Speaking English in Business (aka Getting things done in English)

Most of the work I do is related in some way to communication. I take it seriously enough that it actually hurts me when I am misunderstood. The potential for misunderstanding is magnified on large international projects even when everyone speaks English. English is spoken all over the world by over a billion people, but most of these people speak it at a very basic level as a second language. Even among people who grew up speaking English, it is sometimes difficult to communicate and misunderstandings are common. As a consultant, I work with people from all over the world. They all speak English in very different ways, with different accents and very different cultures. I just finished an international project where the team was 40% Japanese, 20% American, 20% French, with the rest of the team coming from Mexico, Russia, Spain, the Netherlands, India, Australia, Canada, and Brazil.

I have advice for everyone speaking English who is trying to say something important:

  1. Never assume people know what you mean, they don’t.
    • Always say it at least twice in a different way, in other words, change the way you say it in case they don’t understand the first time (like I have done here)
    • Always ask them if they understand and what they are going to do. When they tell you their plan, you can tell if they understood.
  2. Always say exactly what you want, do not take anything for granted, if you want something you have to ask for it specifically
  3. Do NOT try to joke or be funny. Jokes don’t work very well across cultures – they might laugh or smile because you laugh, but in the end  it causes confusion.
  4. Take your time and make sure they understand, don’t rush
  5. Follow up with the message in writing. After speaking with them, send the a written message with the same information.
  6. PowerPoint is the best way to make a point. There is no barrier in the business world that can withstand a good PowerPoint presentation. If it absolutely positively must be communicated to some one, nothing says it better than 10 slides saying the same thing in 10 different ways.
  7. Use visuals – don’t just describe something if you have the option of showing them. (but then describe it also)
  8. Always clearly state the conclusion you want them to reach
  9. Share the data, if their is data that lead you to reach your conclusion give it to your audience (in its raw form) so they look into it and reach their own conclusions

Bottom line: The world is getting increasingly diverse and subtle points get lost, if you want some one to do something it is important to communicate clearly.

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