Business English

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.


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!

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!

Understanding Communication Styles – gaining respect and building rapport

I’ve been teaching English for nearly 13 years now.  Although I think I’m a fairly easy-going person, approachable and friendly, I have had a few groups over the years who have been really difficult to get on with.  I remember once giving a technical English course at a printing company – I had been teaching for just over two years and was still relatively unperceptive to how different people communicate.  I found the participants terribly unfriendly, and interpreted their silent reaction to my questions and reluctance to participate in discussions as rude.  Imagine how surprised I was at the end of the course when they gave me flowers and told me what a great job I’d done!

As a more experienced trainer today, and – I hope – a better communicator, I recognize that different people communicate in different ways.  It’s clear to me that good communication influences opinions and makes listeners receptive to your ideas and suggestions.  In companies it plays a major role in work-related tasks such as meetings, phone calls, negotiating and teambuilding.  Ultimately, communication plays a very significant role in the smooth running of any business.  Good communication skills demand a high level of self-awareness. If we can understand our personal style of communicating, and how others perceive us, we can adapt our behaviour in order to make other people more comfortable.

Recently I was discussing new students with a colleague and she told me she had one lady in a class who was really frosty.  She didn’t have any time for small talk, she wanted to get straight to the point, and pretty much damned any opinions which she disagreed with or tasks she couldn’t relate to.   The atmosphere in the group was rather awkward, and my colleague didn’t know what to do with her.  I asked if the lady knew how her behavior was affecting the others, and unsurprisingly, she didn’t.  “It’s just how I am” was her response…

Last month I gave a workshop in Frankfurt in which we discussed communication styles.  This is basically a concept which looks at our personal preferences for the way we communicate information to other people, as well as the way we interpret the communication we hear.  There are lots of different models which allow people to identify their preferred communication style and to develop strategies for dealing with other people more effectively.  It appears, however, that it all boils down to two basic aspects.  Firstly, how receptive someone is – do they embrace opportunities to interact and share with others, or are they very reserved?  Secondly, how straightforward are they?  Do they take charge of a situation and steam in with ideas and suggestions, or are they very risk-averse and need to plan everything carefully?

I gave the workshop participants a questionnaire which we all completed, identifying our own personal communication style.  We then discussed how accurate we felt the results were.  A few people were skeptical, as their preferences came into more than one category.  This was also the case for me, but I believe it’s the result of years of dealing with different kinds of people, and needing to adapt my own style accordingly.  We discussed how we might use communication styles questionnaires with our classes, and brainstormed different approaches to teaching it.

I’m sure this kind of exercise will be of interest to any of you teaching business English, so I’ve taken some of the ideas we discussed and put together a complete lesson, which can be found here.  You’re free to download and use it, and it would be great to hear your feedback and to hear the experiences you have had with communication styles both inside and outside the classroom.  If you have any more suggestions on how to extend the lesson, and would like to share them here, then your input would be very welcome.  Have fun!

The Power of Social Commerce

I recently attended a talk in my local chamber of commerce on the power of social media in business.  I live in Germany, and believe that German companies have been a little slow to admit that social commerce is making dramatic changes in how companies operate.  Many of my learners have expressed mistrust of online financial transactions, many are sceptical about shopping online and few of the senior managers I teach seem to credit social commerce with having an impact on the way their customers develop brand loyalty.

On the way home I thought that this would make a great topic for an English class.  I prepared a lesson plan based on a fantastic infographic I found online.  It clearly and concisely explains the psychology behind shopping online and provokes an interesting discussion in business English classes.  You can access my lesson here  Drop me a line and let me know how it worked in your class.  If you’d like to suggest any activities to  extend the lesson, or just exchange views, then I’d be delighted to hear from you.