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Communication Skills for Project Managers | The Best Books

Communication Skills for Project Managers - The Best Books

A large part of your job as a Project Manager is communication; arguably the largest part. So, only focusing on technical skills will not serve you. It’s essential that you develop excellent communication skills. Luckily, there are many great books to help you.

Increasingly, this is the area my training business is focussed on. My clients are learning the value of giving their project managers – and general managers – great communications skills. And my experience as a project manager taught me two things:

  1. Your success as a Project Manager depends more on your ability to communicate well (with stakeholders, team members, and bosses or clients) than on anything else
  2. There is no better context than Project Management in which to learn, practice and hone your communication skills

So, in this article, I have set out to share some of the brilliant books that have helped me learn along the way. In reviewing them, I have selected the ones that are most likely to help you, today.

What Type of Communication Skills?

Communication Skills for Project Managers - The Best Books

Communication Skills for Project Managers – The Best Books

We can start to break down the topic of communication skills for project managers by making the split between:

  • Project-specific communication skills – stakeholder engagement
  • General communication skills that project managers need… and so does everyone else

I will focus on the second of these. There are surprisingly few books out there on stakeholder engagement for project managers. So I will start with that.

Among general communication skills, I have split my review into five sections. So, in total, we have six categories:

  1. Stakeholder Communication
    How to plan and deliver excellent stakeholder engagement on your project.
  2. Spoken Communication
    How to get your point across in a compelling way, in person.
  3. Written Communication
    How to write effectively for the kinds of readers you’ll encounter as a PM.
  4. Persuasive Communication
    How to influence and persuade others, and win arguments.
  5. Difficult Communication
    How to communicate when the stakes are high, disagreement or conflict is possible, or when behaviors are less than ideal.
  6. Public Communication
    How to speak in public and make presentations that people will want to pay attention to.

So, without further ado, let’s take a look at some books…

Stakeholder Communication Skills

The Influence Agenda: A Systematic Approach to Aligning Stakeholders in Times of Change
Mike Clayton

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

I’ll own up: this is one of my own project management books. And I think it’s the best.

I genuinely believe that this is the best book of its kind on the market. If you need to take a structured approach to stakeholder engagement on your project, and if you want to know all the basics and some of the advanced techniques, this is a comprehensive reference work. No serious project manager should be ignorant of the range of stakeholder analysis tools, how to plan your communication campaign, and the fundamentals of influence at all levels. There are free resources at: http://theinfluenceagenda.co.uk.

Top Pick for Project Managers

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Making Projects Work: Effective Stakeholder and Communication Management
Lynda Bourne

Making Projects Work

This is the nearest competitor book to The Influence Agenda. Lynda Bourne is a deep expert in Stakeholder Engagement, who has her own trademarked methodology. I’ll be honest and say I’ve not read this book, but her articles are always informative and thought-provoking.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Made to Stick
Chip and Dan Heath

Made to Stick

This is a huge best seller about why some ideas ‘stick’, and how to make your messages sticky. I’ve placed this under stakeholder engagement, rather than persuasive communication, because, to me, it reads as a playbook on planning your stakeholder engagement campaign, when you need to win over commitment to your ideas.

This has become something of a business classic in the years since it was first published in 2007. So I highly recommend you read this.

Top Pick for Project Managers

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Spoken Communication Skills

How to Speak so People Listen
Mike Clayton

How to Speak so People Listen by Mike Clayton

I’ll start with one of mine, because it is so wide-ranging.

How to Speak so People Listen touches upon just about every component of spoken communication. It distills everything I have learned about conversation, difficult conversations, presentations, meetings, phone conversations, and even influencing. What I love most about it are the wonderful illustrations by artist and friend, Toni Goffe. And you can download tons of free resources and videos from the book’s website at: http://speaksopeoplelisten.co.uk

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

How to Talk to Anyone
Leil Lowndes

How to Talk to Anyone

I love Leil Lowndes’ books. They have great titles (try How to Make Anyone Like You (US|UK), or even How to Make Anyone Fall in Love with You (US|UK)).

But this is the one for good solid relationship-building conversation. All her books have lots (this one has 92) of short chapters, each giving a valuable tip in a clear way. And she has a talent for naming her tips so they will stick in your mind: ‘the big baby pivot’, ‘never the naked job’, and ‘commYOUnucation’ stuck in mine.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time
Susan Scott

Fierce Conversations

This is a serious book for serious professionals. Of all the books I read when learning about excellence in communication, this one had the most profound impact. It won’t give you easy tips and hints. Instead it will take you deep into how to make your conversations more profound and powerful. If you want to be a deep listener and make individual conversations transformative, this is for you. It’s a book for people committed to a respectful style of leadership.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Written Communication Skills

The Pyramid Principle
Barbara Minto

The Pyramid Principle

If you need to draft structured, compelling business/organizational writing (and clue: you do) – this is THE book to read. I was trained in this back in the late 1990s, but I still apply the ideas. No ifs. No buts. This is GOOD.

Top Pick for Project Managers

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

HBR Guide to Better Business Writing: Engage Readers, Tighten and Brighten, Make Your Case
Bryan Garner

HBR Guide to Better Business Writing

The Harvard Business Review guides are typically excellent – as you’d expect from the premier academic business journal. In researching a book that would have good, basic advice that is widely recommended, this one came up again and again. So, sight unseen, and relying on recommendations and Amazon reviews, I offer this to you.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Brilliant Business Writing
Neil Taylor

Brilliant Business Writing

I have written four books in this series myself. When I started, the publisher gave me this one, as an example of one of the best. I’s full of really good advice that’s easy to assimilate. It may appeal to writers in British English more than users of US English (for whom I recommend the HBR book, above).

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

The Elements of Style
William Strunk and EB White

The Elements of Style

There’s a part of me that really wants this book. It’s one of the few here I don’t own, but it is so widely used and recommended by professionals and business people in the US, that I can’t not include it.

So, why don’t I buy it, as a professional writer. Because I’m British, by gosh, and I have my copies of Fowler (US|UK) and Partridge (US|UK).

Oops… I just bought it. It’s on its way!

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Persuasive Communication Skills

Influence: Science and Practice
Robert Cialdini

Influence - Science and Practice

This one is an absolute classic. I’ve written my own book on Influence (see below) which is good. But, if you want the science, from the man who has done more research into the psychology of influence than anyone else, get this book. It is excellent in every way. It’s readable, rigorous, and has loads of mini case studies to bring the book to life.

Beware: there is another book still in print called Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. This is an earlier edition of the same book. The newer book, Influence: Science and Practice has more information, is printed on better paper, and is the one Cialdini recommends on his website.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

How to Influence in Any Situation (formerly Brilliant Influence)
Mike Clayton

How to Influence in any Situation by Mike Clayton

In this book, I took all I knew about influence, distilled don to the most useful parts for managers, project managers, and business professionals, and wrote about it in the most clear and straightforward way I could. It is one of my three best-selling books.

As a project manager, this is ideal for you. My former boss – a very senior project practitioner – says the book provides ‘pragmatic, easy to follow steps to achieving brilliant influence’. Maybe I influenced him to say that. Maybe he said it because that’s what he thought. Either way, it suggests the book has plenty to teach you!

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Influencer
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, Al Switzer

Influencer

This is one of the most refreshing takes on influence and persuasion that I have come across. It was also the first book I bought by these authors (and two others are listed below).

This book is as much about behaviors as it is about words, but then… behavior is communication. What we do says as much as what we say. And, because a lot of the context of this book is around change, it is particularly valuable to Project Managers.

Top Pick for Project Managers

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Thank You for Arguing (formerly Winning Arguments)
Jay Heinrichs

Thank You for Arguing

Here’s a book for a dedicated communicator. If you are someone who loves the power of language, then you’ll love any of Heinrichs’ books. And if you want to delve into the rhetorical skills of winning arguments, this is the best book on the topic I have found. It’s not a textbook, so it’s a pleasure to read. But you’ll learn a lot from this, I guarantee it.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Communication Skills for Project Managers - Best Books

Communication Skills for Project Managers – Best Books

Difficult Communication Skills

Crucial Conversations
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzer

Crucial Conversations

As a project manager, you’ll often need to pass on uncomfortable messages, or confront awkward facts. If you want to learn from masters about how to prepare for and hold difficult conversations, there’s no better book than this one.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Crucial Confrontations
Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzer

Crucial Confrontations

This book is like a companion piece to the previous one in my list (and the third by these authors). It steps up the pressure from difficult conversations to conflict resolution. And it’s another master class from which you can learn loads.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Dealing with Difficult People
Roberta Cava

Dealing with Difficult People

This is one of those ‘start here’ books. If you want the basics of how to understand and deal with difficult behavior in the workplace, here’s your starting place. While the two books above are ideal for Project Managers with experience, if you are new to the workplace, leading your first project, or struggling to understand the dynamics of difficult behavior… Start here.

Top Pick for Project Managers

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Public Communication Skills

Krushchev’s Shoe, and other ways to Captivate an Audience of 1 to 1000
Roy Underhill

Kruschev's Shoe

This was the first book I read on presenting and speaking to an audience and it blew me away. It’s out of print now and can be hard to get hold of, but if you want t learn how to speak effectively, you should consider this for your collection.

What does the title mean? It’s a piece of history: Nikita Krushchev, General Secretary of the former Soviet Union, took off his shoe and banged it on the table at the UN General Assembly, to get attention. It worked.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama
Sam Leith

You Talkin' To Me?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama

I like books on formal speaking: standing in front of an audience with no slides, and letting the power of your words carry your message alone. This book won’t be for everyone. It was a close call between this and Max Atkinson’s ‘Lend Me Your Ears’ (US|UK). I chose this, because it is more about the subject than a how to.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

The Presentation Book
Emma Ledden

The Presentation Book

For most Project Managers, the key skill of public speaking is giving a business presentation. And I know of no better guide book than this. Short, easy to read, lots of graphics, and sound advice. This book is not for mastering the art, but for taking it on. It’s in its second edition, which is always a good sign.

Top Pick for Project Managers

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs
Carmine Gallo

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

This is the first of two mastery-level books on business presentations.

Here, Carmine Gallo (also author of ‘Talk like TED‘ (US|UK) – but we prefer the book below) looks at what made Steve Jobs’ Apple product launch presentations so mesmerizing.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

 

TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking
Chris Anderson

TED Talks: The official TED guide to public speaking

One of the best ways to learn to speak is to watch a variety of speakers and performers at TED.com. The TED organization (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) challenges experts in every field to give the best talk of their lives.

For the main TED conferences, speakers get extensive coaching. Largely, they perform at the peak level of professional speaking. So, here is a book on how they do it, by the founder of TED, Chris Anderson.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

And, lastly, as a bonus…
Two Books about Building Great Presentations

Do you need to do presentations, using PowerPoint, Keynote, Slides, Prezzi or anything like that? And, do you want to incorporate great design, avoiding the dreaded ‘death by PowerPoint’? Here are two wonderful books…

– SOCIAL LOCKER –

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences
Nancy Duarte

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences

Nancy Duarte – and the business she founded – are absolute masters of the art and science of business presentations. You’ll learn far more in this book that just about how to create great slides. You’ll learn how to craft a compelling – even transformative – story. I love this book.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Presentation Zen
Garr Reynolds

Presentation Zen

Almost a coffee table book. This is a man who knows how to make beautiful slides. And he’ll show you the secrets.

But he’ll also show you how to prepare your presentation and how to deliver it. This is a wonderful book for anyone nterested in the craft of presenting… or anyone who wants to make a positive impact with their slides.

Buy from Amazon.com   Buy from Amazon.co.uk

Have Your Say

Have you read any of these books? If so, what do you think of them?

And, are there any communication skills books that you would recommend to fellow Project Managers?

Do tell us in the comments, and we’ll respond to every contribution.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 13 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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  • Dave Gordon says:

    Great list, Mike! “The HBR Guide to Better Business Writing” and Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” belong on every manager’s bookshelf—line or project manager, dead tree or Kindle versions. Susan’s Scott’s “Fierce Conversations” is excellent.

  • […] Mike Clayton curates an excellent list of the best books about communication skills (and there are several types of skills represented) for project managers. 10 minutes to read. […]

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