a) Shock! Horror!- This is not the case!,
b) Pardon?- It is unclear what version of 'English' are we talking about anyway and
c) Come on...!- Making the effort in choosing and preparing the appropriate language is an invaluable way to improve communication.
This blog will focus on these three points and will offer some helpful tips on improving your approach and, by association, your chances of success...
From the start, let us be clear, I have an interest in this, having taken the plunge this year and created my own company, Link Export Consulting LTD (www.linkexportconsulting.com). The company offers three types of service: business language courses, export consulting and sales support. It is the need for a business language course that I would like to discuss here. Not just, although unashamedly partly, to describe my services but also to promote this communication across the board. Also, because this is important to me.
So...'Everyone speaks English!'
Strangely enough, it seems to be native English speakers who would say this the most. Strange isn't it? While it is absolutely true that a fair portion of global communication is managed in English (from music to films, advertising to business transactions, YouTube and Facebook generation take note!), it is still only the third native spoken language in the world, following Mandarin and Spanish. Yes, third only, little fact for you. (I will look at it's position in terms of second-language usage here below.)
So, what outcomes could you have by only communicating in English in business environments? As if by magic, rather helpfully, here are two examples:
1. Setting: boardroom somewhere in Austria. Meeting: Sales presentation to potential distribution partners. Presentation content: prepared, practised and perfected! During the presentation, I watched a highly intelligent, on-the-ball businessman, who had not been included in the initial attendees list, yet it turned out ultimately had the final word, completely lost for periods of the business presentation as he sat there trying to confirm with his colleagues what was being presented...in German. This created a distortion, a time lapse, eventually a clear barrier to clear communication and thought process. The sense of the presentation, the message that had been carefully constructed, was lost.
2. As promised, a second incident. Setting: International Trade Show. Content: description of product and services on offer to first time contacts. I agree, yes, international trade shows are nearly impossible to fully cater for. By simple definition, they are international and there are over 7,000 languages in the world! So, you could be forgiven by thinking that, provided you speak English (and as you know 'everyone speaks English') you will be fine! Actually, nope. One particular visitor turned out to be the CEO of an important distribution network from Spain, did not speak any English, visited the stand, attempted to communicate, failed, moved on and was next seen on the competition stand having one very intense meeting! Thousands of pounds and preparation, one single moment...pffffft.
If I ask you now, as you read this, whose error that was, you would tend to say the presenter/trade stand organiser within the company. He/She should have considered this! He/She has not considered the audience carefully enough! Surprise, surprise...I was the presenter in the first example, that is the reason I could watch them! Yes, it that was actually me. I made a mistake (two actually!), did not plan for that and had no plan B.
I was not on the stand for example 2. But, in true slow motion Matrix-movie style, I could see this happening through a glass divider and could not intervene. No more toilet breaks for me, is it?
Ok, so there are a lot of opportunities to conduct business in English...but what 'English' are we talking about?
I have mentioned that English is not top in the language class. On the other hand, it is the most common second language learnt and used. International Trade is often conducted in a new and adapted 'International English'. I am not contradicting myself, not everyone is comfortable in English and business can suffer because of this. However, when 'International English' is the common language, what are the potential issues?
Hopefully, I will not be the only person to have seen and experienced this strange phenomenon. A conversation has been developing between two people (let's say a Russian and a Spaniard for this example). Words are exchanged, non-verbal communication is rife. Discussions are well advanced and points are agreed. They are communicating highly effectively with limited vocabulary, limited grammatical accuracy and yet, they are communicating! Add an English person to the conversation. What happens? Correct, very often, although this is English, the native speaker is not as successful at communicating. Impossible! Not so. Outrage!
Firstly, the native English speaker is less likely to use non verbal communication skills required for the task. They speak the language, always have done. 'Small' is 'Small', 'here' is 'here' there is no need to make any hand gestures, it is clear what the word means! Without generalising (which is dangerous!), we can appreciate that some cultures are more descriptive in their hand, facial, body gestures when communicating. The English, well not so much...please do not think I am encouraging you to SHOUT YOUR MESSAGE. Do not do that, just don't...
Secondly, more technical now, the English language is a mix of Germanic and Latin root languages, with some extra bits added on through the centuries. It is a complicated language to learn and master. Whereas there could be two or more words a person could use in one situation, the 'International English' speaker will tend to use the one most likely to be recognised.
Cultural aspects of non native speakers tend to be less present within their version of English. A native English speaker may use language they are very familiar with (such as NHS, B.A, M25, Tory, I am 'spent', PA, tweak...), some or all of which will be unknown or at least unfamiliar to non-native English speakers. Removing them is important.
(At this point, if you are not a native English speaker, and you are still reading (!), please review this article and see if you had read it with relative ease. Add a comment below, very welcome!).
Presentations, printed material, websites, general information prepared in English by a non-native speaker will be clearer, to the point, more visual and focussed on the important aspects of the message. An 'International English' audience should never be treated in an arrogant manner, that is not what I am saying, they should be treated with respect. After all it is your language or a common language being used, so simplifying the message, allowing for some in-the-head translations should be accepted.
Making the effort
Link Export Consulting LTD runs business language courses, I have already said, sorry for saying again (!). The reasoning is that international business is best achieved when the language concerns are removed, or at least reduced. Learning International English or Business French (or German, Mandarin, Spanish...) is incredibly useful and important. Some consultants will help you with your posture, your voice, your sales skills, your courage...but if the person you are talking to is not able to understand you, there is little chance of success. So chose carefully, find yourself a business minded teacher, someone who has experience of both using language in business situations and the skills to teach you how to.
You ultimately have the choice, learn how to adapt the language you already know or improve the 'foreign' language you have learnt so that it is appropriate to business situations. Whether it is simple introduction sentences, or full presentation in another language, making the effort is a positive step. For a trip to Japan, I spent a few weeks learning some basic sentences and expressions, as well as research in cultural differences, these showed my hosts that I had respect, had spent my own time learning a basic skill. It worked beautifully. Conversation very quickly returned to English, but the effort was noted.
Back to the two examples I mentioned, did I make this mistake again? No, sir. From then on, there has been one very simple change. Plan B...simple, have the presentation slides (or at least notes) in the audience own language as well as in English. Depending on the target language, also consider doing the presentation in their language. Confirming, even if this is a double-confirmation, of language preferences. How was the trade show resolved? Doubling-up on linguist-sales staff, plenty of business cards on show, marketing in other languages, ideally teach basic communication sentences to the remaining staff in a number of languages. Oh yes, and moving away from the competition stand!
Making the effort...
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