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.


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:


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.


Reopening the case for learning styles


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.


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.

Lessons in motivation – what do we really need?

Most of us are winding our ways back to the classroom now after a sunny summer.  I’ve prepared a lesson this week on motivation as it’s something I’m struggling to find at the moment!  For some of us the return to work will be exciting, for others there’ll be a sinking feeling as they put their holidays behind them and try and muster the motivation they need to get back into the swing of things.  However, motivation doesn’t come automatically.  For many of us we need a reason to do something, and if in doubt we ‘think of the money’.  But is that really the most important factor?  Of course not!

70 years ago Abraham Maslow published a paper called ‘ A theory of human motivation’.  Here he suggested that there are five levels of motivation which all humans need, and which come in a specific order.  Basic physiological needs (food, water etc), safety needs, social needs (e.g. love and friendship, self-esteem needs (recognition and respect) and finally self-fulfillment – do we feel satisfied with ourselves as a whole?  This model has been heavily discussed and debated for a number of years and is often a major theory covered on business courses.  What’s more, there are many discussions on how teachers should implement Maslow’s theory in the classroom, ensuring that we create optimum conditions for learners in order to help them achieve their potential.  But what about us teachers?  To what extent do our employers consider our motivation?  The TEFL market appears to have a never ending queue of young and enthusiastic people waiting to sign up to teach English, but to what extent do our employers consider our motivation needs?  I looked at Maslow’s pyramid of needs and have adapted it, reflecting on what I believe our motivators are when teaching English:


The question is, to what extent are we being motivated?  I’m lucky to say I work in a wonderful organisation where I receive support from great colleagues, am encouraged to partake in career development opportunities and my employer fulfils all my basic teaching requirements.  I wonder, however, how many of us can say that today.  In a relatively saturated market, to what extent are English language teaching organisations trying to motivate their staff?  Please take a moment to complete the poll below and share your experiences here:

As motivation is a key topic for us all today, I’ve prepared a lesson which you’re welcome to download and try out in your business English classes. It uses a video from Dan Pink who has written a bestseller on motivation in the work place as well as looking at Maslow’s theory and discussing how it applied to the workplace.  I hope it’s thought provoking and would love to hear what ideas and experiences your learners shared.  If you’re back to work this week have a good one, and keep focussed!

How dealing with conflict led me to success

A while back I was teaching a group of sales executives who had recently attended a training seminar with a clinical psychologist.   The theme was conflict management and my participants were so motivated by what they had learned that they spent an entire session trying to explain different strategies and the rationale behind why they were effective.  Conflict occurs when two or more people oppose one another because their needs, wants, goals, or values are different.  Frequently it causes an emotional response, triggering fear, anxiety, anger and frustration.  To some extent, conflict in the workplace is inevitable, but it can quickly be diffused with the right techniques.  If a suitable approach is used then the situation can be quickly resolved and all parties can move forward.  If conflict is mishandled then chaos is likely to erupt!  So what kind of conflict are we talking about?  Lack of resources, a breakdown in interpersonal relations, a clash of interests and cultural differences are but a few of the reasons why colleagues can find themselves in a dispute.

As my course participants are involved in projects at an international level, it seemed to make sense that we exploit their materials a little and work on how to practice the same techniques in English.  We worked through the seminar materials, translating language into English and discussing the ways in which culture affects language use.  For Germans, for example, saying sorry is an indication that one accepts responsibility for a situation.  For British people – like me – it’s often an automatic response, intended to appease the situation rather than to admit fault.  The psychologist who they had worked with is a specialist in brain research, which I found fascinating.  Seemingly she analyses brain patterns and behavior and uses this information to support companies wishing to improve the interpersonal skills of their staff.  She believes that by following certain behavioral patterns we can positively influence those around us, even in situations of stress and conflict.

A couple of weeks after working on this topic, I noticed that BESIG (the Business English special interest group of IATEFL) was running a lesson plan competition in conjunction with Cambridge University Press.  I had just read Tsedal Neeley’s article on the domination of English as the worldwide corporate language and had pondered the topic with my learners working in international organizations. I decided to get in touch with Doris Gunsch who had worked with my own learners and ask her if she’d allow me to interview her as part of the lesson.  She did indeed and came up with some fascinating advice and explanations on how to deal with conflict, especially when presenting controversial strategic decisions in the workplace.  After numerous drafts I entered the lesson and won!  You can download and use my lesson plan via the Cambridge website here – I’d love to hear how you found it so feel free to drop me a line.

What did I learn from this experience?  Well we often talk about using the learner as a resource, and it’s clear that also activities with no connection at all to English can stimulate discussion, language use and linguistic development.  Furthermore ‘experts’ are more accessible than we think, and are often willing to share their knowledge (occasionally in return for a little name dropping!).  This can create challenging content and motivating lessons.  Finally I’m hoping to take part in some one-to-one training with Ms. Gunsch as I was so intrigued by the work she does.  This means my learners have influenced my own professional development, rather than it just being the other way round.

If you have had any similar experiences or want to share your thoughts then get in touch!

Come on – convince me! How to structure a professional argument.

I recently taught a group of very challenging learners – scientists from a research organization who are experts in renewable energy sources.  They are all highly intelligent individuals – rather intimidatingly so- and I had a great challenge in designing tasks which would meet their needs.  The reason?  They all play completely different roles in the organization and there is no direct overlap in the tasks they performed.  After conducting a needs analysis with them – which required an extra amount of prodding and probing in order to draw out ideas of how we could structure their training, I was able to identify a number of language strategies which they all need in their roles.


One very interesting point which they all raised was that they wanted to use more complex structures and speak in much more complex sentences.  At B2 level I took this to mean that they wanted to use longer sentences with more complicated, vocabulary.  To me as a trainer, this may be what they think they want, but it is often quite the opposite of what learners need.  When conversing with native and non-native speakers it’s essential that learners of English are able to negotiate meaning in order to make sure they are mutually comprehensible.  When using overly complicated language the chances of them doing this diminish rapidly.


When I asked them to explain why they wanted to speak in a more complex way they went on to articulate that it was more about understanding and using complex structures in certain situations.  They all have to attend meetings and take part in negotiations and discussions regarding funding of projects.  It’s essential that they put forward a structured, convincing argument for why they should be awarded funding, and they felt they weren’t able to do this effectively.  Making a convincing argument requires that you get all the facts straight and present them in a straightforward manner.  Argumentation is a skill, so proficiency in it can only come after preparation and practice.

Here’s my take on how to prepare a convincing argument, whether it be part of a meeting, a negotiation, making sales or when dealing with conflict situations.

  1. Do your homework – you can’t make a convincing argument unless you’ve found out the facts.
  2. Have a clear opinion and stick to it – if you waiver from one point to another you’ll convince no one.
  3. Support your opinion with examples and reasons – backing up your argument will make it stronger and more credible
  4. Don’t be afraid to refer to other opinions you disagree with, but make sure you can contrast them with your own.
  5. Reformulate and summarise so that the listener has a crystal clear picture of your argument and what it represents.
  6. Remain calm when presenting your argument – a professional and emotion-free view is more likely to be supported than one which is aggressive, overly assertive or emotionally charged.

Golden rock

A structured argument will set you apart from the rest and make sure you come across in a convincing, professional way.

If you have learners who also need practice in this skill, feel free to try out this lesson plan.  I’d love to hear how it went and how well your learners were able to construct their arguments after using this lesson – drop me a line and, of course, feel free to share with other teachers and trainers who might find it useful!

Small talk your way to a great negotiation

In our business English classrooms we’re used to teaching transactional language –the kind of language that our course participants need to use to get things done.  This might be emailing or telephoning, or it could be conducting interviews and giving appraisals.  What we often overlook, however, is the equally important relational language which learners need, the language which helps them ‘make friends and influence people’, if you like.

Small talk is a rapport building strategy which helps to develop trust, a willingness to cooperate and the sharing of information.  Surely an essential skill then?  I certainly think so.  Small talk plays a vital role in a wide number of communication tasks.  In negotiations, the development of rapport fosters the cooperative behaviour which is needed to achieve an efficient outcome.  This is even more effective if the negotiation partners communicate face to face, but emails and telephone calls which begin with small talk and rapport building are also more successful then communication where rapport isn’t established.


It seems to me that, at a time when the quantity of communication our learners participate in is increasing, and the number of channels of communication is constantly expanding, we need to ensure that our students of business English focus on both relationship-building strategies and not just getting things done.  One way is to integrate rapport building and small talk into a wider variety of the functional situations which we present in class.  I’ve put together a lesson plan on this topic.  It’s available here and aims to demonstrate how small talk is an important stage before a negotiation.  The participants can identify strategies for making and maintain small talk, before moving on smoothly to the negotiation.  They can then take part in a role play before creating their own simulation of a negotiation situation which they face frequently.

If you’re interested in learning more about small talk and rapport building in business, then join me for my BESIG weekend workshop online on 5th May (The business English special interest group of the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language).  I look forward to seeing you there!

Ten top lessons using mobile phones

Last week I had class with the CEO of a company who comes to me for weekly training.  We hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months and so I asked him to give me a run down on what had been happening since our last class.  He told me about his various trade fairs, business trips and customer visits, but with even more enthusiasm, he showed me his new mobile phone.  I asked him to explain the features of the phone to me and I was very amused by how delighted he is about it.  I’ve been reading a lot lately on how to use mobile devices in language teaching, but thought actually teaching via a mobile device, where access to information stored on the device is central to the lessons aims, would be a great idea.  So I’ve compiled a list of ten activities which you can teach, using a smartphone or tablet computer. 


  1. Use the calendar which is synced to the participants’ office calendar, in order to practice the language of making appointments.  Discuss who these appointments are with and what the purpose of each meeting will be. 
  2. Extend this idea to elicit language for making polite requests.  Brainstorm and simulate situations in which learners will need to make polite requests. 
  3. Discuss communication styles with business contacts – ask partners to look at their email and tell you who the last five people were with whom they exchanged emails.  Alternatively ask them to look in the phone list and explain who the last five people were who called them.  Ask them to recall what the conversation was about.  Practice past tenses, reporting verbs and contrasting direct and indirect language, where communication styles with the contacts vary greatly.
  4. Practice writing concisely and clearly.  Prepare a long email and ask participants to reduce it to a text message sized piece of writing.  Then ask them to text it to you, or each other.
  5. Before class, ask participants to take two photographs of anything they like.  When they get to class teach/review prepositions of place.  Then ask them to describe a photo to a partner who listens and draws what he can hear.  Teach phrases for confirming and clarifying (Did you say…?,  If I understood you correctly, you said…).  Ask them now to describe the second photos, using the phrases.
  6. Ask learners to present the apps which they have downloaded and describe why they are useful.  Ask them to discuss together if they could collectively only keep 4 apps from the group on each participant’s mobile phone, which apps would they want to keep and why.  Ask them to invent their own app – how would it help them and who would it be aimed at.  Discuss apps they have downloaded but then removed, and why.  Practise using the phrases ‘spend time do+ing and waste time do+ing to discuss their work, habits, and – if they are comfortable – their colleagues!
  7. Participants should download the Google maps app onto their phone before class.  Pre-teach or review the language for giving directions.  Then ask participants to use the Google maps to practice asking for and giving directions, by entering street names or places into their phone.  They can explain how to get there by foot or by car.
  8. Text a message to your participants using an exaggerated number of smileys and abbreviations, the more obscure the better.  Discuss with the participants how they view abbreviations and smileys.  Practice writing messages with different levels of formality.
  9. Pre-teach language for demonstrating how something works.  Ask participants to show you or their partners how to use a particular app.  Elicit sequencing language and then ask them to describe a more complicated process in their work.  Ask them to explain this to someone information over the phone – perhaps put another learner in another room and have them call each other, taking notes and checking back on what they have understood.
  10. Give the participants a 5 minute reading project.  Give each participant five minutes to find out about a particular topic – something from the business news, a prominent person in the business world, a new invention, a company making the headlines, and ask them to then present the topic to the rest of the class.  Ask them to choose 5 words each from their article, record them on the flip chart, and discuss the language as a group. 

I’ve put together a lesson plan which connects the first two ideas: discussing business appointments and reviewing the language of making requests.  If you’d like to give it a whirl, click here.  I tried this out with my one to one learner this week and we had great fun.  He was both prepared for a number of conversations he would be having in English that week AND he was able to get out his new mobile phone and show it off again!  I’d love to hear of you have any experiences of teaching using your learners’ mobile phones: what language did you teach and what kind of activities did you create?  Drop me a line and tell me all about it!

A paper-free lesson: the half way point in my 30 day teaching challenge

So, I’ve gone two weeks now without worksheets, and for the majority of the time it’s been pretty easy.  If you read my last post you’ll remember that it wasn’t for love of the dogme approach that I decided to spend 30 days teaching with nothing more than pictures.  I’ve felt for the last year or so that my teaching techniques have been getting a bit stale, and I thought that by setting myself a few challenges, I’d increase my own motivation, as well as identify new methods of teaching which my learners enjoy.


Last week I taught a relatively new group of business English learners.  Due to holidays and work commitments it was the first week when all group members were able to attend.  In order to find out more about them and what their job involved I played a variant on the ‘name 5 things’ game, where learners have to brainstorm  examples for a particular category.  In my version of the game they had to think of five examples for work-related categories:
  • Places which are/have been significant to your job
  • Pieces of ‘equipment’ which are important for your job
  • Dates/times with a special importance for your job, work or career
  • Special words/expressions used in your job on a daily basis
  • Skills which are needed in your job

I started out by writing an example from my job on the flipchart for each category, and getting them to ask me questions to elicit the significance of each item.

My examples were:

  1. Place – Dresden (my first teaching job in 2000)
  2. Piece of equipment – USB stick (it has all my teaching materials on it!)
  3. Dates and times – June 2008 (when I moved to Ulm to teach)
  4. Special words/expressions – attendance sheet (I need it to get paid 🙂 )
  5. Skills needed: creativity!

When they correctly guessed what the word or expression meant, I wrote the category on the flipchart too.  Once all five categories were up there, I gave everyone 5 minutes or so and asked them to brainstorm five responses to each category, based on their own areas of work or career.  Then in pairs they discussed  their answers.  As the participants in question were a little shy, I asked them to tell their partner three things about each response, and the partner should ask them at least once question.  That meant that at the end of the session, each person in the class had shared 75 pieces of information, and answered 25 questions, all without a single worksheet being handed out!  Not bad, huh?

Of course, this isn’t as tricky as communication skills training, but all the same it was an excellent activity for facilitating work-specific discussion and generating vocabulary directly related to the learners’ jobs.  If you’d like to try this lesson out you cand find a complete lesson plan here.  As always, your views, ideas, and feedback are welcome!

My 30 day teaching challenge

A year or so back I watched a hugely inspiring TED video by Matt Cutts.  He invited us to try something new for just 30 days, in doing so to shake up how we think, how we live and how we perceive things – a personal and highly motivating challenge.  He cycled to work for 30 days, wrote a novel in 30 days, gave up sugar for 30 days and took a photo a day for 30 days.   For any of you who haven’t seen it, the video is a great watch, and leads to all kinds of discussion on motivation, behavior, needs and challenges.

It’s so easy to fall into a routine, and become lethargic, complacent and unfocussed.   As teachers we’re expected to be the entertainers, the performers and the motivators who keep the learners coming and keep them learning.  I don’t know about you, but at this time of year when I look out of my window and see nothing but sleet and drizzle, I start to feel, well, let’s say not exactly my normal, inspired self.  My lesson ideas seem fewer and further between and the atmosphere in class seels a bit dull too.


So, this morning I thought – why not give Matt’s suggestion a go?  Perhaps I should give myself a 30 day teaching challenge?  It’s risky – I’ll have to be consistent.  I’ll have to try things out which might not go down well.  If that happens, will I be able to turn things around?  Will my learners be shocked or confused by what I’m doing and how will I deal with their reactions?  Well, I’ll never know if I don’t give it a try…

So my first 30 day challenge is this: can I teach each class for the next 30 day by using only pictures?  For the next 30 days  I’m not going to give out any worksheets to any of my classes.  No photocopies, no articles, no transcripts nothing.  No videos, no listening, no iphones.  That goes for the ESPers and the beginners too.  Will I manage it??

For next week I’ve prepared this lesson based on the business news this week.  I’ve got a framework of how to teach a class using only pictures – the type of activities I’m planning on carrying out and how I’ll set the class up.  In fact, I could possibly vary this tasks and use this as a framework for the whole 30 days… If you’d like to join me and give yourself the challenge to teach using only pictures, then feel free to download the complete lesson.  But remember – it’s for your eyes only – the learners just get the pictures!

As always, I’d love to hear your experiences – how do you challenge yourself?  Could you manage to rely on one single medium for 30 days?  Do you have any challenges for me to try out in my business English classes for 30 days?  I can’t promise I’ll take you up on it, but I’ll certainly ponder it for a while.  Have fun!