Business English blog articles

How to avoid your emails going viral

“Worst email ever?”  was the headline that got my attention when I read my newspaper on a Saturday morning. The story was about an Australian manager who had sent an email which he later described himself as a “Gordon Ramsay meets Donald Trump-style email rant”.  His email went viral on Twitter (#bossoftheyear) and the story was an online sensation for a couple of days. 

Although, or maybe because, we send and receive countless emails every day it is sometimes easy to forget some of the golden rules of email etiquette. To give the manager his dues he later apologized to his staff (“It seems I am becoming an online sensation for how NOT to communicate – and in hindsight I agree!!”), but his story is a timely reminder to review some important dos and don’ts for emailing. Starting with the most important one, here are six tips for you to consider…

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Tip 1 – Don’t send emails when you are angry / frustrated/ tired etc

This is, and always will be, the first rule of email communication. In “Writing emails that people read”, our most downloaded ebook with 18,000 downloads to date, we suggest you write the whole email if it will make you feel better and help you to get some-thing out of your system – BUT only add the recipients and send it after you have had space and time to reflect and think about what you are sending and its potential impact. Rule #2 builds on this by emphasizing that email is great for giving information, sharing updates or making simple requests. However, use the phone if something could be a sensitive or emotional topic. When it comes to management communication, in our Practical Toolbox for Managers training we also suggest that emotional communication is done face-to-face, via Webex or over the phone. Email just doesn’t help … although you might feel better for a few minutes.

As the Australian manger himself later said, he sent it “in a moment of seeing red and it most definitely should not have happened”.

Tip 2 – Watch your tone, mind your language

Emails need to be respectful and clear. Body language, facial expressions and tone of voice cannot be communicated by email. How an email sounds and the message it sends are determined only by the words that we use. Read this blog post if you want to learn more about tone in emails. Make sure that your message is respectful and clear. In his viral email the manager knew he’d misjudged this and later wrote “Obviously some of you know me pretty well and know I shoot from the hip, but obviously others don’t”.

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Tip 3 – Get the person’s name right

This is a very personal tip for me. I get a lot of emails from French contacts and probably 20% start with Hi Taylor (my first name is Ian). When you type the recipient’s name in the “To” line or select them from your address book – make sure it’s the right person. (In 2000, a British schoolgirl was on the receiving end of inappropriate business emails after a US naval commander accidentally added her to his confidential mailing list.) Be sure that the name you use at the beginning of the mail is the name of the person in the address line and that you have spelt it correctly.

Tip 4 – KISS: Keep it short and simple

Everybody is busy and everybody gets a lot of emails.  The average number of emails received per day in 2018 is 97!  If each email takes just 2 minutes to read and deal with this is 3 hours of your day done already!

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Business English training: on-the-job training (for the job)

On-the-job (OTJ) training has been a cornerstone in our approach to in-house Business English training since our first InCorporate Trainers started their jobs (one of them was Scott Levey). When we explain the concept of on-the-job training to potential clients, they “understand” what we’re saying … BUT …they don’t really “get” how effective and beneficial on-the-job training is until they have seen it in action. This post aims to explain what it is, how it works, and how participants benefit, using some non-specific examples of on-the-job training.

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The benefits of on-the-job training

OTJ training is highly effective because the training takes place alongside and as part of your daily work. The trainer uses your work situations (your emails, your virtual meetings, your plant tours) as the basis for your learning. On-the-job training takes place at work, while you are working. This brings two huge benefits.

  1. You maximize your time because you are benefiting from training while you are working.
  2. You can directly transfer what you learn to your job. Your training is completely based on a real and concrete task. Everything you learn is relevant.

If you are familiar with the 70-20-10 model, you’ll know that 70% of learning comes through “doing” and from “experience”. Learning while you work is highly effective and this is the heart of on-the-job training.

“I helped Hans to de-escalate a situation in Supply Chain Management. Hans felt that the American party was wound-up and overly difficult. Hans brainstormed phrases with my help and he wrote a draft email. I helped him improve the structure and tone of the email and suggested he rewrote some of his sentences in plain English. A few hours later, the American party positively replied and the whole thing was solved by the time Hans went home.”

What exactly is on-the-job training and how does it work?

With on-the-job training, the trainer is there when you need assistance in preparing emails, specifications, manuals, reports, slides and other documentation. The trainer can support you in the planning, writing and reviewing stage. The trainer is also available to you for preparing meetings, phone calls, web meetings, teleconferences, presentations and negotiations.  They can then shadow you in action and provide personalized and situationally-based feedback.

On-the-job training focuses on your priorities at work and on you improving your business English in those areas. It can be

  • reactive where you ask the trainer for help “Can you help me improve these slides?”
  • proactive where the trainer encourages you to share work you have done/are doing in English “I heard you are involved in writing the R-Spec for the new project. How can I support you?”

“One of my participants, a product manager, had to deliver two presentations in English. It was basically the same presentation, but for two different audiences.  Observing her in our first practice session, I made a note of language points to work on. We worked on these, and a few other things (key messages, adapting messages to different audiences, Q&A session) over the next week. She delivered the presentations to me again, already with much more confidence and fluency – and then she practised with a few colleagues in a weekly group session and benefitted from both their positive feedback and the confidence boost.  Finally, I watched her deliver from the back and she did great.  After the presentations we debriefed and I shared my feedback (what went really well, what would she like to focus more on next time etc) . She was too critical of her performance and I helped her to be realistic about what she needs to focus on.”

What on-the-job training isn’t

What the trainer does not do is write the email/document for you (where’s the learning in that?). One common misconception is that on-the-job trainers are translators or proof readers. They’re not, in the same way that translators and proof readers aren’t trainers. Collaborative proof reading and translation can be an option, but the ownership needs to stay with the learner.

Another misconception is that on-the-job training is traditional “classroom training” during work time. The trainer will certainly use the “insider” view and what they have seen on-the-job to tailor traditional “off the job” training. This means your group training, coaching, 1-1 training, and seminars are closer to your workplace and that the transfer of learning is smoother.  But “on the job” training is learning while actually doing. There’s a good example of how this looks in action in an R&D department here.

“Three of my participants had written a 300-page instruction manual and they came to me with the request to help them improve it. Nobody in their department understood it enough to successfully use the system that it was meant to explain. I told them I would read it. Oh boy. We worked on writing with the reader in mind, structuring documents to make them scannable and writing in plain English. Visuals replaced paragraphs and we even created a few video tutorials too.  Four weeks later, they produced a second manual. Over one hundred pages lighter, it was clear, comprehensive, mistake free, and written in a style that everyone could understand, even me. As a result, the system that was supposed to make everyone’s job easier made everyone’s job easier.”

Bringing on-the-job training to life

We sign confidentiality agreements with our clients. Even when we don’t, we wouldn’t use their actual documentation online, so these examples are non-specific and Hans is not really called Hans … she’s called XXXX.

If you would like to know more about the benefits of this approach, don’t hesitate to contact us.

The Four Horsemen: contempt and stonewalling in the workplace

Healthy and respectful working relationships are a must if you want an effective and enjoyable workplace.  In the first post of this series, I introduced John Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the second post, we looked at what you can do to tackle the toxic behaviours of criticizing & blaming and defensiveness. This blog post will dive deeper into the last 2 toxic behaviours – and possibly the most damaging of the 4: stonewalling & contempt. We’ll explore why they happen, their impact and how both parties can change things for the better.  We’ll end with what a manger can do when they see these behaviours within their teams.

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Contempt

Contempt is when somebody makes it clear that they feel somebody has no value and deserves no respect. As it has been built brick-by-brick over time, it is tough to dismantle, and is probably the most destructive behaviour amongst Gottman’s “Four Horsemen”.

Contempt can manifest itself as ongoing sarcasm, cynicism, insults and aggressive, belittling or mocking humour. It can be seen in small gestures (eye-rolling when a colleague starts talking in a meeting, snorting at the mention of a project, a smirk or a single “hah” when a  colleagues name is mentioned) to full on mocking and cruel statements e.g. “Wow, you’ve done better than I ever expected – even by your standards that’s truly great work Susanne. You must be exhausted after having made so many mistakes”.

When somebody shows contempt, they are actually communicating that they see themselves as better and worth more.

Why do we do show contempt?

Feelings of contempt are typically built up over time – negative experiences create their own story and, too often, nobody has tackled the situation effectively. This can leave a person feeling frustrated and angry and looking to establish some sort of “superiority”.  Contempt can also come from a sense of moral superiority based on class, cultural or religious differences. Peers can feed into it or enable it.

What happens when we show contempt?

Contempt destroys teams and relationships. It prevents trust and respect and makes it hard for any real human warmth. It is tangibly damaging, causes stress and can harm people emotionally, mentally and ultimately physically.

So, what can the person showing contempt do differently?

Truth be told, if you are showing contempt for others there is a good chance you no longer care about turning things around. However, if you have a high level of self-awareness and realise that you have become somebody you don’t want to be then this is already a great step. Going forward you can focus on redefining your relationship with your colleague through …

  • seeing the other person as a human being with equal value.
  • seeking a positive trait in them and acknowledge it first to yourself and then to the other.
  • finding something they do that you value – then tell them.
  • communicating your needs with “I” statements and not “you” statements e.g. “I feel…”, “I want…”
  • actively looking to find opportunities to make deposits in their “emotional bank account”.

And what can the person receiving contempt do to limit the toxic impact and turn things around?

  • Look after yourself and work to stay balanced and neutral when interacting with this person. Shut out the unhelpful “whatever I do will be seen as wrong” self- talk. Reward yourself for not feeding into a situation.
  • People don’t always realize that they are being offensive… or how offensive they are being. Raise awareness of behaviours in a neutral / inquiring tone e.g. “What would you like to achieve by saying that?”, “Why are you rolling your eyes?”
  • Ask questions about the other’s intent – especially if they are not communicating in their first language. e.g. “Are you aware that, when I hear you say … I feel …?” “
  • Reflect how the contemptuous behaviour is impacting you e.g. “I feel belittled when you roll your eyes when I talk. Is this intended?”
  • Say how you feel about what is going on and show your desire to make things right, e.g. “Can we take a step back and slow things down?” “Insulting me isn’t helping us to move forward and find a solution”, “ What is the best way to tackle this issue for both of us?”
  • Indicate that you are willing to move beyond the present and press the reset button e.g. “I feel we are struggling. How about we try and start again from the beginning and build a new working relationship?”
  • And when things get too much, don’t be afraid to seek support within your organization. When you do this focus on you and your feelings… and not what they said/did.
  • And finally, know where your limits are and seek support from your manager or HR if you feel these are being crossed.

Stonewalling                     

When somebody feels they are frequently and undeservedly being blamed or treated with contempt, they may choose to withdraw into themselves and give one-word answers or even refuse to participate at all. Discussion, healthy questioning and positive conflict are key elements of any successful team.  Stonewalling stops this from happening, and feeds contempt, defensiveness and blaming.

Why do we do stonewall?

By refusing to cooperate, engage, react or communicate we look to protect ourselves and ride it out. Beneath this we may be seeking to control or establish hierarchy e.g. “I don’t need to listen to you”.

What happens when we do this?

The impact is that communication stops. The other person may become increasingly frustrated, angry and then despondent. Communication collapses and relationships quickly collapse too. Other colleagues get pulled in to the toxic situation as they become impacted, and everything gets slower and tougher … meaning ultimately performance and results suffer.

So, what can the “stonewaller” do differently?

If you recognize this behaviour in yourself and want to change you can…

  • focus on who you choose to be – who am I really? How do I want to behave?  How do I behave when I am at my best?
  • ask for space if you need it, and commit to resume once things have calmed down.
  • find a way to calm your emotions. Is there a third party you can express your feelings to? Alternatively, verbalize them out loud to yourself (or write them down if you prefer).
  • work out why you have reached this point. Why are you so angry and reluctant to contribute? Answering these questions may help you to understand your feelings better and enable you to continue.
  • avoid righteous indignation e.g. “ I don’t have to take this anymore” or seeing yourself as an innocent victim

And what can the “stonewalled” do to limit the toxic impact?

  • Ask yourself why are they stonewalling? What are you doing/have you done that is making the other person not feel safe in expressing themselves?
  • Focus on building safety. Agree a fixed time, neutral and private location, confidentiality and help them come back into the conversation with simple exploratory open questions.
  • Accept that a break might be needed and press the “pause” button while communicating that you are committed to continuing the conversation later.
  • Really listen to what the other person is saying.

What can a manager do when they see contempt and stonewalling within their team?

The hard truth is that as a manager you probably won’t be able to do as much as you might like to.  Whereas a skilled manager can actively help team members get past criticizing, blaming and being defensive, contempt and stonewalling are far more difficult to deal with. In fact, any blog would struggle to explore the variables and options.  Here are some questions to ask yourself…

  • What is the impact of the behaviour on the team and our results?
  • What can I accept? What can’t I accept? Where is my line in the sand?
  • Where is the contempt or stonewalling coming from? e.g. why this person? this situation? this environment?
  • How willing am I to reflect back what I am seeing? The impact it is having? And the impact it may have later?
  • Am I prepared and committed to consistently confront contemptuous or stonewalling behaviors over the long-term?
  • To what extent can I ring-fence a person without impacting the team or passing more work and responsibility on to others?
  • Am I choosing to do nothing? Or am I afraid to do something?
  • Who else can help me in this situation?
  • To what extent has HR been involved so far? What can they do?
  • Under what circumstances am I prepared to let this person go?

Whether you are just moving into a management position, managing a conflict in your virtual team, or just want to get the very best from your staff and the teams you manage, being aware of Gottmann’s work on the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse is incredibly useful and practical. At the end of the day, results are delivered through people and people are complex. None of us are always at our best and we can all struggle in relationships.  Awareness of the 4 Horsemen is a start, followed by self-reflection and support.  An effective manager is neither a counsellor nor a buddy – but they do need to manage people as individuals – and this means managing knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours.

Virtual training v. face-to-face training: How does it compare?

James Culver is a partner at Target Training Gmbh and has 25 years of experience in delivering customized training solutions. His career has encompassed being a HR Training Manager, a Major in the US Army National Guard and a lecturer at the International School of Management. He’s also a talented percussionist and storyteller. In the final part of this series of blog posts on Virtual Training delivery, he answered the following questions…

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You have 25 years’ experience in training delivery. When did you start delivering virtual training?

James Since the 90s. In the United States we started very early with virtual delivery in the community college system. We often had remote sites of small groups of students who still wanted to take advantage of the kinds of courses that we would offer on the main campus, so we started delivering virtual training . When I started working with virtual training it was extremely expensive to do some of this work. Our system was basically a camera set-up and the professor or the trainer was just speaking to the camera. There was very little interaction available with the other sites and it was like TV school.

How would you say that virtual delivery compares with face-to-face delivery?

James There are probably two things to think about. One is the content that one delivers and the other is the context. By context I mean everything that surrounds the content. How things are being done, who is interacting with whom and how they are interacting – the richness of the communication. As far as content is concerned, the topic that’s covered, the information that’s shared, I’d say virtual delivery and face-to-face delivery compare quite favourably. In fact, the virtual platforms that we use at Target Training are tailor made for delivering lots of content in interesting ways. It’s very easy to add videos, recordings, to have whiteboards etc. For example, if we have content that is pre-prepared on a slide and made available to people, they can annotate it, they can put questions there etc. That’s really, really easy on a virtual platform.

What is harder most of the time is everything that we get from being in the same room as someone. Facial expression change, body language changes. We often don’t see or get that in a virtual environment, even with the market-leading systems. The challenge as a trainer is that we risk missing  a large chunk of the information that we would get from participants in a classic face-to-face training session. That is a major challenge. As a trainer in face-to-face training I have a feel for how things are going because I’m in the room. It’s much more difficult to have a feel for how things are going, when you’re in a virtual environment. And you need that “feel” so you can adjust and give the participants the best possible learning experience.

What are your workaround strategies for that?

James There are workaround strategies and through external and internal training and on-the-job experience our  trainers use them. One strategy is that you have to ask a lot of open and closed ‘check questions.’ Questions like “Are you with me?”, “Is that clear?”, “So what are the key points you’re taking from this?”, “What are your questions so far?” Experienced virtual trainers will ask those kinds of questions every 2 to 3 minutes.  Essentially, as a trainer you have a 2 to 3 minute time limit for your input before you ask a check question, and the check questions should be both open to the group and targeted at an individual too.

Which training themes lend themselves best to virtual delivery and which don’t?

James The themes that lend themselves best to virtual delivery are those that are more content focused – for example classic presentation skills training or presentations delivered virtually.  These types of training solutions focus on input, tips, do’s and don’ts, best practice sharing and then practice-feedback -practice – feedback etc.

Another theme that works very well for us when delivered virtually is virtual team training, whether it be working in virtual teams or leading virtual teams. By their very nature, virtual teams are dispersed so the virtual delivery format fits naturally. Plus, you are training them using the tools they need to master themselves. And of course, another benefit is if the training is for a specific virtual team the shared training experience strengthens the team itself.

The types of training solutions that are more challenging when delivered virtually are those where we are trying to change ourselves or others. Topics such as assertiveness or self-efficiency need to be thought through and developed carefully if they are going to be more than an information dump. Here the coaching aspect is far more important.

Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, management and leadership training can work really well when done virtually. Our Driving Performance solution is a good example of this. The secret here is to emphasize the bite-sized learning, provide additional resources outside the session e.g. flipped classrooms with relevant videos and articles, and provide opportunities for one-on-one conversations too.

More on virtual delivery

Please see the posts below, or start here.

 

10 more sporting idioms you will hear in business meetings

Last year, we put together a list of 10 common American sport idioms that were well-received by our clients and readers.  Since the blog post was so popular, we wanted to share even more more commonly used sport idioms you may hear around the office …

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to take a rain check

From baseball, meaning ‘I can’t now, but let’s do it another time’.  “Thanks for the invite to happy hour, but can I take a rain check?  I need to get home for dinner with my family.”

a Hail Mary pass

From American football, meaning ‘a last minute, desperate attempt at something’. “We offered the client a 15% reduction in price as a Hail Mary to win their business.”

to touch base (with someone)

From baseball, meaning ‘get in contact with someone’. “Can you touch base with Chester next week to see how he is doing with the forecast numbers?”

a front runner

From horse racing, meaning ‘the person who is leading but hasn’t won yet’. “I think we are the front runner for the winning the account, but XYZ’s offer was also very strong.”

the ball is in (someone’s) court

From tennis, meaning ‘it is someone’s turn to take action or make the next move’. “I received an offer for a new job.  The ball is now in my court to ask for more money or decline it.”

the home stretch

From horse racing, meaning ‘to be near the end” or ´to be in the last stage or phase’.  “This has certainly been a challenging project, but we are now in the home stretch so let’s stay focussed and keep on schedule.”

to get the ball rolling

From ball games, meaning ‘to start something’. “OK, now we’re all here for today’s meeting let’s get the ball rolling. Heinz, can you start with an update on ….”

to keep your eye on the ball

From ball games, meaning  ‘to stay alert’. “We have worked with this client before and we know that they can be chaotic. We need to keep our eyes on the ball, especially when it comes to safety on site.”

par for the course

From golf, meaning ‘something that is normal or to be expected’.  ‘Jim was late for the meeting again today.  That is par for the course with him.’

to strike out

From baseball, meaning ‘to fail at something’.  ‘I have tried to get a meeting with the Head of Purchasing 5 times but have struck out each time.’

Quick fixes for 5 typical mistakes German speakers make in English

Germans generally speak good business English. A worldwide study published by Harvard Business review ranked Germany 14th for English workforce proficiency (or “high” and with a score of 60.2 out of 100). In another study, 100% of German employers interviewed said that English skills are significant for their organization. Evidence like this shows why Germans are rightfully proud of their English skills – and the vast majority of Germans we work with want to be even better. If your first language is German, and you want to improve your English at work, you might find it frustrating that your English-speaking colleagues don’t correct you. After all, you can’t get better if you don’t know what you’re doing wrong! In this post, we’re going to take a look at a handful of German speaker errors that are really common in Business English. The good news? They’re really easily fixed..
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1. “We discussed about last month’s figures at the meeting.”

In English we don’t discuss about something. To fix it, leave out the about after the verb discuss. So the correct English sentence is “We discussed last month’s figures at the meeting.” Keep in mind that you can use about after the noun “discussions” as in “There were discussions about last month’s figures at the meeting”.

2. “Good morning together.”

This is a direct translation of a lovely (and efficient) German way of greeting everyone at the same time. Logically, together, makes 100% sense but it doesn’t work in English. How can you fix it? As with about in the last example, cut it out completely. The correct English phrase is simply “Good morning”. You can also use alternatives like “Good morning everyone” or “Morning all” (informal)

3. “We see us tomorrow.”

This is also a direct translation from German. We don’t have an identical phrase in English, so it sounds understandable, but strange in English. In this case, you need to use another expression. So the correct English sentence is “We’ll see each other tomorrow”. You can also use “See you tomorrow.” or “Look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”

4. “I visit normally on Thursdays my clients in Bamberg.”

The word order is German. The sentence is 100% understandable, but it simply sounds wrong in English (likewise when English speakers speak German it can be understandable but grammatically wrong). Adverbs of frequency (words like: normally, sometimes, always, never) almost always go between the person (I) and the verb (visit). So, the correct English sentence is “ I normally visit my clients in Bamberg on Thursdays.”

5. “I work since five years by my company.”

There are only 8 words here, but there are actually 4 mistakes in this sentence.

  1. The tense (work) is wrong.
  2. We can’t combine since and a period of time.
  3. By is not the right preposition.
  4. The word order is German.

Here’s how to fix it:

  • If something started in the past, is happening now, and is likely to continue in the future, then we usually use present perfect simple or continuous e.g. I have worked / I have been working…
  • We can use since with a point in time, and for with a period of time. e.g. since 2012/ for 5 years.
  • There are very few concrete rules for prepositions. You just need to develop a feel for them and learn them in a context. In English we say “ We work for a company”.
  • Word order. This is the same as in the last example – time generally goes to the end of the sentence in English.

So, the correct English sentence is “I have been working for my company for five years.”

And if you’d like more practice then check out our latest Ebook “Common English mistakes (Germans make) and how to correct them”.

Getting people to read (and respond to) your emails

As everyone already knows, email is ubiquitous – in both our private and professional lives. Emails are easy to write and send – and we are inundated with them daily. As an in-house business English trainer at a major production site, I see daily the frustrations this can cause – not just for those receiving 90+ mails day (or 1 every 5 minutes!), but also for those sending the mails – knowing they may need to wait a while before hearing a reply. Recently, a manager I train in the automotive industry asked “How can I increase the chances that people respond to my emails?”

Studies have shown that people are more likely to respond to emails written in a simple, straightforward manner than to emails with more complex language. In fact, emails written at a 3rd grade level have been shown to have the highest response rate! So put away those thesauruses and get rid of those dependent clauses! Simple, concise writing is a main driver in increasing your response rate. As with any writing, placing your reader’s needs first is a must. There is no one magic formula for guaranteeing that people will respond to your email, but it’s important that you write emails that people will read. The tips outlined below will definitely tip the odds in your favour!

Writing emails that people read: Free eBook downloadTIP 1 – Keep your subject line obvious and short

Short, simple and obvious subject lines of only 3-4 words get the most responses. The most important thing, though, is to make sure the meaning is clear. Clarity beats ambiguity every time! Military personnel often use keywords e.g. ACTION, REQUEST, DECISION, INFO. This helps the reader immediately understand the purpose of the email. Then, just a couple more words to clarify the subject.

Example:

  • Prod Spec (vague)
  • End User Prod spec file plz send (relevant words but could be easier to understand the meaning!)
  • Request- Send Product Specifications file (optimal!)

TIP 2 – Use simple language

As part of my job, I work with engineers providing on-the-job English training. Last week Klaus (not his real name) asked me to help him understand a mail from a supplier. Klaus was struggling to understand …“Hitherto now, I have been unable to place the whereabouts of your aforementioned order, to which I would like to offer the following proposal, able to be fulfilled forthwith”.

Working together with Klaus we simplified it into “We’re sorry but we can’t find the order you mentioned in your email. However, we can suggest the following immediate solution …”.  As Klaus rightly said – why didn’t they just say that?

TIP 3 – Write human

In addition to simplicity, write with emotion! It doesn’t matter if that emotion is positive or negative, writing with any emotion is better than writing a neutral email with absolutely no emotion. The bottom line is: use a believable amount of emotion without getting too hostile or overly-sentimental.

Example of increasing positive emotion:

  • I want to meet next week to discuss my proposal. (neutral)
  • I would love to meet next week to discuss my proposal. (better but maybe a little over the top)
  • I’m definitely interested in meeting next week to discuss my proposal with you! (best!)

Example of increasing negative emotion:

  • Our experience with your product did not meet our expectations. (neutral)
  • From my experience today, I find the quality of your product to be sub-par. (better but “sub par” isn’t simple English)
  • Your product sucks. (too much human)
  • Based on my experiences today, the quality of your product is far below our expectations (best!)

TIP 4 – Write short sentences and paragraphs

When writing your email, make sure it’s an appropriate length. Imagine if you received a novel in your inbox. Would you even bother to read the first sentence? Probably not! The optimal length of an email is roughly 50-125 words, and the response rate slowly drops off as the emails get longer.  When you really need to write longer emails use sub-headings to break the text up.

TIP 5 – Keep the dialogue moving with clear questions

One final way to increase the chances your email will receive a response is to include a task, so ask a few questions! Otherwise, the recipient will most likely assume the purpose of your email is nothing more than to inform. Statistically, 1-3 questions are optimal. Any longer and it becomes a questionnaire, which quickly sends the email to the “do later” box. As I wrote earlier, you won’t get a response to every email you write, but you can change how you write your emails so that you are more likely to get a response when it counts most! And remember to use the phone or video calls if something is important, urgent or contains an emotional message.

Keep on developing your email writing skills with these blog posts

And if you’re looking for training (delivered virtually or face to face) then check out …

50 ways to start a conversation in English at work

Socializing and networking doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Whether it be a language issue  or a question of skills and behaviors, many professionals struggle when networking and socializing with new people. How do you start a conversation when you walk into a meeting room and there are a lot of people you don’t know? Introducing yourself is the obvious first step: “Hi, my name’s Renate and I’m a member of the purchasing team.” … Easy… but what comes next?  If you are shy this can be awkward in your own language –  AND doing it in a foreign language can be really challenging!  Our InCorporate Trainers often find that seemingly small challenges such as this can cause an unnecessary amount of pressure. A few trainers have come up with 50 phrases to help you break the ice and start a conversation. Many of the phrases can be used in any context – but some are only used in certain situations. You don’t need to remember them all just pick the ones you feel comfortable with and can say naturally.
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Collecting someone from reception

  1. Did you have any problems finding us?
  2. Did you find the parking area ok?
  3. How are things going?
  4. I like your laptop bag. Where did you get it?
  5. Do you know…?
  6. What are you hoping to get out of today?
  7. How was your weekend?
  8. Did you hear that…?
  9. What have you been up to lately?
  10. Are many of your colleagues coming today?

Waiting for the presentation/meeting to start

  1. Is it OK if I sit here?
  2. I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is…
  3. Where are you from?
  4. I think you were at the XXX meeting last month, weren’t you?
  5. Do you know what the Wi-Fi code is?
  6. When did you arrive?
  7. What brings you here today?
  8. How was your journey?
  9. Nice weather / terrible weather, isn’t it?
  10. I could really use a coffee. Do you know where the machine is?

During the coffee break

  1. Do you mind if I join you?
  2. How’s the coffee?
  3. Can I pour you a coffee?
  4. What do you think of it so far?
  5. I was a bit late this morning; did I miss anything in the first 10 minutes?
  6. Which department are you in?
  7. Don’t you work with…?
  8. I can’t believe how many people are here today.
  9. Do you find it hot in here?
  10. I found it interesting that XX said …?

During lunch

  1. Is this seat taken?
  2. So, what do you think of this morning?
  3. Have you eaten here before?
  4. How’s your steak / fish etc.?
  5. Have you had a good day so far?
  6. Do you know many people here?
  7. Do you know what the program is for this afternoon?
  8. How did you get into this business?
  9. What do you do?
  10. Did you travel in today or come last night?

After a presentation/meeting

  1. What did you think of today?
  2. What’s been the highlight of the day for you?
  3. What have you learned today?
  4. I liked what xxx said about yyy.
  5. How’s today been for you?
  6. What do you think about…?
  7. What are you working on at the moment?
  8. How long have you been working here?
  9. Are you taking a taxi to the hotel/ train station / airport ?
  10. Do you have any plans for the weekend?

Even more resources

You’ve now got 50 practical phrases and of course there are  many, many more. Here are 5 more tips for you.

Your first virtual presentation – practical planning tips for beginners

The move to delivering presentations virtually isn’t natural for most of us.  Put simply, it feels weird. So here’s the good news. Most of the core principles behind what makes an effective presentation still apply. You need to know: what your message is, reflect on who your audience is, merge your message with their interests, have a clear structure, etc. In many ways delivering a presentation virtually requires the same knowledge and skills … but there are differences too. If you are a beginner to making presentations online there are 2 areas to think about –preparation and delivery.  Our clients often tell us the delivery stage is the area that worries them most BUT we can’t emphasize enough that making changes to the way you plan your virtual presentation is where you set the scene for success.  This blog post looks at the planning stage. 

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When you start planning your virtual presentations the 3 big questions to ask yourself are

  • How am I going to keep their attention?
  • What can I do in advance to feel more comfortable?
  • What if something goes wrong with the technology?

How am I going to keep their attention during my presentation?

Your audience’s attention span (how long they’ll concentrate on you and your message ) is shorter online than off line.  This is partly because they won’t have you to focus on in person, partly because they will have other distractions tempting them away (emails, watching colleagues etc) … and partly because they can pay less attention and you won’t notice.  So, to keep their attention you need to

  • Make your virtual presentation as short as possible. No advice we can give you will help your audience stay focused for 2 hours. Aim for 40 minutes maximum and break it into 2 parts if it’s longer.
  • Stay away from text heavy slides. We can read at least twice as fast as we can listen to you speak [http://www.humanfactors.com/newsletters/human_interaction_speeds.asp] This means if all your information is written on the slide your audience will have read it before you are even half-way through talking about it. Your audience will then tune out and start doing something else while you tell them what they just read.
  • This means you need to rethink the way you design your slides. Your slides will often be the primary visual link you have to your listener. This means your slides need to be very visual – one powerful pictures is better than many, unusual images will recapture their attention and diagrams need to be clear.  Compare the 2 examples below.

What can I do in advance to feel more comfortable?

If this is your first time presenting virtually then

  • Know your content! This is obviously equally true when you make a presentation “in the flesh” but our experience is that presenters are more likely to turn “knowing content” into lots of notes and then read from them when they present virtually.  I remember one purchaser who wrote a complete script including notes when to pause!  Reading rather than speaking is going to really impact your energy levels, make you sound less natural and ultimately encourage your audience to start multi-tasking. You need to know what you want to say so you can focus on how you say it. (more in part 2)
  • Practice and practice again – If this is your first time then you can’t spend enough time practicing with someone else or set up a second computer so you can see what they’ll see. This will help you feel in control, more confident any your audience will thank you for it. Keep in mind that this is a learning curve and the sooner you start the better. DO NOT just work it out as you go along!
  • Think about the environment you’ll be presenting from and try to limit distractions and interruptions. If you can, present from a meeting room which is quiet.  Presenting from your desk in a large open office is going to be tough no matter how much experience you have.
  • Finally, you need to invest time in knowing your web or video conferencing platform really well! This is where a practice runs adds value. Almost all conferencing tools have getting started tours, how tos and tips and user guides. Some even offer free online courses. Use them and become comfortable with your technology.

What if something goes wrong with the technology?

This is less likely than you think but something going wrong with the technology is often top of most first-time presenter’s fears.  Here are 3 things you can do …

  • Practice using the system. The more practice you have the more you’ll trust it. I know I’m repeating myself and I’ll do it again … practice using the system.
  • Make sure your computer is updated, that you have a second power source (don’t rely on just your battery) and that you’ve closed any programs you won’t need
  • Organize for a more experienced colleague to be on hand (sometimes called a “producer”). When you are making presentations to larger audiences this “extra pair of hands in cyberspace” is essential.  You focus on the presentation and they focus on the technology.

To summarize

Success starts with planning your content, adapting your visuals, knowing your content so you can speak naturally, controlling your environment and being ready for the dreaded technical problem.There’s a lot more to presenting in a virtual environment and some of those things will be discussed in a future post. In the meantime, here’s an eBook that will help you deal with all of your presentations stress – virtual or not.

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6 ways to improve your Business English by yourself

Whether you have English training at your companies or private training out of work, you probably know that to really improve your business English you need to take responsibility and control of your learning.  Just sitting passively in a training session once a week isn’t enough.  The good news is that according to popular research into language learning, we are all born autonomous learners. It is in our nature to be proactive, explore, and respond to our environment.  We naturally take charge of our learning by setting ourselves goals and we are driven by our own motivations and needs. This could be getting a promotion at work, being able to participate effectively in a meeting, working confidently on an international project or giving a successful presentation. To help you learn autonomously, knowing effective ways you can improve your business English independently is essential.  Here are some tried and tested strategies to improve your Business English by yourself!

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Set yourself learning goals

Setting yourself goals is motivating in anything you do and a great way to understand your own learning process. These goals can be daily, weekly or monthly and ones, which are achievable and realistic. Try to focus on SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound).   Your goals can be as simple as “I will record and learn 10 new business phrases I can use in project meetings”.  Once you have set yourself a goal you can assess yourself using simple online tools such as Quizlet. You can also download the app on your phone in order to review and assess progress on the go!

Immersion

Put yourself in real life situations where you have to use business English. Take every opportunity to speak to your international business colleagues. Instead of writing an email, go ahead and pick up the phone! Try to participate in meetings, events, conferences and projects where you have the opportunity to practice. Communicate and socialize with English speakers you know at work or out of work, this could be going for a coffee, lunch or dinner.

Watch and listen

Try to take a little time every day to watch or listen to business related resources online. This could be news, podcasts, or videos.  The more you watch and listen to business English, the more you will train this skill and the easier it will get when you have a real situation at work.  The web is full of resources but to get you started TED Talks always has interesting speakers, The BBC’s Business Daily site has plenty of videos and audio reports and check out the Harvard Business Reviews’ Ideacast (also available on itunes) and videos.

Recording new vocabulary

Keep a small notebook or use your notes on your phone to record useful/ relevant business English phrases and words. If you want to get more creative, I suggest using a voice recorder to record this information.  Instead of just writing the English word and the equivalent in your language, try to also write an example sentence, something relevant/ personal to you and something you are likely to remember e.g. Word: negotiate “We had to negotiate with the supplier to get the best price”.  Try to review the new vocabulary daily in order to internalize it and challenge yourself to use a new word during your next meeting, in an email or on a presentation slide.

Writing practice

Start by downloading Grammarly. This is a free tool with which you can check all daily emails, presentations and documents in order to avoid grammar mistakes and punctuation errors. You can also keep a diary of your day or about your learning experience, which will give you some extra writing practice and is a great strategy for self-reflection. I train a senior project manager who takes 10 minutes at the end of each day to write notes on reflections, insights and ideas. He does this to practice writing notes in English to help with his many meetings, but also to ensure he has reflection time and can focus on what is important to his project.

Reading business related material

Reading improves all areas of a language, including vocabulary, grammar, spelling and writing. The more you read the more input the brain gets about how the language works.  Context helps you figure out meaning and repetition of vocabulary helps you remember the words.  If you don’t want to read long articles or blogs you can always download Twitter and subscribe to news or anything of interest to get your 15 minutes of reading practice a day. Our blog is a great place to start so bookmark it and there are plenty of online magazines and newspapers which are free.

The single most important thing though is to .. do something regularly.

Making a difference in meetings – 6 approaches for introverts to be heard

You’re too quiet”, “you need to be more involved in our meetings and discussions” and “people who matter are getting the wrong impression of you because you aren’t forward enough “.  This is the feedback Sven, a high-potential from a German automotive company, shared with me during a management training program. Sven was clearly able and bright – but he was a classic “introvert”. The idea of extraversion–introversion is a core dimension in most personality trait models, including the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. Sven is reflective rather than outgoing, and prefers working alone to working in groups.  Sven wanted to think before he talked, as opposed to talking to think. However, his natural introversion was getting in the way of his career opportunities.  Sven wanted to know “What can I do to be more involved in meetings … without having to be a different person?”
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Always prepare before the meeting

If you don’t have the agenda then get hold of one. If the organizer hasn’t prepared an agenda then ask them what they want to get from the meeting and which questions do they want to discuss Who is going to be there? Why have they been invited? Who will assume which roles? Get your thoughts together ahead of time. Write down questions, concerns and points you want to share. Turn up with a couple of clear points you want to contribute. This preparation means that you can …

Speak up early on

If you know what the meeting is about you can and should get actively involved as quickly as possible. Get your thoughts on the table as quickly as you can. This means that you will feel part of the meeting from the start, others will see you as involved and you’ll notice people connecting, challenging, or building on your contributions. And if your meeting quickly goes into an unexpected direction …

Take control if you aren’t ready to speak

When somebody wants to pull you in to the meeting and you feel you aren’t ready then actively control this. You have the right to take a little more time. Try expressions like:

  • “I’d like to think this through fully first before I answer”
  • “I’m thinking this through and would like a little more time”
  • “I’d like to let this settle and think it over. Can I get back to you this afternoon?”

Be aware that there is a danger of over-thinking too, and you may find the meeting has moved on too fast. With this in mind …

Accept that sometimes you need to just speak

If you aren’t fully ready to speak but feel you can’t ask for time try expressions like …

  • “I’m just thinking out loud now …”
  • “My first thought is …”
  • “This isn’t a fully-formed suggestion but how about …”
  • “Ideally I’d like to think this over some more , but my initial impression is ..”

And you don’t always need to have original ideas. If you’re not at your best try to …

Play to your strengths and leverage your listening skills

Many introverts are considered good listeners. You haven’t been talking that much and you’ve probably heard things that others haven’t (as they’ve been busy talking). This means you can …

  • “If I can just reflect back what I’ve heard so far …”
  • “What I’ve heard is … “
  • “I heard Olaf mention XXX, but then everybody kept moving on. I’d like to go back and ask …”
  • “I think we’ve missed something here ..”
  • “There seems to be a lot of focus on XX, but nobody has thought about YYY”
  • “If I can play devil’s advocate for a moment ..”

Accept and embrace that you can’t be perfect (all the time)

Nobody wants to come across as stupid or incompetent. But if you aren’t visible be aware that people may quickly see you as “the assistant”, or “the doer but not the thinker”.  Everybody has said things that have been wrong, incomplete, or poorly thought through. And vulnerability is  important for building trust. We trust people who are human and fallible. Be open to risking sharing ideas and thoughts and try expressions like …

  • “This idea isn’t fully formed but maybe you can help me …”
  • “I’m concerned I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here so let me just check ..”
  • “I know I’m missing something but here’s where I am so far ..”

And finally…

If the English is an issue then consider getting some targeted training. By doing the above you’ll quickly begin to be seen as playing an active role, and be viewed as a contributor. You can also expect to grow in confidence over time as you see strategies working and people reacting to you differently.

 

Why, statistically speaking, your emails probably aren’t as clear as you think they are

At the time of writing this blog it’s estimated that 269 billion mails are sent a day. Once we’ve cut out all the spam (say 50%) that is still an awful lot of communication. But how effective is email as a communication tool really? Put simply – it depends. If a mail is well-written, for example using the SUGAR approach, email can be an effective way of communicating information and sharing ideas. However, where email begins to struggle is when it includes or conveys an emotion. And we’re not talking about BIG EMOTIONS – most of us are aware sending emails when tired, upset, angry etc isn’t a good idea. Email communication also struggles when we try to convey much subtler emotions – irony, sarcasm, satisfaction etc.

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Why do we struggle to communicate emotions through email?

In our conversations, we convey emotion through both words AND paralinguistic cues (body language, facial movements, expressions, gestures, emphasis, tone, intonation etc). In fact it gets more complicated as sometime the absence of an expected paralinguistic cue is what conveys the emotion, or a shared context, for example when expressing irony or sarcasm.

When it comes to email we try to convey emotion through word choice, sentence structures and – whether you like them or not –  visuals such as emojis (yes, they are now common even in business).  However, scientific research shows that we tend to consistently overestimate our email writing skills.

Why writing an email is particularly different

Communicating in writing isn’t new – but the ubiquity and pervasiveness of email is!  Writing and physically posting letters meant that, to a greater extent, we planned and considered what we wrote and how we wrote it.  Nobody posted a 3 line letter.  Today, the speed and convenience of email means that we too often just type and send. This brings with it a whole new set of behaviours, and because it is so much a part of modern communication we don’t take time to evaluate how we use it or look to sharpen our writing skills

Research on how we don’t communicate as well as we think we do via email

There’s plenty of research from social psychologists into how we communicate by email. One interesting piece of research shows that the limitations of email are often underappreciated when it comes to communicating an intended emotion  – and that when we are writing an email we consistently overestimate how well our reader will understand what we are saying.

Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kruger, Epley, Parker and Zhi-Wen Ng, ran a series of studies comparing how well an email writer evaluated their email with the reader.

  • In one study 97% of the authors expected the serious and half-sarcastic sentences in their email to be correctly decoded. The readers successfully decoded just 84%.
  • Another study compared overconfidence when communicating with their voice versus overconfidence when communicating via email. When communicating with their voice 77.9% believed their tone would be understood – whereas it was in fact 73.1% . A noticeable gap BUT significantly better than the email results where 78% believe their tone would be understood whereas it was actually just 56%!
  • But it’s different when you are writing to a colleague who knows you well, right? Perhaps not – a third study looked at overconfidence when communicating with strangers versus friends. Surprisingly, the results suggested that familiarity does not translate into communication accuracy.
  • And finally, yet another study demonstrated how email writer are consistently overconfident in their ability to be funny in an email!

Why are we so convinced our emails are easy to decode?

It’s easy to lay the blame with the reader. Maybe they read the mail too quickly, or skimmed it on their phone as they were walking to their next meeting.  Maybe their language skills aren’t strong enough and they need to improve their business English. And dare we say it, perhaps they are just too dim to understand our well-crafted emails!

In fact, it often comes down to our being egocentric. Studies such as Elizabeth Newton’s “tapping study” , where participants were asked to tap the rhythm of a well-known song they were listening to  – and then estimate whether another listener would guess the song by their (clearly skilful) tapping (50% vs 3%), show how easily we convince ourselves that our reality is obvious. They also shine a light on how difficult we find it to imagine the perspective of somebody else (e.g. “I clearly meant it to be ironic – how could they not get that!?!”).

So what can you do to help your readers interpret your emails correctly?

Here are three things you can keep in mind for the future:

  1. Before you hit send reread your email with your “ambiguity radar” on.  If something could be read in different ways then rewrite it, clarify it – or just delete it.
  2. If the mail does have an emotional component, leave it alone for thirty minutes and then reread with a fresh set of eyes.
  3. If something is a joke, use emojis.

And finally, if you’re not sure, use the phone.

MORE ON EFFECTIVE EMAILING

 

Negotiations in English – tips and phrases (for beginners)

Working within a central purchasing and logistics business unit, negotiation is a word that one cannot escape. Most of my participants have dealings with suppliers within Germany, though some negotiate with suppliers worldwide. Negotiation skills are a key part of the on-the-job training and support that I deliver. In this post, I’ve collected some basic negotiating “musts” that I use in my training.

The big (free) eBook of negotiations language

Prepare

Preparation is the first key factor for all negotiations. In order for you negotiation meeting to be a success you must have clear goals in mind, acceptable alternatives and possible solutions, what you’re willing to trade, and finally what your bottom line is- where you are not prepared to budge. In “negotiations-speak”: You need to know your BATNA.

Start positive

Highlight all the positive goals both parties want to achieve for the day to reduce any tense atmosphere and break the ice with some healthy small talk.

  • Our aim today is to agree on a fair price that suits both parties.
  • I’d like to outline our aims and objectives…
  • How do our objectives compare to yours?

Effective questioning

Ask open ended questions in order to establish what the other party wants. Use questions to dig deeper, to uncover needs, to reveal alternative options, etc.

  • Could you be more specific?
  • How far are you willing to compromise?
  • Where does your information come from?

Agreeing

When your counterpart makes an acceptable suggestion or proposal you can agree to show enthusiasm and highlight how you are mutually benefiting from something. Revealing your stance will also help come to a favourable negotiation.

  • That seems like a fair suggestion.
  • I couldn’t agree more.
  • I’m happy with that.

Disagreeing

Disagreements are a normal and positive part of building a relationship and coming to an agreement, they show transparency. It is always a good idea to anticipate possible disagreements before going into a negotiation meeting.  However, disagreements should not come across threatening but instead should be mitigated and polite.

  • I take your point, however…
  • I’m afraid we have some reservation on that point…
  • I would prefer …

Clarifying

In order to avoid any misunderstandings especially in an environment where English is the lingua franca, it is fundamental to be clear about your goals but also ask for clarification when something isn’t clear to you.

  • If I understand correctly, what you’re saying is …
  • I’m not sure I understand your position on…
  • What do you mean by … ?

Compromising

Compromising is often required at times during a negotiation, and the way you do it is often an indicator of the importance of some of the negotiation terms. Remember, when you do compromise consider getting something for giving.

  • In exchange for….would you agree on..?
  • We might be able to work on…
  • We are ready to accept your offer; however, there would be one condition.

Bargaining

This is the moment to debate price, conditions or a transaction where one must be firm, ambitious and ready to justify their offers.  In this stage you can employ hard ball tactics or a softly softly approach, either way being prepared with a strategy will take you to the winning road.

  • I’m afraid we can only go as low as…
  • From where we stand an acceptable price would be…
  • Our absolute bottom line is …

Summarising

There are key moments when summarising will take place during a negotiation; concluding discussion points, rounds of bargaining and the final commitment.  This stage is also the moment of agreeing on the next steps and it is vital not to leave anything unsaid.

  • Let’s look at the points we agree on…
  • Shall we sum up the main points?
  • This is where we currently stand …

Of course…

There’s a lot more to negotiating. Sometimes not saying anything is a valuable approach, while creating and claiming value is also a must. Feel free to contact us if you’re interested in learning more about what we can do for you/your team. Or keep an eye on this blog, for more negotiation tips and phrases.

I’ll leave you with another great piece of free content: 1001 Meetings phrases.

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Are language tests really the best way to assess your employees business English skills?

When a department manager asks us to “test their employee’s business English” there are typically 2 reasons – they want to know if somebody is suitable for a specific job, or they are looking for evidence that somebody has improved their business English. In both cases we fully understand the need for the information – and we often find ourselves challenging the idea of a “test”. HR & L&D, line managers, business English providers, teachers and participants are all familiar with the idea of tests – we’ve all been doing them since we started school – but as a business tool they have clear limits. 

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Are language tests really the best fit for purpose when it comes to corporate English training?

At the heart of these limits is the question “does the test really reflect the purpose?”.  These limits were highlighted in a recent newspaper article “Difficulty of NHS language test ‘worsens nurse crisis’”. The article focuses on the shortage of nurses applying for work in the UK, and behind this shortage are 2 factors: firstly the inevitable (and avoidable) uncertainty created by Brexit, and secondly that qualified and university-educated nurses who are native English speakers from countries such as Australia and New Zealand are failing to pass the English language test the NHS uses. One of the nurses said:“After being schooled here in Australia my whole life, passing high school with very good scores, including English, then passing university and graduate studies with no issues in English writing – now to ‘fail’ IELTS [the English language test] is baffling.”

To be clear there is nothing wrong with the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) per se. It is one of the most robust English language tests available, and is a multi-purpose tool used for work, study and migration. The test has four elements: speaking, listening, reading and writing.  My question is “Is this really the best way to assess whether a nurse can do her job effectively in English?”

Design assessment approaches to be as close to your business reality as possible

We all want nurses who can speak, listen, read and write in the language of the country they are working in – but is a general off-the-shelf solution really the best way?  What does a nurse need to write?  Reports, notes, requests – yes …essays – no.  Yet that is what was being “tested”. One nurse with 11 years experience in mental health, intensive care, paediatrics, surgical procedures and orthopaedics commented: “The essay test was to discuss whether TV was good or bad for children. They’re looking for how you structure the essay … I wrote essays all the time when I was doing my bachelor of nursing. I didn’t think I’d have to do another one. I don’t even know why I failed.”

Jumping from nursing to our corporate clients, our InCorporate Trainers work in-house, training business English skills with managers in such diverse fields as software development, automotive manufacturing, oil and gas, logistics, purchasing etc etc . All these managers need to speak, read, write and listen and they need to do these within specific business-critical contexts such as meetings, negotiations, presentations, emails, reports etc. So how do we assess their skills? The key is in designing assessment approaches which are as close to their business reality as possible.

Using business specific can-do statements to assess what people can do in their jobs

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a scale indicating language competency. It offers an excellent start for all business English programs. BUT the CEFR does have 2 major drawbacks when it comes to business English:

  • The CEFR is not specifically focussed on business-related communication
  • The CEFR levels are broad, impacting their suitability for assessing the progress of professionals with limited training availability

In 2010, and in response to our client’s demand for a business-related focus, we developed a robust set of can-do statements. These statements focus on  specific business skills such as meetings, networking and socializing, presenting, working on the phone and in tele- and web-conferences. Rather than assessing a software developers writing skills by asking them to write an essay on whether TV is good or bad for kids we ask them to share actual samples – emails, functional specifications, bug reports etc.  They don’t lose time from the workplace and it allows us to look at what they can already do within a work context. The Business Can-do statements then provide a basis for assessing their overall skills.

This “work sample” approach can also be used when looking to measure the impact of training. Before and after examples of emails help a manager see what they are getting for their training investment and, in cooperation with works councils, many of our InCorporate Trainers use a portfolio approach where clients keep samples of what they are learning AND how this has transferred to their workplace.  This practical and easily understandable approach is highly appreciated by busy department heads.

To wrap up, I understand that the NHS relying on a reputable off-the-shelf solution like IELTS has clear attractions. However, if you are looking at assessing at a department level then consider other options.  And if you’d like support with that then contact us.

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Meetings in English are fine but the coffee breaks are terrifying

Martin, an IT Project Manager, was getting ready for a meeting with his European counterparts to review his bank’s IT security. As ever he was very well prepared so I was a little surprised when he confessed to being nervous. However, it was not the meeting itself that was worrying him – it was the coffee and lunch breaks. His nerves were due to having to “small talk”. Small talk is an essential element of building relationships.  Yes, the meeting is all about dealing with business and discussing the items on the agenda but it’s in the breaks in between where the relationships are forged.
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Why do some people find small talk so hard?

When we run seminars on small talk and socializing in English we hear many reasons why people struggle when they have to make small talk. Some people don’t know what to say, some are afraid of saying the wrong thing, some don’t know how to start a conversation, some are scared that people will think they are boring, some people find small talk a waste of time…and the list goes on. All of these objections, and fears are magnified when we know we are going to have to do it in a foreign language.

You prepare for the meeting so prepare for the small talk!

If you are nervous or uncertain about what to say during the breaks – prepare for them. First of all identify topics that are safe and suitable for the event and the people attending.  Depending upon the culture you are speaking with “safe topics” may be different but in general you are on safe ground with the following:

  • The weather – The forecast says it’s going to rain for the next 2 days. What’s the weather like at this time of year in Cape Town?
  • The event itself – I particularly enjoyed this morning’s presentation on big data analytics. What did you think of it?
  • The venue – This is one of the best conference centres I’ve been to. What do you think of it?
  • Jobs – How long have you been working in data security?
  • Current affairs, but NOT politics – I see they’ve just started the latest trials on driverless cars. I’m not sure I’d want to travel in one. How do you feel about them?

Opening a conversations and keeping it flowing

If you are going to ask questions, when possible, ask open questions. An open question begins with a question word – what, why, where, when, how etc. and the person will have to answer with more than a simple yes/no answer. Open question elicits more information and helps the conversation to develop. Similarly if you are asked a question (closed or open), give additional information and finish with a question. This will keep the conversation flowing.

7 phrases for typical small talk situations

  • Hi, I don’t think we’ve met before. I’m Helena Weber from IT support in Ludwigsburg.
  • I’m ready for a cup of coffee. Can I pour you one?
  • I believe the restaurant here is excellent. Have you eaten here before?
  • What did you do before you joined the product management team?
  • Where are you from?
  • Did you see the story on the news about…?
  • It’s a while since I last saw you. What’s new?

Don’t forget

Your counterparts may well be as nervous as you are and will welcome your initiative in starting and joining in conversation with them.  You could be taking the first steps in developing new personal and business relationships

How great training clients maximize the impact of their training budget

A common question I am asked in client meetings is ‘What makes a “great” training provider?’ and then of course I’m asked to show that we are one. There are a lot of factors involved in being a great training provider, from having the right trainers, to providing relevant training (that is easily transferred to the workplace), and from having the right processes right down to the flexibility and adaptability of the program, based on the changing business needs of the participants. In part, our greatness is achieved because of great clients and we are very lucky to have many of those across Europe ranging in size and spanning numerous industries. Like great training providers share common characteristics, so do great training clients. Below are are three of them.

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1. Great training clients really get the importance of buy-in on multiple levels

Training, whether it be Business English, soft skill or leadership programs, is most successful when there is buy-in across the board. HR and L&D are important, but it is the buy-in from operational and line managers that makes a real difference. Managers at all levels and team leaders all have a role to play. The managers of our “great clients” share the “why?” behind the training. They look to link it to strategy and decisions, and show that they are personally expecting commitment and engagement. This buy-in keeps the participants focused and aware of why they are training on certain topics.  This management buy-in also supports the work of HR and L&D, energizing their efforts and challenging them to challenge us when it comes to questions such as training design, transfer to the workplace, and continual improvements. So, if you have multiple levels of management, HR and participant buy-in, you will definitely see results tied to your company goals and get a lot more out of your training investment.

2. Great training clients give feedback when things are great and when things could be better

When we put our heart and soul into delivering training, we love hearing that we are doing a great job. Even when the training doesn’t fully meet the client’s expectations, we want to hear about it. Our best clients understand that we value what they have to say and tell us openly, on a regular basis. The more consistent clients are with feedback, the easier it is to address any issues that may arise. Being clear about communication needs, proactively collaborating on training goals, content and methods, and sharing the background to decisions work to build robust relationships creates a lot of trust and understanding that leads to productive, long-term and fun partnerships. Win-Win is remarkably easy when both sides genuinely care about the other.

3. Great training clients are open to new ideas and approaches

It is great when a client knows what they want. It can make our job as a training provider that much easier – after all you know your staff, your corporate culture and what works well.  AND, we also value the chance to apply our years and years of experience when the situation presents itself. Our best clients know that they can trust our expertise and, after exploring the whys and hows, are willing to give it a chance.  We understand we have to earn that trust, but need a chance to do so.  So, know what you want as a customer, challenge what your suppliers may suggest at times but also be open to new ideas as you may be pleasantly surprised what your supplier can do.

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Key tips and English phrases for your next “lessons learned” meeting

Life is about continuously learning. We sometimes learn from our mistakes, and we can also learn from our successes. This was first brought to my attention early on in my career. After the successful completion of a tough project, we had a meeting with our team leader where we were questioned on both what had we done well and how could the project have gone smoother. Today, in the international automotive company where I work as an InCorporate Trainer training business English, Lessons Learned meetings are an integral part of any project.

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What happens in a “lessons learned” meeting?

Like my team leader a long time ago, the project managers I train are convinced that, after any project, it is important to reflect on what could be learned from the experience. Annette, a manager who regularly uses me for on-the-job training explained that “For us the lessons learned meeting is especially important if the project was deemed to be a success. In this way, best practices are identified and flow into subsequent projects. And feelings of complacency can be avoided. At the same time, it is important to understand what stood in the way of a project being even more successful. It doesn’t really matter how successful a project is, there is always room for improvement.”

She then went on to explain how her project team has time to consider their performance as well as that of the team as a whole, And that in new teams, or established teams with new members, this was typically tough the first few times “I do see pushback from new colleagues for various reasons, despite how obviously important these meetings may be. Some people feel there is no reason to speak about the past since we cannot go back and change things. Other times people may feel that it isn’t good to talk too much about the past but to focus on the future. My goal as the team’s leader is to show that being open about one’s mistakes allows others to learn from them! In German this is not easy but when we all do it in English we see that things are harder ”

Use we to be tough on the mistakes, but not on the individuals

Most of us don’t enjoy talking about our mistakes, and when discussing mistakes it is important to be both accurate and respectful. One way to do this is by asking questions using the collective “we” rather than assigning specific blame. After all, you are a team!

For example:

  • If we hadn’t worked overtime, we wouldn’t have finished within the deadline.
  • We should have received that information earlier.
  • If we had known that from the beginning, we would have done things much differently
  • We wouldn’t have had so many problems if we had communicated better.
  • We could have saved a lot of money if we had identified the problem earlier.

Ask the right questions to ensure future improvement

Another way of discussing mistakes is to use hypotheticals. These sentences help to make things less personal and more abstract. With this style of question, a hypothetical cause and effect in the past is identified and applied to future situations; a “What if…” style of identifying areas for potential improvement.

  • What if we made some adjustments in our future labor projections?
  • What if we ensured more timely delivery for our next project? How could we fulfill such a promise?
  • What if we were informed sooner? How would that have affected the delivery date?
  • What if we could improve our internal communication structure? How are some ways we could do this?
  • What would have been the outcome if we had identified the problem sooner?

Use success as a driver for learning

As mentioned above, we can also learn from our successes. So what questions could we and should we be asking ourselves to ensure our successes continue on to future projects? Here are some useful examples for your next “lessons learned” meeting…

  • Was our success unique to this project, or is it something we could replicate for future projects?
  • What surprises did our team handle well, and how could we build off of that to prepare for other unexpected outcomes in the future?
  • How could we re-formulate our achieved goals to really push the team to perform better?
  • What value did our individual team members bring to the project?
  • How can we increase our level of commitment and urgency?

To summarize

Implementing lessons learned meetings into your projects leads to team members growing in confidence, and an increase in performance and outcomes. Being aware of the impact language can have will help, as can facilitation skills , and building trust and a willingness to allow constructive conflicts in your team. Finally, there’s an excellent lessons learned template on Brad Egeland’s blog. Cornell University has a good overview of approaches and questions to use,  and the University of Pennsylvania offers a lessons-learned checklists to help lead discussions.

If you have any recommendations or would like to tell us about your experiences with lessons learned meetings, please feel free to do so below in the comments section.

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Surviving and understanding English corporate buzzwords and business lingo

Recently I was working with a software development manager from a major German multinational. He’d just got off a 2 hour webex meeting and was frustrated. “I thought my English was pretty good – but what exactly does We’ve worked through it soup to nuts mean?!”. I could empathize. It was the first time I’d heard this expression myself and I needed to understand the context before I guessed it meant from beginning to end. Corporate and business buzzwords, jargon and expressions can be a challenge for native speakers – and when English isn’t your first language things get so much harder.


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What do we mean by corporate buzzwords and business lingo?

The business world has always developed and used its own idiomatic phrases and vocabulary to describe all aspects of business and management. These expressions fall into 2 broad categories:

  • Some expressions are used across all business sectors, are very well known, widely used and understood. “We’re moving to an open plan office in the hope that it will improve cross-pollination” (cross-pollination is the generation of ideas by combining people from different backgrounds and with different skill sets).
  • Other expressions are specific to a certain business sector, for example marketing or auditing. This language (jargon) isn’t generally recognized outside the particular sector, e.g.  Shoptimization is the way forward (using apps to optimize in-store shopping experience).

Why do people talk like this?

This is a good question. A part of good communication is about making things easy to understand buzzwords don’t always do this.  Buzzwords are a type of jargon people use so they sound knowledgeable, up-to-date, important  … or just cool or funny. Is it effective? Decide for yourself. The video in this post is an excellent demonstration.  How many of the expressions do you recognize and understand?

Dealing with buzzwords and business lingo

I am a native speaker of English and have almost 40 years experience in the corporate world and I understood less than half of what was said in the video above. So what can non-native English speakers do when confronted by too much corporate speak?

Further online resources

Explanations for most of the expressions used in the video on available on these websites

9 common English jargon and buzzwords used in business

To close, here is is a selection of corporate jargon and buzzwords from the video … together with a simple explanation:

  • Let’s get our ducks in a row. = Let’s get organized
  • Can you put a deck together? = Can you prepare a visual presentation? (sales and marketing)
  • Loop me in on that! = Keep me informed of what’s happening.
  • He’s a disrupter. = He’s a person who changes the way things are done.
  • I’m going to have to marinade on that. = I need time to think about it.
  • Can you unpack that? = Can you give me more detail?
  • That’s not even in our wheelhouse. = That’s not in our minds.
  • That’s the silver bullet approach. = That’s the perfect solution.
  • Can we talk about that offline? = Can we talk about that away from the main group?

To summarize, don’t forget that even native English speakers struggle with business jargon and idiomatic expressions. If you follow the tips and make use of the links I’ve mentioned you will find it a little easier.

 

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Here’s a selection of posts if you want to read more:

 

 

How we built the Business English can-do statements: An interview with Chris Slattery

How good is your business English? B1? C2? These terms didn’t mean much to most of us ten years ago or so, but today the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is an international standard for describing language ability. It is used around the world to describe learners’ language skills. The 20 years of research the Council of Europe put into designing and rolling out the CEFR  was undoubtedly worthwhile: we now have a robust basis for a common understanding of what language levels mean. However, the CEFR is not business English specific – it was was designed for general education purposes. It doesn’t directly connect to day-to-day business communication scenarios. It doesn’t directly meet the language training needs facing businesses and corporations today, nor does it directly address common business communication scenarios.

In 2010, Target Training worked with the worlds largest courier company, Deutsche Post DHL, and another language training provider (Marcus Evans Linguarama) to close this gap. The outcome was a detailed set of can-do statements usable by employees, their managers and training providers alike. Chris Slattery lead the project at Target Training, and I asked him a few questions about this project.

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What made you want to get involved in this project?

Chris: We had been working closely with the Corporate Language School at DP DHL for over 5 years, and they were keen to begin measuring their training investment. A major part of this was being able to measure learning progress. They had tried to use an off-the-shelf solution but it wasn’t working, and the CEFR was too abstract to use in a business environment. We’d been working closely together trying to make things work – and when it was clear that the tools just weren’t strong enough they asked us if we could build a business specific tool which was founded in the CEFR levels. We asked that if we were going to be the “developer” another provider be involved as a “tester” to ensure the end product was robust and practical. This is how Lingurama became involved, and this 3-way collaboration strengthened the project.

The CEFR isn’t designed to recognize gaps in performance at work. Our Business English can-do statements mean that managers can identify where they would like to see an improvement in performance, and we then know how to get them there.

Chris Slattery

How did you decide what a successful solution would look like?

Chris: Quite simply, success was a tool that managers and participants could easily use when analyzing needs, setting goals and evaluating progress. We needed something that reflected the specific business skills managers are looking to improve. This meant we had to adapt what was in the CEFR and re-couch it in terms that were relevant for the business world. For example to move from academic and linguistic terms to practical business communication needs.

Can you give an example of a scenario?

Chris: Sure. Take someone who has had English at school and then worked in the States as an au pair for two years. They speak good English with a Boston accent. When they joined DP DHL they had the opportunity to join our InCorporate Trainer program. Whenever somebody new joins the training Target Training needs to assess their English skills.  This lady got placed at CEFR B2, which shows a good degree of competency … but she had never worked in a company before joining DP DHL -and now she needed to go and deliver a presentation in English. How well was she going to be able to do that?

Her general CEFR level is B2, but in her ability to give effective status presentations in English, she might be as low as A2. This discrepancy is huge. The CEFR isn’t designed to recognize gaps in performance at work. The Business English can-do statements mean that these managers can identify where they would like to see an improvement in performance, and we then know how to get them there.

We needed something that reflected the specific business skills managers are looking to improve. This meant we had to adapt what was in the CEFR and re-couch it in terms that were relevant for the business world. For example to move from academic and linguistic terms to practical business communication needs.

Chris Slattery

The full CEFR document is 273 pages long. Where did you start?

Chris: We started by studying the CEFR document in real depth, and understanding how it was built and why certain can-do statements are phrased in specific ways.  At the same time we also agreed with the client which business fields made the most impact on their day-today communication – skills like “presentations”, “networking”, “negotiating” etc . We then reread the CEFR handbook and identified which can-do statements could be directly transferable to business communication scenarios. Then we broke these business fields down into language skills, and used the can-dos in the CEFR document which best fitted these language skills. Our golden rule was that the can-dos had to be within the context of specific business skills AND easily understood by a department manager with no knowledge of language training.

Can you give me an example?

Chris:  Sure. These two statements contributed to one of the can-dos related to participating in meetings at a B1 level:

  1. Sociolinguistic appropriateness at CEFR B: Is aware of the salient politeness conventions and acts appropriately.
  2. Grammar at CEFR B1: Uses reasonably accurately a repertoire of frequently used “routines” and patterns (usually associated with more predictable situations).

Our Business English can-do statement for B1 Meetings: I can directly ask a participant to clarify what they have just said and obtain more detailed information in an appropriate manner.

How long did the whole process take?

Chris:  It took five months to write, test, rewrite, test and rewrite again. We then needed to repeat the process with a German language version too. At the end we blind-tested it with the client, and were delighted with their feedback.  The roll-out took a few months. Today, internally, it’s still an ongoing project. As new trainers join the company, they need to learn how to use the tool to its full potential.

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The Business English Can-Do Statements toolbox also has a short FAQ and 4 ideas on how you can use them. If you’d like to know more, please contact us, or read more about the CEFR framework on our website.

The importance of staff training

We’re a training company. We meet with corporate clients and we ask them questions to find out their situation. They ask us questions too. If they like us, we send in an offer with a training concept. The answers to the questions (from both sides) are often similar. Our clients need training because it will help them succeed. Which makes the company succeed. Here are some of those questions, this time answered by two of Target’s key people, Chris Slattery (Managing Director) and Scott Levey (Operations Manager). 

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How important is training when it comes to staff?

SL: Training is as important to us as it is to every company. (Ironically though, trainers in the industry just don’t get enough training themselves, and there tends to be very little done on an incidental basis.) By nature, trainers in this industry often work independently and at best get development opportunities by accident. Our policy is to attract and hire the best trainers and, through training, help them to stay sharp. When we hire, we look specifically for evidence of continual improvement so we know we are working with people who are open to development and learning.

CS: The phrase ‘never buy hair restorer from a bald salesman’ springs to mind. We are obliged to take training seriously for any number of reasons but, most importantly, when training makes our staff stronger, we move up a notch as a company. Our challenge is to make sure that we promote internal training to ensure that the company as a whole benefits from external measures taken by individuals.

What makes training effective?

SL: Skill or job based, the training has to be relevant. The training from which we have had the most positive feedback has been our in-house “Boot Camp”.  This is where we explore the skills an InCorporate Trainer needs in order to be successful when delivering in-house training. New trainers generally have low expectations coming onto the course (‘training for training’s sake’ being a classic attitude) but the feedback has been consistently strong and participants report that they have been pushed, been developed and gained confidence during the week.  Not only that, their line managers have reported a clear difference, as have the end client.

CS: And be ready to be actively involved in supporting whatever training you go for.  Your support, or lack of, makes so much difference.

Is intercultural training still relevant?

CS: Intercultural training introduces the concept of dilemmas which every society is confronted with.

For example:

  1. Do we/they see events as individual and isolated or do we approach them within the context of a larger picture?
  2. How do we/they balance the rights of the individual against the interests of a wider society?

How a society deals with these dilemmas is the essence of that society’s culture. I would suggest that the intercultural aspect is everything… and nothing. “Nothing” in the sense that the theoretical study of regional differences (e.g. be sure to wear white socks on a first date in Ballybunnion), while possibly of some passing interest, is not necessarily conducive to effective communication. “Everything” in the sense that communication – which is our business – is founded on shared understanding. Beyond a rudimentary level of language proficiency, working out what is meant becomes more important than the words that are used and what is actually said.

Why is language training still so important in the business world today?

SL: Communication is extremely important in all areas, and people just don’t think about it often enough on an day to day level. We don’t always listen well; we are not always understood in the way we want to be understood and in a way that gets results. And this is in our native language. International business communication in a language you don’t really know is difficult – you know what you need but you don’t know how to say it exactly. Successful communication revolves around people setting aside time to reflect on how they communicate and how they can make it more effective. Language training is a tool that supports this. So people can do a great job in English.

How do you organize your training budget effectively?

SL: We talk to staff about their current skills and their needs for the future. This is an ongoing conversation. It’s also vital that our managers carve out time to think about their own needs; skills; and the future situation of the client and the team they manage. And we know that it is not always feasible to solve a current problem by throwing training at it: training often takes too long to solve an immediate concern.

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