Imagine you are looking for a job, and you have an interview at a big company. You walk into the interview room and say to the panel of interviewers: “hey there, how’s it going?” Believe me, that’s a bad first impression.
Or what if you go to the bar to meet an old friend and when you see him you extend your hand and say “Good evening, and how do you do?” Chances are your friend is going to ask you whether you’re feeling okay.
In both these situations, the problem is that you used the wrong level of formality or register. You simply can’t use the same expressions, words, and idioms in every situation. You need to gauge the situation and adapt how you speak accordingly.
There are times when you want to impress people with your language abilities. But there are actually far more situations that require the opposite approach – situations where you don’t want to risk confusing people, so you want to make sure you’re communicating clearly.
In our last lesson, I talked about clear pronunciation and word choice. Today I want to look at making clear sentences and organizing your message.
When it comes to sentences, shoot for simple and short. Rather than stringing a bunch of ideas into one long sentence, break it up into several short ones. Use simple words like “but” and “so” instead of words like “nevertheless” and “consequently.”
There’s something else that can add clutter to our sentences: the softening words and phrases we use to be diplomatic, polite, or careful. These expressions can be very important when the situation requires. But not all situations or audiences require such diplomacy. We also have some very confusing ways of asking questions in English. And if you’re trying to be clear, you should avoid some of these. That includes tag questions, such as “you’re quite busy, aren’t you?” And negative questions, like “aren’t you going to read my report?”
The last thing I want to talk about is how we structure our messages. And I mean longer messages, like a set of instructions or something. First off, it’s good to be clear about purpose. Tell people what you’re going to tell them. That’s exactly what I did when I said “the last thing I want to talk about is how we structure our messages.” You see, when you heard that, you knew exactly what I was going to talk about next.
Secondly, it’s a good idea to use words like “secondly.” We call this “signposting.” Signposting is basically giving clear structure and logic to what you’re saying. That means introducing things clearly. It means outlining, using words like “first, second, third” and “last.” But it also means being clear about how your ideas fit together. Signposting makes it a lot easier for people to follow what you’re saying, and to remember it!
Lastly, it’s a good idea to summarize what you’ve said. Just a little recap is good enough. And you can introduce your summary using signposting expressions like “to sum up” or “what I’ve been trying to say is.”
Did you know that most of the conversations in English happening right now are between two non-native speakers? There’s a German doing business in Malaysia, and a Russian talking on the phone with a Korean, and a Brazilian visiting Spain. And they’re most likely using English to communicate with each other.
But English is not a simple language. For one thing, it has more words and idioms than other languages. For another thing, there are many different varieties of English. So the English you hear in Singapore or Miami or London can sound quite different. Given this situation – people around the world using a difficult language at different levels – it’s really important to be able to communicate clearly.
Let’s start with pronunciation. Of course, not everyone will, or should, speak exactly the same. Perfect pronunciation doesn’t exist, since there are so many different accents. So being clear isn’t so much about pronunciation as it is about enunciation. Enunciation simply means pronouncing things clearly and carefully.
Two other things that impact pronunciation are speed and volume. When we’re uncomfortable or nervous, we tend to speed up and speak more softly. But speaking quickly and quietly can damage our pronunciation. Instead, slow down a bit and speak a bit more loudly. This will add clarity to your speech.
Clarity is also affected by the words we choose. The important thing here is to keep it simple. When you’re giving someone instructions on the phone, or making an important point in a presentation, it’s not the time to impress people with your vocabulary. Stick to expressions you know people will understand. That means you should avoid using too much slang and too many idioms.
When it comes to word choice, there’s another thing to be careful with: acronyms and abbreviations. You might use “TBH” quite often, but not everyone knows that it means “to be honest.” You don’t have to use these abbreviations to get your point across. And you’ve probably been confused – and frustrated – when people use abbreviations that are common in their line of work but are not common knowledge.
As we’ve seen, communicating clearly in English might mean we have to adapt what we say and how we say it, depending on the audience. It’s always a good idea to speak up and to speak clearly. And if you want to make sure everyone understands, it’s wise to use simple and clear words, while avoiding slang, idioms, and abbreviations.
For one, people can get a bit personal and attack the person, as opposed to the idea. Call people out for personal attacks, and keep the discussion focused on ideas, not personality conflict. This is part of your role as the meeting facilitator. You’re supposed to encourage people to listen, prevent interruption, and generally make sure people feel respected and heard. As soon as people feel attacked personally, they’ll shut up.
Another thing you need to shut down is any off topic conversation. People do this without even realizing it. They hear something, it reminds them of something else, they start talking about it and soon enough the conversation has gone way off topic. Your job is to steer the conversation back. For people who love to hear themselves talk and go on and on, find an appropriate moment to jump in and provide a summary of their idea.
Another obstacle in a decision-making meeting is what we call “groupthink.” Groupthink is when people just follow along with the ideas being discussed, without thinking for themselves. To deal with groupthink, encourage creative thinking from the get-go. One thing you might try is having people write down their ideas individually before sharing them with the group. After having people write down their own ideas, go around the table and give each person a chance to speak. The more you leave it to the really vocal people, the more susceptible the meeting will be to groupthink.
Besides groupthink, another obstacle you may face is time. So watch the time carefully. And when you’re down to 25%, remind people. Don’t be afraid to push them a bit. In most cases, people are more willing to compromise than to drag an issue out longer than necessary. But if the group really can’t come to a good decision, or if people really can’t agree, or if there’s just more information needed, then consider other options. For one, you might table the decision. A delayed decision is often better than a bad decision. Or, you might assign a smaller group to make the decision.
Regardless, what you’re shooting for is the best possible decision. And as we’ve discussed, there are many possible obstacles to making a good decision within the time you’ve got. But if you play it right, if you manage the people well, and if you encourage good ideas, and new ideas, you should be able to come to a good group decision.
In fact, it might be better to say we’re talking about how to lead groups to good decisions. After all, any meeting chairperson can push for a quick decision, or call a vote before matters have been fully discussed. But that’s not the kind of leadership I’m talking about. And that doesn’t necessarily produce good decisions. A good decision is one that people buy into, and one that has a strong rationale behind it.
So how can we go about leading a group to a decision? Well, right at the start of the meeting, you need to set the stage for a good discussion, and a good decision. Firstly, you need to be very clear about the purpose. If you’re meeting to make a decision, make sure everyone knows it.
It’s also a good idea to have a decision-making process for the meeting. And that process typically goes like this: start with information-sharing, then run through or brainstorm different options, then evaluate those options through discussion, and finally make a decision. Notice that generating ideas and evaluating ideas are separate steps. That helps prevent people feeling criticized or getting defensive.
Within this process, leading group decisions is all about facilitating good discussion. And the magic of good facilitation is making everyone in the room feel listened to and emotionally validated. Overall, you need to make sure that everyone has had a chance to speak and express themselves. Sometimes this means calling on people directly. Or it might simply mean staying attuned to how those weaker voices attempt to join the discussion.
By being clear about purpose upfront, following a basic decision-making process, and using your meetings English and facilitation skills, you can come to a good decision. And remember, a good decision is one that people buy into and that has a good rationale to support it.