follow a subject-matter expert’s (SME) lead. Particularly in the early stages of a project, we need to take an SME’s wish list and turn that into a plan of action. And in some situations, it may be useful to play devil’s advocate; not all SMEs are familiar with the tenets of good storytelling.

Rachel: When you’re communicating with a subject-matter expert, how do you ensure you’re clear on their perspective and key messages?

Delilah: Sometimes people will send us examples of their vision. I always try to encourage such an exchange because it helps bond what the client sees in their head with the outcome. For example, a client came to us with a rush “brochure-like” project. We happened to have made one for this same client a couple years ago, and their direction was to create “something like this example, but not exactly this.” Having that previous brochure as a starting point helped us quickly turn their new content into a story while retaining the brochure template.

Scott: We view our role as a translator, taking an expert’s ideas and distilling or shaping them for a specific audience. To do that effectively requires us to first get up to speed on the material, ask questions, and then explicitly verify that we’re on track. A common approach we use is to ask experts for elevator pitches for their insights. Hearing the high-level narrative in their own words provides the foundation for the translation process that follows.

Heather: For me, getting on the same page with an SME starts with asking the right questions, listening intently to their responses, and taking good notes. And I completely agree with Scott on the importance of getting up to speed on a topic. I hit Google hard and read as much as I can before having an in-depth conversation with a SME. Having that baseline understanding of a topic—and of competing perspectives and messages—helps us get clarity around what the SME really wants to say.

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