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Business Communication – When English Isn’t Your First Language

April 15, 2014

I’m often struck by how easy it is for two people to miscommunicate. One person sends an email that he or she thinks is a positive, thoughtful message; the person receiving it interprets the message otherwise and takes offense. Communication breakdowns such as this occur every day between people whose first language is English. So imagine the challenge for a person whose first language is not English. Trying to make yourself understood would be further compounded by a lack of a firm grasp of the English language.

I’m often hired by large organizations to work with executives who are highly skilled at what they do. The problem is that they’re frequently held back in their career by their inability to articulate ideas in writing — without sounding unintentionally humorous. Just the other day, I received an email message from a concerned executive who wrote, “It is required for me that I write and speak good English, but I am currently feeling a bit of awkwardness on my abilities.”

I’m not surprised she’s feeling “a bit of awkwardness.” It’s obvious from her writing that she’s having difficulty with prepositions, one of the more basic concepts of English language usage. But, she is not alone. I frequently find that people in her position mix up words such as “for” and “of,” or “on” and “about.” Using the correct parts of speech can be particularly challenging for people who do a lot of technical writing, or report and proposal-based work. A good part of their difficulty is due to their tendency to translate literally from their mother tongue directly into English. This practice makes for the awkwardness that results. But whatever the reason for a person’s challenges communicating in English, it’s important to have a plan to improve one’s language skills, if you want to be taken seriously and be understood.

The Language Lab Strategies for business communication when English is your second language

1. Get grammar: Ignore the ungrammatical nature of the title (“get grammar”), but follow the advice. You need to understand the basics of English language sentence structure. There are some good online resources, for instance the University of Ottawa’s Writing Centre.

2. Expand vocabulary: The simplest way to increase your vocabulary is to create a list of unfamiliar words, as you come across them. You’ll find your grasp of grammar steadily increases by using a dictionary and a thesaurus.

3. Embrace English: By this I mean; constantly speak and read in English, and listen to spoken English, as much as possible. (Just make sure you are reading and listening to grammatically correct English!)

4. Technique reminders: Once you understand your most common mistakes, create techniques to help you respond to situations that make you stumble. If you’re having trouble with possessives and you want to say, for example, “the coat of my dog”; turn it around and say, “my dog’s coat.” So every time you find yourself creating that construction (“the something of my something”) change it to the possessive.

5. Editing advice: My primary editing advice is simple:  edit, edit edit, and edit some more! Every important communication you write should be read and rewritten carefully. If at all possible, have someone whose first language is English read it.

Of course, all of the above advice sounds like a lot of work. And yes, it is! But the payoff, in terms of improving communication skills and being more effective in the work place, is worth it.

And if you’re looking for a fun way to improve your English language skills, try spending more time around the water cooler, listening to your colleagues and exchanging small talk. The brain has a way of translating what you hear into what you write. You may also want to have a look at 15 Ways to Improve Oral Communication in Business English for the same reason. Of course, you could consider taking a Language Lab course too. No need to feel awkward, just email me at info@thelanguagelab.

One Size Does Not Fit All: Communication in the Multigenerational Workplace

March 27, 2014

You’ve probably heard it before. Millennials (Generation “Y”) are self-centered. They lack the ambition of, say, the Baby Boomers, who’ve ruined everything for subsequent generations. As for Generation X? They’re self-pitying cynics.

There are so many stereotypes about the different generations that you really have to take them all with a grain of salt. But some are founded on credible traits. And understanding those traits can facilitate workplace communication.

The other day I attended a presentation on the multigenerational workplace, delivered by Violeta Jerinic. Some of what she said made me stop and think about how tricky communication can be when you have three or possibly four generations working in the same organization.

My profession involves a lot of thinking and talking about workplace communication. So I’m keenly aware of how easy it is for poor communication to cause offence in the workplace. But the multigenerational workplace has its own particular pitfalls. It’s important to get beyond the stereotypes, as well as to recognize some of the generally held concepts about communication styles within each group. Knowing this makes it possible to work more effectively with people who are not of your own generation.  

For example, when doing a presentation for Generation Y people, who have grown up in a digital reality, I would emphasize the following:

1. Communicate in short sound bites.

2. Communicate via technology, rather than on paper.

3. Emphasize visuals over text.

If you are an older person, working with younger colleagues, who may possibly find certain aspects of this arrangement frustrating, consider the following:

1. Learn from tech-savvy younger colleagues. They understand and are skilled in the latest technologies and social networking tools. Ask for help. People of any age like to share what they know.

2. Lead by example. You may find some younger colleagues who seem to lack thoughtful verbal communication. Be a mentor and recognize instances where younger colleagues can benefit from your patience and experience.

The fact is, when it comes to workplace communication, one size truly does not fit all. As a mature communicator, accept this reality and adapt your style to the circumstances. That’s not to say it’s always easy! Next time you want to get a Generation Y’s attention, don’t leave a message on voicemail that may be ignored; walk over and talk to that person. Demonstrate the value of face-to-face communication. Or go ahead and give in -- send that text. Chances are you’ll hear back -- right away.

Do you want to learn more about multigenerational workplace communication? Have a look at this article from Forbes: How To Communicate In The New Multigenerational Office.

You can also contact me to learn more about how Language Lab courses will help you improve your communication style. 

Lighten Up Your Communication: Use Humor Like Ellen

February 27, 2014


Image Credit: Andrew Eccles/ABC

She’s award winning, self-deprecating, witty, Gangnam dancing, and loved worldwide. She’s Ellen Degeneres. On March 2, she returns to host the Oscars for the second time.  Is it any wonder that comedians are the favored choice for this annual event? Without comic relief, the award show would be a marathon of film recaps, fashion faux pas, and coma-inducing acceptance speeches.

Just like Ellen, you can captivate your audience by adding the right touch of humor to your communications. A little levity can engage, whether you’re delivering a presentation or crafting a letter to a long lost customer.

Have a look at Ellen’s 2007 Oscar monologue to observe her humor style. I found myself smiling throughout the clip although these lines are my favorites:

  1. “Most people dream of winning an Academy Award. I had a dream of actually hosting the Academy Awards. Let that be a lesson to you kids out there. Aim lower.”
  2.  “A lot of British nominees. A lot. Would I say too many? Not here. No. At home in my pajamas with half a box of Chardonnay in me, who knows what I’d say.
  3. “Let’s be honest. It’s not that we don’t have time for long speeches. It’s that we don’t have time for boring speeches.”
  4. “But listen, don’t even stress about that…’cause maybe you won’t win.”
  5. “Abigail Breslin. How old are you? Eight, ten, nine? She’s a four-year-old girl and just filled with joy and hope and not worried about competition.”

We might not host the Oscars or win the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, but we can take some pointers from one of today’s best humorists. Here’s how to use humor like Ellen:

  • Be self deprecating

Poke fun at yourself. Being the brunt of your own joke is a safe way to include humor. Make sure the joke is done in a light-spirited way and not in a way that people perceive as negative. Starting your communication with a joke based on your own humility is a great icebreaker. (Joke #1 above)

  • Joke about universal truths and stereotypes

The British are known to dominate the Oscar awards. Oscar winners are known for long-winded boring speeches. What are common traits, situations, stereotypes that belong to your audience? Look for the universal truth; then add a comic twist. (Joke #2 and #3)

  • Make it relevant

Know your audience and tailor your humor to them. Consider the demographic you are writing for: age, nationality, industry, experience and knowledge of your topic. What are some of their problems and pain points you can use to create a joke to relieve some tension and release endorphins? (Joke #4)

  • Use exaggeration (or understatement)

Exaggeration to a comedian is like a cup to a Starbucks barista. (It’s an essential tool—without it you wind up with coffee on your cross trainers.) When you exaggerate, make it extremely large (Venti) or extremely small (Short). Just make it extreme. (Joke #5)

  • Keep it professional

Humor that works is light, clean, positive, kind, and professional. Never use humor that puts others down, complains, or is unprofessional—no insults, profanity, arrogance, or inappropriate references. That’s the Ellen way. (Joke #1-5)

Appropriate humor sprinkled through your communication can create ease, make the  experience memorable, and leave your audience wanting a return performance. Engage your audience with a touch of humor and wait for them to ask you for more.

The Language Lab Guest Blogger: Gay Merrill, is an instructional designer and creative writer (with a technical writing past), who believes that adding humor to communications can change the world (see hyperbole). You can find her at Focus on Funny, a blog where she shares humor writing tips, stories, and everything she has learned about humor from Second City, the Internet, and work in the IT industry.

Go for Gold: Four Tips for Winning Business Presentations

February 13, 2014

World-class athletes spend countless hours, days, and even years training to reach their hard-earned goal to compete at the Olympic games. Their truly awesome performances are a testament to the discipline, determination and toughness required to be the best of the best.

Although business presentations don’t require years spent on the slopes, on the ice, or in the gym, they do require mental, emotional, and yes, even physical toughness, to succeed. If you want your presentations to stand out from the crowd, you’ll need to thoroughly prepare and, essentially, to train.

I was reminded of this reality recently while delivering a presentation on effective communication for a business organization I had just joined. My audience was business professionals, many of whom I didn’t know. Of course, I wanted it to go well. I wanted to captivate them, to impress them, the way I am captivated by the Olympic figure skaters I watch on TV. They make their routines look so effortless; it’s easy to forget they are actually on skates, gliding at a quick pace across an unforgiving surface. Figure skaters are the swans of the Olympics, all grace and poise. Yet, below the surface, there is tremendous effort based on years of preparation.

Like many performers, I’m the first to admit I have butterflies when I have to present to people I don’t know. So, in order to — hopefully like those figure skaters — present with grace and poise,­ I spent a good deal of time preparing, a.k.a. “training.”

I use the following checklist to help focus my own presentations. I hope it helps you do the same.

Go for Gold: Four Tips for Winning Business Presentations

-Warm up: Your warm up is the hours (and hours!) you spend tweaking and practicing your presentation.

-Stretch: Push yourself to new heights. Try techniques such as visualization as you practice, because new techniques may well enhance your presentation. Go beyond your comfort zone. Rather than focusing only on the content of your presentation, scan the room to connect with individual members of the audience. And, if you feel those butterflies, look up and smile at someone. Eye contact and smiles can move your presentation to another level.

-Compete: Look good when you enter the room. Your physical presence, from dressing in a way that projects your professional best, to standing straight and appearing physically relaxed, will help you embrace a competitive edge, one that says you are good at what you do.

-Stay focused: Just like the “inner game of tennis,” so much of making a winning presentation is mental. Stay focused, and let your genuine passion for the subject of the presentation show. This passion, perhaps more than anything else, will persuade someone to pay attention.

Of course, all of the above tips evolve from knowing your goal and your audience. When I presented to the business organization I’d just joined, I knew my audience would expect a presentation that was polished, crisp, and to the point. Happily, their positive responses reinforced my “training” approach. I may not have won a gold medal, but having people tell me how much they liked my presentation, was for me, its own kind of victory.

If you have any questions about how you can create winning business presentations, contact me at

Presentation Tips: Command the Room like a Good Conductor

January 30, 2014

A highly skilled conductor can be spellbinding, at the same time projecting a sense of stately control. Audience and orchestra alike hang onto a good conductor’s every move.

Yet, the other night I attended a concert where the conductor, also an accomplished pianist, captured our attention but for all the wrong reasons. His every move made me — and other audience members I spoke with after the concert — feel somewhat dismayed. I’m afraid to say that his tiny swirling hand gestures and jerky way of moving while conducting reminded me of a chicken. Yes, a chicken. He seemed to lack that sense of stately control, that presence I so often see in the many conductors at the concerts I regularly attend. In fact, I actually closed my eyes so watching him wouldn’t detract from my enjoyment of the music.

I came away from the concert shaking my head, thinking, “This is one conductor who should stick to his day job,” and just keep playing the piano. Either that, or develop his skill as a conductor: practice more, watch himself on video, and perhaps seek a coach. If he was going to take control and “own the podium” as a conductor, he needed some serious work.

This experience got me thinking that the same is true for people who want to excel at business presentations. Whether it’s giving a speech, presenting to a new client, or delivering a successful sales pitch, you need to hone your skills if you want to command attention. And you’ll need to pay close attention to these basic non-verbal body language traits, outlined in the points that follow.

Six Tips to Help You Command the Room:

  • Stand tall, with shoulders back
  • Act confident, even if nervous
  • Breathe deeply and slowly
  • Relax facial muscles, and smile
  • Look up and out, not at the floor or the ceiling
  • Make movements purposeful; avoid sudden awkward gestures

Starting with these six simple tips will help you take control and appear confident, even if you’re not. If you want to be that spellbinding conductor who owns the podium, you’ll need to tell yourself “I can do this.” Even if it means “faking it ‘til you make it.”

For more ideas about being a good presenter, take a look at the website, Mind Tools. And if you’re feeling anxious about presenting, think of it this way, good presenters are not born any more than good conductors naturally know how to lead an orchestra. We all have the ability to step up to the podium and have the audience give us their full attention. We just need to learn how to achieve that result, and how to believe in ourselves.  

Contact the Language Lab for more tips and strategies on how to be an effective presenter. You can also email me at with any ideas that work for you.

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