6 myths about English at work

“There is zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas,” Susan Cain.

Learning a language is an illusive skill. It can create great joy in being able to communicate across boundaries, but equally, sometimes, great fear – fear of making mistakes and not being able to express yourself fully and, therefore, the feeling of having your personality suppressed.

Across many professional industries, I often work with staff members who have been identified as having weak English language skills, and it is often suggested that brushing up on grammar and building vocabulary banks will increase skills to a level more adequate for the job.

At the same time, I have learnt that there is a broad range of understanding around what it is to speak another language in the workplace, as well as there being little understanding of the differences between communication and language skills.

From the outside, it is easier for managers and recruiters to identify weaknesses of fluency and vocabulary in their non-native speaking colleagues and candidates. However, most staff members undergoing coaching themselves feel the need to build capacity around

  • developing rapport,
  • communicating effectively in meetings,
  • giving effective presentations,
  • delivering persuasive messages in both indirect and more direct ways, or
  • smoothly interacting with colleagues and clients by effectively using small talk.

That is why it is imperative to infuse cross-cultural and general communication components into language proficiency coaching, at the corporate level. While staff members can have ranging capabilities in language and cultural intelligence, the two are not always linked. There are many other myths around language that can provide serious challenges for senior management and human resources staff. Here are a few of those myths.

  1. Language proficiency is job proficiency. It is true that a lack of language proficiency can lead to many challenges in productivity, collaboration, customer and even staff retention. However, promoting or hiring the candidate due to English language fluency alone could lead to lost opportunities by not engaging with other highly gifted and adaptable candidates who are yet to fully master their corporate confidence in English.
  1. Fluent English equals a good communicator. Just because someone speaks fluently, does not mean they have the best ideas, strongest leadership capabilities or even best communication skills. Skills in persuasive language, meeting behaviour and presentation delivery can be nurtured with some linguistic refinement and strategic tools.
  1. We are better off laterally hiring middle management staff with native English communication skills. Candidates coming from other companies have learnt another company’s culture and now have to become a good fit in the new culture. Younger, graduate candidates who are nurtured linguistically and otherwise, learn the company culture from the beginning and feel valued when the company invests in their professional skills development and are, therefore, more likely to show loyalty to the company. This will also reduce costs around high rates of recruitment turnover.
  1. Native English speaking staff members are more confident. When considering who is speaking up in meetings or even who is attending meetings, it might be easier to single out the native English speakers. In speaking with non-native staff members, it has been a recurring comment that it is one thing to operate in a meeting where everyone is a non-native speaker and a complete other thing where there is a dominant group of native speakers. Research shows that even the most proficient non-native speakers feel intimidated in native-speaker environments. This suggests that there is a need for all staff to consider a unified approach to language in multinational teams and how communication is working.
  1. Language has nothing to do with culture. A fluent language user is not the same thing as being culturally proficient. However, language weakness is often more a case of finding the right linguistic cues to meet the new culture or hit the right mark when dealing with multinational teams.
  1. Non-native speakers need to improve their skills. This, of course, is true in many cases, but it is not the only element that has to change in multinational teams. Native speakers have a role to play when there is a range of fluency levels. They cannot continue to talk as if talking with people of their same culture and language and managers need to manage this carefully. Native speakers might need to slow down slightly, use less colloquial terminology and be proactive in assist co-workers to participate in the conversation.

Good language skills are not just about fluency and a good bank of vocabulary. It’s also about carefully placed questions, listening, ensuring understanding has been achieved and, most importantly, the reading of subtle cues and reactions in sensitive situations. The answer is refining a combination of cross-cultural capability and linguistic proficiency.

The good news is that all these things can be learnt and it is better to invest in the people who have the raw skills, business potential and technical competencies to get the job done – rather than responding to the most fluent, confident and loudest speaker.

Do not let language proficiency cloud management and recruitment decision and belief systems around who is the strongest candidate for the job.

Ted Talk of the Day and Business English Presentations

In this Ted Talk of just under 7 minutes, Emdin talks about motivating teachers and changing the classroom with gusto.

While the tone seems a bit too American for an Australian context there are a number of things he does well and all of these elements translate into giving a good presentation for anyone.

  1. He tells a story. I know I’ve been talking about this before, but this really is the way to engaging your audience.
  2. He paints a picture. We can imagine the black church and its parishioners.
  3. He uses irony. We can see the bored education student listening to the tired lecturer about engaging the audience.
  4. He has passion and enthusiasm for his subject.
  5. He sets the scene. “Right now, there is an aspiring teacher who is working on a 60-page paper based on some age-old education theory developed by some dead education professor…”
  6. He uses repetition. “Right now, there is…”
  7. He uses body language. He makes eye-contact.
  8. He uses a personal pronoun. “Right now, there’s a student to come up with a way to convince his mum or dad that he’s very sick and can’t make it to school tomorrow.”
  9. He has great threads too.
  10. And, he uses humour.

See if you can weave some of these elements into your next presentation.

Click here to watch.

Never let a story get in the way of a good phrasal verb

The ever-feared phrasal verb is one of the main causes of concern for advanced business English speakers. This is especially the case in the workplace where native speaking colleagues consider them to be the easiest thing in the world to slip into conversation.

Generally speaking, business English phrasal verbs are a less formal way of communicating, which pretty much means they are being spoken in meetings, over the phone and in the lunchroom. They are probably being used in most emails too but rarely in more formal emails, official documents or reports where more Latin-based words are preferred.

So how to conquer the phrasal verb in the business English context?

My number one tip for improving your phrasal verb knowledge is to listen. Listen to your colleagues and develop your own personal phrasal verb lexicon and start working them into your conversations and emails where possible. If you currently have a teacher, present your list and ask for an activity that will help you exercise them. If not, find a confidante who will help you use them correctly.

By successfully stealing phrasal verbs from your colleagues you will find the ones that are most suitable to your unique business English context. The trick with phrasal verbs is that there are thousands of them and the other trick is getting the word order right.

Take a look at this online tool Lexchecker and see if your phrasal verb explanation can be found here.

Otherwise, search this online thesaurus for the correct usage and related synonyms.

And here is a good list of business English phrasal verbs to test your knowledge.

If you’re going it alone, why not try reading the MX newspaper on your commute home for a good variety of phrasal verbs. At least this might keep you more entertained than reading the articles. You could also try taking a few phrasal verbs from your favourite movie the next time you watch it – that shouldn’t detract from the storyline too much. Anyway, never let a story get in the way of a good phrasal verb.

8 tips on how to prepare for meetings

We all know that if – before any meeting, discussion, or even an important conversation – we prepare ourselves by thinking carefully about what we want to achieve and how we’re going to achieve it, the result will be far better than if we just go in cold and hope for the best.  What we say, and how we say it, can be critically important.

Here is a series of steps you can take that will help you prepare the language you’ll need if you’re going to get the result you want:

1.  What is the purpose of the meeting, discussion or conversation?  Who will be present?

2.  What is your role? Who will you be speaking to? What will you be saying?  Will you be presenting? Proposing? Explaining?  Asking questions or answering them?

3.  Depending upon the nature of the encounter, think of what you’re most likely to have to say – particularly your opening comment(s) if you’re leading the discussion – and any key issues you want to raise, points you want to make, questions you plan to ask, or answers you expect you’ll have to give.

4.  Write these down as you think of them and then go back and turn them into good sentences.  (If you’re in a course, bring these to class so that together with the trainer you can polish them.)

5.  Practice the sentences so that they become second nature and you don’t have to worry about how you’re going to construct them when it comes time to speak.

6.  Come prepared to your classes so that you can role-play the language for each situation with the trainer until you are confident in your ability to deliver it well whenever it’s needed.

7.  But . . . remember that the pursuit of perfection can be the enemy of effective communication, and that sometimes it’s better to continue to speak out firmly and confidently even if you stumble or realise you’ve made a mistake.  Doing so will make you far easier to listen to than if you hesitate and backtrack as you struggle for 100% correctness.

8.  Recognise too that that each situation you prepare for in this way will strengthen your ability to perform well even when you’re faced with a situation you haven’t rehearsed – and that the more preparation practice you have the more effective you will become.

Speaking Up in Meetings – when and how to interrupt, correct someone or ask for clarification

Business MeetingHow many times have you sat through a meeting with something brilliant to say but never knowing quite when to say it? Or realised half-way through the meeting that your colleague who spoke up has said something you completely disagree with? Or worse yet, found yourself nodding and smiling in agreement while wondering what in the world the discussion was actually about?

Speaking up in meetings — to interrupt, correct someone else, or ask for clarification — can be extremely intimidating. Having a few useful phrases available can go a long way towards giving you the confidence and tools you need to be able to interject your thoughts and opinions effectively in group situations and meetings.

When You’ve Got an Idea

Often people don’t speak up because they’re afraid of being seen as wrong, uninformed, or putting forward a stupid idea. A great way to sidestep this fear is to depersonalise your idea by putting a question to the group. When you think you just might have a good suggestion but aren’t absolutely confident about it, go ahead and start by introducing it with a comment that suggests it’s something the group might want to consider:

  • Have we thought about… getting Steve involved in the PR campaign directly?
  • Did anyone mention… the Brealy report? I seem to recall it covered some of the same topics Andrew has raised here.
  • Another option we might want to consider… is pushing back the timeline until early October.
  • Is it worth revisiting…last week’s minutes from the meeting to review the product specifications agreed upon?

The subtext here is that you’re contributing to the conversation and adding value to the group — but not personally claiming ownership of the idea or taking over the conversation. By using a more informal question you’ll be able to make your voice and idea heard, without overstating your commitment to that idea.

When You Disagree

It’s hard to disagree without being disagreeable. When the conversation is heading in a direction that you don’t agree with, it’s often hard to keep your mouth shut. Of course, it’s your right (and perhaps even your responsibility) to speak up when you want to challenge what has been said or give a completely different opinion.  The key is knowing how to adjust your comments so you don’t come off sounding tiresome or offensive. Here are a few strategies and helpful phrases to use in those awkward or tense moments:

  • Be very direct: I’m afraid I disagree with that assessment, Jon. Or, My experience has actually been quite different…I found the team to be highly engaging.
  • Be cautious: I just want to play devil’s advocate here for a moment, but what if we were to… go with the opposite approach and use direct mail marketing instead of relying solely on social media efforts?
  • Be provocative: This may shock you, but I want to…challenge our assumption that we have to take the deal.

When You’re Confused

And finally, what’s worse than sitting in on a meeting and having no idea what’s going on? You may have stumbled in late, tuned out at exactly the wrong moment, or simply never known much about the topic being discussed — and found yourself becoming more and more confused as the meeting progressed. Whatever the situation, the longer you wait to ask for clarification, the harder it is to meaningfully reinsert yourself into the conversation. Here are some good phrases to use the next time you find yourself lost in a meeting:

  • Forgive me if I’m missing something here, but I’m a little confused about…which marketing program you’re suggesting we table.
  • I’m not entirely sure I follow you – could you please recap what you just mentioned regarding… the August delivery?
  • I’m sure I’m supposed to know this already, but… how many attendees are we expecting at the conference next week?
  • I apologise if this is totally obvious to everyone here, but what does CAFE stand for?
  • This may be a stupid question, but I’m still not up to speed on why…we’re not using rail instead of truck.

While it’s obviously preferable to withhold your interruption until the speaker pauses briefly, sometimes the value of what you want to say depends on interjecting it at the exact point when it will have the most relevance and impact.  Whatever you do, remember that any interjection can be made more acceptable if you preface it with some polite or apologetic words:

  • Sorry to interrupt…but I don’t quite see it like that
  • Sorry, can I come in here…there’s something I think you’ve missed
  • I do see your point, but…I really can’t support the proposal
  • Would it be fair to say…that we were a bit premature in signing the contract?
  • Could I add something here?…I believe that’s covered in their latest annual report
  • I’d like to say something if I may…there may be another way we can go with this
  • My apologies, but I think you might be mistaken on that point…there’s really no evidence to back it up

At the end of the day, you’ll do better for yourself if you speak up in meetings and make your case — whether to push a new idea, correct a misconception or simply keep yourself up to date and current on what’s really going on. You owe it to yourself and your team to contribute to your fullest potential — it’s far less intimidating then you may think.

Written by David Andrew

Storytelling and Building Rapport

www.ted.comIf you’re not familiar with Ted.com, get in there now – but be careful! These up-to-20-minute presentations are highly engaging and addictive. They’re stories told by people with a passion and often a profession in the field of medicine, environmental science, the arts and business.

Ted Talks have become very useful not only as a source of entertainment but also as a learning tool. The Ted style of storytelling is effective yet highly diverse in style, so, you might ask yourself, how could I ever learn to communicate like that?

I speak to a lot of people – managers and students – about corporate-level English and one of the main communication skills needing change is the increase the confidence levels towards being able to more effectively building rapport with clients and colleagues.

I remember what this was like. I lived in France for a number of years and my French was good but, even when it was at its best, I still felt that there was part of my personality missing in French. There was still part of me that I couldn’t easily communicate to those around me. This not only knocked my confidence but also knocked my ability to have that easy, casual conversation that usually leads to making others feel at ease, which leads into building rapport and then trust and later friends.

Don’t worry, I did eventually make some friends but it took much more effort in French than it normally does in English.

I am convinced that one way to put others at ease and build rapport, whether in a personal or a business situation, is to have a handle on a couple of personal stories that you can pull out in different situations.

Start looking around you at people who handle social situations well and see what stories they tell about themselves. It can be tricky finding the right story for the right situation but start by observing and then give it a shot.

Ted Talks are fabulous for this. The speakers often integrate personal experience and story into their talks. Take a look at these ones and let me know if you find any others that you think use this theory too.

Elif Shafak – The politics of fiction

Brené Brown – The power of vulnerability

Andrew Stanton – The clues to a great story

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The danger of a single story

 

The path to better Business English

Sometimes it can seem overwhelming and impossible, the thought of one day speaking perfect Business English. Of course, there are oceans of resources online but it might feel like you’re taking a scattered approach and never really achieving anything.

One step at a time

Why not tackle one thing at a time? Try choosing one to three issues that you think you could improve on, write them down on a post-it note and stick it to your monitor. If you’re not sure what to choose, find someone you trust to help you identify issues they’ve noticed.

Think about each of these things when re-reading or editing your emails or when reflecting on a meeting or telephone conversation.

Good things take time

Don’t expect it to happen overnight. Stick with these three points for three weeks and add to your list if you feel you’re getting a handle on them. Rome wasn’t built in a day – and your Business English skills won’t be either.

Texts

A good grammar revision book is English Grammar in Use (with Supplementary Exercises and Answers) by Louise Hashemi and Raymond Murphy (published by Cambridge).

A good Business English text is Business English Handbook –Advanced by Paul Emmerson (published by Macmillan).

You can pick up a copy in Sydney at Abbey’s Language Book Centre or in Melbourne at Bookery Education.