Making suggestions at work

I was recently asked to teach a group of learners who needed to be able to hold tours of their production site in English. While we were walking around the factory, examining their machinery and describing various processes I noticed that suggestion boxes were located pretty frequently throughout the area. I asked my participants how often they are used and they told me that they’re very popular – they give employees opportunities to participate in decision making at work. As a result, they feel empowered and assume more ownership of their work. As well as this, there are even greater benefits to the organisation – often these suggestions increase revenue and create added value benefits for the customer, through optimisation of the products and services, as well as enhancing after-sales programmes.

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In business English classes we’re involved with a wide variety of people whose jobs involve some kind of optimisation responsibilities. This may be streamlining daily admin processes, trying to hold meetings as quickly and as effectively as possible. Maybe they’re trying to improve on-site security systems or switchboard duties. Perhaps you’re even teaching the ‘big bosses’ –those in charge of the whole organisation who ultimately want everything to operate as quickly but as effectively as possible. Making suggestions is therefore a communication act which we’re all involved with. This lesson asks learners to discuss how they make suggestions at work, introduces them to the language of making, accepting or rejecting suggestions and allows them to discuss a range of employee suggestions which aim to improve the way a company operates. Have fun using it!

First day back – a quick and easy lesson

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In 9 days (I’m not counting!) I’ll be heading off on my holidays and so I’m trying to forward plan now and get something together for the first week back.  I’ve been teaching a group of secretaries recently and they need to describe how national and international visitors can get to their organisation from the nearest airport, or from their own company, whether that be by car or by train.  After working with these ladies on the topic I realised that most people I teach at one time or another will need to give basic directions to their visitors, so I tried the same lesson with another group and they found it very useful.

There’s a wealth of language which stems from this kind of activity: imperative verb forms, discussing and comparing two or more options, making recommendations, all kinds of driving-related vocabulary and in the context of discussing directions in emails and telephones  we can start to draw on confirming, clarifying and summarising language – the list is pretty endless.

For that reason I’ve put a simple worksheet together which I’m sharing here.  This can be used with new groups after you’ve conducted a day one needs analysis, or it can be used on the first day back of an existing class to introduce other areas of language including those above.  It works well for levels A2/B1 (pre-intermediate) or above and takes about 60 minutes to work through.

To consolidate unknown vocabulary on this topic, or any other, you can try an ‘oldie but goodie’ task – half a crossword.  This link will bring you to a site where you can enter any terms and then they’re split over two crosswords.  The course participants work in pairs to define the terms on their sheet of paper, which are missing on their partner’s sheet and vice versa.  Great fun and a sound way to recycle new language.

Enjoy the holidays and have a good start back to work!

Talking ‘musts’ in business English

 

 

I spend a lot of my time talking to people about the tasks they have to complete in English and supporting them to carry out those tasks competently in English. I’ve recently started teaching in a number of large organisations based in very small towns and villages in Bavaria (Germany). Unlike many of their counterparts in bigger cities, these companies and their staff avoided language learning for a long time and employees struggled on with their ‘school’ English, trying to make themselves understood with the language skills which they’d acquired as teenagers – largely grammar-based – but hadn’t then practised for several years. Now that their employers have seen the light and have recognised that they need to brush up their language skills, we are in the position of negotiating what participants want to cover in their English course. When asked what they need they almost always respond ‘good grammar’. Of course as trainers we realise that a) it takes many years to get close to perfecting grammar and b) good grammar alone is not the key to carrying out one’s job competently in English. Inevitably we then go through the process of discussing what tasks they conduct in English, via what kind of communication channels and then we analyse what is missing in their communication, which would help them to be more effective. Inevitably this isn’t actually grammar but a knowledge of standard phrases which help them work more quickly, a recognition of the correct tone which helps them build better relationships, or the ability to spontaneously use suitable lexis which helps them have more professional conversations.

 

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Rules and obligations

Grammar can’t be ruled out completely though, and of course there are tasks which can be performed better with a sound knowledge of certain grammatical structures. Last week I worked with a group of German secretaries who need to give instructions to their business partners in the UK. Some collect offers from suppliers, others coordinate photographers who produce the annual company calendar, while a number of the students coordinate travel arrangements with their counterparts in other countries. All of them need to explain obligations, whether that be defining deadlines, listing the necessary paperwork to apply for a visa or politely explaining the steps in a departmental process. In case you’re also teaching learners who need to discuss work-related obligations and processes you can try out my lesson plan which you’ll find here. Have fun with it!

Back to basics – writing professional emails

I’ve been teaching English for 16 years, and there are very few courses I’ve taught which haven’t requested email writing practise – business or general English. Although most learners in the workplace who have some element of regular communication in English already write emails, most need reassurance that they’re doing a good job. I work in Germany and there are a few issues that arise time and again – Can I/ Should I really use small talk in emails? Are abbreviations and smileys unprofessional? How can I be more polite and diplomatic?

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Every company and individual we work with is different, with different objectives and corporate cultures. Based on the (possibly) hundreds of times I’ve taught email writing, here are a few pieces of general advice that I give my business English learners to address their most frequent concerns:

 

  1. Emails are usually less formal than letters, so it’s fine to say ‘Hi’ or ‘Good morning’ and to end emails with ‘Best/kind regards’ rather than ‘Yours sincerely’.
  2. It’s increasingly common to use first names in international business, so don’t be afraid to do so!
  3. Abbreviations are fine – writing ‘we’re’ or ‘you’d’ saves time and reflects the more informal nature of emails, but doesn’t sound less professional.
  4. Prepare the subject line carefully- after the sender name it’s what the recipient looks at first. If it’s not clear what you want then they might not prioritise your message.
  5. Avoid including unnecessary information – emails are written, read and replied to quickly and should be easy to understand.
  6. Look for action – make sure you clearly state what you expect the recipient to do as a result of getting your email.
  7. Small talk helps build relationships but it doesn’t need to be overly personal. ‘How are things?’ suffices as a way of beginning the email before getting down to business.
  8. Don’t use too much jargon – always consider what the recipient already knows and don’t use terminology which may sound good to you, but which may cause confusion to the reader.
  9. Always proofread your emails, and not just to ensure your grammar is perfect – much more important is the tone you’ve used!
  10. Know when to call – emailing allows you to use online proofreading tools, but ultimately you may save time and effort by picking up the phone.

 

You can find a lesson plan here for teaching the basics of email writing, beginning with a general discussion on email style. It is based on an in-tray exercise for learners to identify standard email phrases, and then practical tasks for them to use the email language presented. I use this as my ultimate ‘go to’ lesson in business English classes and it can easily be followed up by extra writing support for professionals using their own workplace emails. Have fun!

The perfect (company) Christmas

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Christmas is a pretty exhausting time in the business world, isn’t it?! Many of the course participants I teach are desperate for their holidays but at the same time they are still ploughing through mountains of work and struggling to meet rapidly approaching deadlines. For English trainers it’s a challenge to motivate learners so that they keep on attending and prioritise the last few weeks of English training.

This season is also a very interesting time to learn about individual organisations and their policies regarding Christmas festivities and practices. A number of companies where I teach in Germany forbid learners from accepting any kinds of presents, so apart from the odd mince pie, it’s basically impossible to give them any gifts. Where suppliers have gone against the ‘no present’ rule, gifts received are often put into a pot and raffled off or distributed at the staff Christmas party.

Most organisations in Germany pay their staff a bonus at Christmas, very often in the form of a thirteenth month’s salary. This is part of their contract when they begin their new job. Not bad, huh?! Another perk of working in a German organization at Christmas, especially a manufacturing company, is that there is very often a general company shut down where only a skeleton staff is employed over Christmas and New Year. This means that, for many of my clients this year, they’ll be enjoying a long and very well-deserved break from 19th December to 7 January.

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As in many cultures, this holiday period is a cause for celebration and most companies organize some kind of party for their staff. In contrast to my native UK, most companies in Germany discourage heavy drinking (!) and parties are often a fairly sober affair at a local restaurant or held on the company premises. That said, as many Christmas traditions originate in Germany – think trees, advents calendars, ‘Silent Night’ and mulled wine – company parties often centre round festive customs such as carol singing, eating traditional foods and of course reflecting on the year gone by.

My own classes are struggling to maintain motivation in the last couple of weeks, so I’ve written a light-hearted business English lesson, designed for my participants to discuss the best way to organise their next Christmas party at work. They’ll discuss the do’s and don’ts of organizing the event and will compete with each other to present proposals for the most creative and original party on a limited budget. If you’d like to use the lesson, you can find a copy here – feel free to try it out.

I hope that many of you will also be able to enjoy a relaxing Christmas period and wish you all the best for a good start to 2015! Happy holidays!

Dealing with change

So, I haven’t blogged for almost 6 months… I can’t believe it. Time flies when you’re having fun, but it unfortunately also flies when you’re dealing with upheaval. The last 6 months count among the most stressful times in my career. I’ve held a managerial position in a language and communication training organization for the last 5 years, and we recently lost a big customer. I say big – it was over half our business. It’s threatened jobs, caused an awful lot of lost sleep, and changed the entire way our company works. We had been restructuring the language programme for our customer according to their suggestions, but we hadn’t seen their decision to end the contract coming. At first we were shell-shocked and couldn’t think straight. Next came the bitterness and ill-feeling – how could they???   After that came acceptance – we can’t do anything to reverse their decision, so we’d better deal with it, quickly. And, now we’ve come to terms with the change and have come up with an action plan – we’re embracing the change and developing new and exciting concepts which are taking off slowly – but very steadily. Apparently these are typical reactions to change. According to research by Kubler-Ross, people demonstrate a fairly predictable set of emotions when changes take place, as you can see from the diagram below.

Change

Change needs to be understood and managed in such a way that people can cope with it effectively. Organisations need to ensure that their staff understand what changes are being made and why. They also need to involve them in the change process, giving them an opportunity to influence the change. Face-to-face communication and dealing with questions and concerns sensitively is essential. I’ve spent the last few months trying to support my colleagues in a number of ways:

  • Helping to communicate the reason for and implication of the changes to our trainers.
  • Assessing the impact of this change on our business and its structure.
  • Making sure trainers have help and support during times of uncertainty.
  • Assessing training needs driven by the change, and defining when and how this will be implemented.
  • Identifying success indicators for change, and making sure we regularly measure these.

And now, finally, my head’s just popped back above water… I’m still kicking my feet and I’m aware that the tide of change could pull us all back in again, but I’m quietly confident that we’ve dealt well with a sticky situation and things are on the up. I’ve prepared a lesson plan for anyone whose learners deal with change management – both reacting to change or actively implementing changes in the organisations where they work. It gets them talking about what change is and how it works, particularly in terms of how people react. You can find it here. If you find it useful, you can also try this lesson I wrote as a follow up, which guides learners on how to announce changes. As always feedback and comments are welcome, and if you’re subject to any changes at the moment, then I hope they’re all exciting ones!

8 fun ways to practise presentations!

Every day, people find themselves in the tricky situation of presenting to an audience.  Stakes are often high with not only the individual’s but also the organisation’s risk at stake.  Presentations serve a multitude of purposes: to instruct or persuade the audience, to relay (un)pleasant news, propose a course of action or perhaps help influence a major decision.  It’s therefore no surprise that pre-service learners of English are often required to complete presentation training classes in English.  I found myself teaching presentation skills on a logistics course at a university this semester where I had previously only taught academic writing.  Although I have plenty of experience in presentation training, working with people already in employment is very different to teaching the same skill to a group of 20-year-old university students!  I tried out a variety of activities with them aimed at exposing learners to a range of techniques and language strategies, as well as offering them enough variety to keep them motivated over 12 weeks of the semester.  Here’s a selection of ideas that might give you some inspiration if you’re teaching presentation skills soon.

Who am I?  Language focus: structure and signposting in basic presentations

Participants were given ten minutes to present something simple about themselves to the rest of the class.  This could be a short presentation of their job or studies, a skill or talent they have, something they’re interested in or something they’ve learned.  This was a nice, simple introduction to the course, as well as for both me and the participants to get to know each other.

Describing a process – language focus: stating presentation aims, sequencing and passives.

Lots of people need to describe how something works.  It could be a process, a machine, a system or a task.  I began by eliciting the right nouns and verbs involved, as well as sequencing language (firstly, then, finally).  The learners then researched a process and presented it in teams.  We had google glass, voice recognition software, the ageing process (!), studying at university and filling your car up with petrol.

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Poster presentations – language focus:  stress, intonation and making impact. 

This task allows learners to repeat a short presentation again and again, becoming increasingly confident and enthusiastic.  In pairs I asked my learners to invent a new product, and then create a poster illustrating what it is, how it works, and what the benefits are to the customer.  They were then given 5 minutes to sell their idea to another pair.  Learners circulated, alternately giving their presentations and listening to others, before voting on the winner.

The winner!

The winner!

Debates – gestures, body language and asking and responding to (tricky) questions

This was a simple topic to set up.  Groups were give a role, for or against, and were then given topics to debate with another team.  We had practiced how to deal with questions, first using Bob Dignen’s RACER model (respond, answer, clarify, encourage, and return), and then using contrasting language when questions were directed which challenged the group’s position (whereas I agree, although you have a point…)

Job interviews – language focus: giving and defending opinions, responding spontaneously to questions, avoiding hesitations

This task took place after a lesson on CV/resume writing.  Half the learners were appointed to conduct interviews (As), the other half we to be interviewed (Bs).  Everyone received a job description.  A’s prepared a series of questions for their interview candidates, B’s prepared how they could relate their work experience and qualities to meet the requirements of the job.  Each interviewer then met three candidates, before appointing one, who was put through to a second round of interviews.  Finally one class member was appointed the job!

Discussing the news – language focus: hypothesizing

Participants brainstormed the major stories being reported in the press at the time.  Each group was allocated one story.  The objective was for them to them present the story in more detail, including background to the event and a hypothesis of its potential consequences.  They concluded by suggesting who had been most affected by the news and how, as well as the possible consequences on the world of business.

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Presentations in pictures – communication focus: giving presentations without being dependent on text, minimizing hesitations

We practiced 5 minute presentations on a topic of their choice, but whereas they could use PowerPoint slides, they were only allowed to show pictures.  One very tricky element of presenting is the ability to speak freely, and text on PowerPoint slides often acts as a crutch.  This practice helped learners appreciate that they can speak freely and that pictures are enough of a support to get them through the presentation.

The language trip of a lifetime – language focus: convincing and persuading

Groups were asked to present a plan of where the whole group could go on a language course abroad.  We ruled out the normal favourites: UK, Ireland, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, as these would be too predictable.  They were given a number of factors to consider and then had to convince their class members that their plan was the most interesting, while also being the most productive way to spend the budget.  You can find my lesson plan on how we carried out this presentation project here – feel free to use it!

If you’re looking forward to a semester of academic presentation practice soon, or you’re just looking for a few ideas for lighthearted practice of this skill, you’re very welcome to try out any of these ideas. I’d love to hear how they go!

Negotiating meaning to avoid misunderstandings

Many of us teaching languages have also experienced being on the other side of the desk: learning them.  Over the years I’ve pretty much mastered German, I’m fairly fluent in Spanish, have a good working knowledge of French and I’ve even dipped into Russian and Japanese…  Of the many embarrassing experiences I’ve had in most of those languages almost all of them occurred when I made assumptions about language use rather than checking I really understood.  Literally translating ‘I am full’ from English, I managed to tell the French host family I stayed with at 14 that I was having a baby – you should have seen their faces!!  At 20 I told my new German housemates I wanted to go to a strip club or ‘Nachtklub’ rather than the nightclub/disco I’d been thinking of.  On countless occasions I’ve asked for directions two or three times and still failed to find my destination, and I can count on more than one hand the number of times a dish has arrived at restaurants which bore no resemblance to what I thought I had ordered.
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One major language strategy can’t be taught enough: the skill of negotiating meaning.  This is a process in which a listener asks for clarification and confirmation of a message, and a speaker follows up these requests, often using repetition, elaboration, or simplification of the original message.  All levels of language learners frequently fail to confirm and clarify their own use of language, as well as their understanding of an intended message.  Why’s it so important?  Well, the number of English speakers in the world is currently estimated at around 1.5 billion.  It is the language of international business and therefore considered the key to prosperity.  Multinationals such as Airbus, Siemens, Nokia and Renault have introduced English as the language of internal communications, but it’s also the language which Chinese business people are using to conduct business with Indians, Russians with Argentinians, and so on.  At a meeting of non-native speakers of English the room for misunderstanding is huge.  Where there are financial or strategic consequences at stake, those speakers need to ensure they can adequately negotiate meaning.    And in a more simple context which I came across recently, had one learner thought to confirm his own language use with his native speaker colleagues, rather than assume he was correct, he would now be carrying around business cards which announced he was the ‘Freight Manager’, and not the ‘Fright Manager’  – scary, isn’t it?!

In the business English classroom there are a number of ways in which we can practice this strategy.  Giving and receiving complex instructions between colleagues, information gap activities such as jigsaw readings and spot the difference exercises are excellent activities that give learners the opportunity to develop their communicative competence through negotiation of meaning as they share information.   I’ve prepared a lesson which you can download here, to draw learners’ attention to the importance of clarifying and confirming understanding, as well as providing them with an opportunity to practice language items which will help them negotiate meaning.  I hope it is useful – please drop me a line and give me your feedback!

The power of persuasion – influence in the classroom and beyond

At the beginning of this month I held a workshop at the BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group) conference in Prague.  If you’re not a member of IATEFL or BESIG then do consider it – they are great organisations that offer lots of professional development and support!  My workshop was about rapport-building skills, something which I’m fascinated by and a topic that I believe business people really need to master in order to work more effectively with colleagues and contacts.  Among other issues, we looked at the factors that persuade people to take action and how these are related to rapport.

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A good while ago I came across the work of Robert Cialdini, a psychologist who identified 6 factors which influence people.  These are based on undercover work he did, spending time in insurance companies, car dealerships and fundraising organisations, so that he could identify how persuasion worked in real life situations.  His theory is interesting for anyone who has great ideas or a great product or service and wants to convince other people to invest in it.  In my opinion this carries great weight not just for the businesspeople who we teach every day, but also for us as teachers.  We’re providing a service, whether it be as part of a school or university, or as a freelance trainer or coach.  Let’s look at how Cialdini’s influencing factors can improve our own success, as well as that of our learners:

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Factor one: Reciprocity – we’re more likely to do something for people who’ve done something for us.

For the teacher:  If we give someone a trial lesson they are more likely to sign up for a course.

For the learner: Our learners are more likely to support someone’s ideas more if that person lends them a hand at a busy time.

Factor two: Commitment – once someone says yes to something they’re pretty likely to follow through.

For the teacher: It’s likely that if we get a learner to agree to call and cancel the lesson officially if he can’t make it, that he actually will do so when that happens.

For the learner: An employee has a greater chance of getting support on a project from his team members if he has established interest in the project when it was first being developed.

Factor three – Social proof – people tend to look around them and are heavily influenced by what others are doing.

For the teacher: using learner testimonials will persuade new students to sign up for courses.

For the learner:  companies we teach in may use testimonials to sell their products or services.

Factor four – Authority – people follow the lead of recognized experts.

For the teacher: we can use our experience and qualifications to promote our services and gain respect.

For the learner: our learners can use their job titles, uniforms and even accessories such as their car or equipment to demonstrate their expertise.

Factor five – Scarcity – the less of something there is, the more we want it.

For the teacher: if we can develop niche training skills we can make ourselves more in demand and charge higher prices.

For the learner:  people working in sales may offer customers a specific product for a limited time only, creating an emotional reaction which encourages the customer to buy.

Factor six – Liking – people tend to say ‘yes’ more often to people they know and like.

For the teacher: if we build rapport with our learners they’ll come back for more classes.

For the learner: if our business English learners build rapport with their customers they may be able to make repeat sales more easily.

It’s clear that embracing these ideas can go a long way to both building rapport and establishing credibility in business, whether that be English teaching or in any other industry.  I’ve developed a lesson based on persuasion skills which you’re welcome to try out with your learners.  It’s based on business English but is easily transferable to other types of classes.  I originally developed it to teach a group of pre-service university students who needed to learn presentation skills and use their voice and body language to present more convincingly.  I found it to be great fun – if you try it out I’d love to hear how it worked for you.

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Reopening the case for learning styles

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Recently I gave a workshop at the ESP Conference in Ulm on a topic which I regretted having put forward from the moment I clicked ‘send’ … Learning styles in ESP and technical English.  So why did I do it?  Well, I’ve read the bumph which sings the praises of learning styles, and I’ve read the scathing research which says they don’t exist – but my own personal jury is out.

We’ve all had good and bad learning experiences, haven’t we?  And what contributed to them?  If you ask yourself this question, probably what springs to mind is the kind of activities you received, the way the teacher spoke to you, the environment in which you learned and how motivating the class was.  So seemingly we have preferences which we feel dictate how we learn.  There are tonnes of models on learning styles – the University of Newcastle alone researched 71 different models!  The most famous ones though are those of David Kolb, the Felder Silverman model and Neil Fleming’s VARK model.  Felder Silverman created their model based on engineering education, and were able to demonstrate that learners had very individual leaning preferences, which teachers of engineering sciences should accommodate in order to maximize learning.  However all the models boil down to one thing – we think in different ways, we work in different ways, and we’re all very different to each other.

The question is, can we prove if we really do learn better if our teacher focusses on our preferred learning style?  Apparently not!  According to research, learning styles simply don’t exist.  There’s absolutely no categorical evidence which proves that, if a teacher adapts his or her learning style to that of the class member, that they’ll get any better results.   In fact, as a teaching tool, don’t learning styles actually encourage us to pigeon-hole our learners?  We categorize them to belonging to a specific, inflexible group and then we target the class’s strengths and ignore their weaknesses.  Learning styles therefore encourage exclusion rather than being a useful tool to get the best out of our students.

So, why on earth did I submit that proposal?  Well, because I think this whole learning styles debate gives us food for thought.  What about if we give our learners tasks in class which specifically do not target their preferences, or perceived preferences?  I see that as a pretty useful tool for encouraging out-of-the-box thinking.  My technical learners are usually fairly confident of their skills, and are therefore often more goal focused than relationship focused.  I believe that if we target a broad spectrum of learning styles, and use techniques and exercises aimed at a wide variety of preferences, we’ll be challenging our participants more and they’ll leave the classroom better equipped to take on tasks which they have to do in the real world.

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Furthermore, let’s consider course evaluation.  How can it be that when we teach certain groups there’s such a variety of grades given when we hand out the feedback forms?  In my opinion satisfaction is extrinsically linked to motivation and if someone feels they were neglected, no tasks really engaged them, and they just didn’t get it, could that be because we didn’t consider teaching them in a style they felt more at ease with?

And finally, as teachers I believe strongly that we should be engaging in experimental practice.  We love teaching, and many of us are in it for the long haul, so surely pushing our own limits and giving ourselves challenges is par for the course – it’s just sound pedagogy!

So I’m embracing all learning styles and trying to create activities which I think my business, technical and ESP learners will all find interesting.  I’ve uploaded a lesson plan here based on the Dragons’ Den show.  It’ll appeal to visual learners who like to see diagrams and pictures, auditory learners who’ll listen to their colleagues describing products, readers and writers who can create a formal proposal for investors and the kinaesthetic people will have the chance to stand up and demonstrate how their product works.  I hope that by pushing my own boundaries in the classroom and trying to develop exercises that target all kinds of learners I’ll provide more motivating lessons and improve my teaching techniques.