Speaking English to an audience of non-native speakers is tricky. Because English is so widely spoken around the world, many native English speakers tend to forget just how complicated English can be for others.
The difference the United Nations and the National Hockey League
For 17 years, I worked in the United Nations system. I began at the UN itself, then went to the International Organization for Migration and finally to the World Health Organization. I was based in Geneva, but traveled extensively, particularly throughout the Middle East.
Once I went on mission—UN language for a business trip—to Boston with Thierry, a friend and colleague from France. He and I spoke French to each other but in office meetings, the working language was English. Thierry’s English was excellent as he had spent some time studying in the United States. In Boston, we had several meetings, always in English.
One evening, Thierry and I headed into town. The Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League were playing the Ottawa Senators that night. Being Canadian, hockey is in my blood so I was excited by the prospect of seeing a live NHL game and introducing Thierry to the sport. We settled into our seats and had a great time, particularly chatting with the Bostonians who were seated around us.
After the game, we headed to a bar for a drink. As we walked, Thierry said to me, in French, “John, I have to tell you something and it’s very strange. When we’re in Geneva and working in English, you are clear and easy to understand. Tonight, I couldn’t understand half of what you said when you were speaking to the people beside us.”
I was puzzled for a moment, but then realized what he meant. Because I was back in North America and speaking English with other North Americans, I spoke faster than I did when at work in Geneva. I also used a lot of slang and colloquialisms that would confuse non-native speakers. In short, I was speaking a different English.
After 20+ years living in Switzerland, I have learned to modify my English when speaking to an audience of non-native speakers. This does not mean that I “dumb down” my speech because that would be an insult to people who are as intelligent, or more intelligent, than me. It means that I avoid jargon and complicated words. I speak more slowly than normal and pause more often so that people can follow.
Native English speakers are confusing everyone else
In an excellent article entitled, “How native English speakers can stop confusing everyone else”, Financial Times columnist Michael Skapinker examines the seriousness of the problem. He writes that it is widely recognized that many non-native English speakers don’t understand what native English speakers are saying. Furthermore, Brits, Americans, Australians, Canadians and others who have spoken English all their lives “are largely oblivious to the incomprehension they leave behind at conferences, business meetings and on conference calls”.
I am not surprised. While at the UN, I frequently moderated conference calls and face-to-face meetings between native English speakers and native Arabic speakers. All involved were thoughtful, intelligent professionals with impressive educational and work credentials. But the language of communication was English.
Many times I had to provide English-to-English interpretation because I knew that the native Arabic speakers did not understand an expression used by the native English speakers. Even when I stressed the importance of avoiding confusing English to the native speakers before a call or meeting, they would often forget and lapse into colloquialisms.
In his article, Skapinker cites a 2015 survey of a Nato working group that found that “native speakers of English are not always good at adjusting their English to the manner and level that is used”. This is a problem, not just for audiences but also for speakers who think that their message is getting through when the opposite is true.
1. Speak slower than you would with native speakers.
2. Avoid idiomatic language. This is language where the meaning is different from the literal meaning of the words used. For example: “hold your horses” (be patient); “piece of cake” (very easy); “loose cannon” (unpredictable).
3. Be careful with phrasal verbs, which are verbs that are combined with prepositions or other words. Different words result in completely different meanings. English has thousands of phrasal verbs.
Take the word “run” which means to move quickly. If you add different prepositions, you get different meanings: “run down” (in bad condition; exhausted); “run into” (to collide with something; to unexpectedly meet someone; to unexpectedly encounter a situation); “run through” (to stab someone through their body; to rehearse).
Another example is the verb “to break”. I hate to break it to you, but if you break into your girlfriend’s apartment, she might think that society is starting to break down and she will probably break up with you.
4. Avoid colloquialisms. For example, don’t say, “we need to up our game”; instead, say “we need to improve”.
5. Be careful with overly polite language. For example, don’t say, “To be honest, we were a little upset with the 1st quarter results”; instead, say “The 1st quarter results were disappointing” or “We were disappointed by the 1st quarter results”.
6. Don’t fill your slides with words. “Native speakers find them hard enough to read; second language speakers find them even harder. But do put numbers on slides, they say. Numbers can be hard to understand in your second language and seeing the figures on a slide makes it easier.”
Ultimately, it is about respecting your audience. When speaking in English to non-native speakers, you have to adjust your English.
For more advice on the use of the English, particularly written English, see this post that examines George Orwell’s classic essay, Politics and the English Language.
Slide presentations are a staple of the business world. Every day, there are millions of PowerPoint, Keynote other slide presentations around the world. By some counts, the figure is 30 million each day!
If you are going to use to a slide presentation, use a remote to advance your slides. I discuss the reasons why, and offer six tips for handling the remote, in this post.
My current remote is the Logitech Spotlight. It is excellent. Here is my full review of the device, including the pros and the cons. One of the pros is that it has a built-in battery. You charge it by plugging it into your computer. When fully charged, the Spotlight should be good for at least three months under normal use. Not having to use batteries means one less thing to worry about and it is better for the environment.
Still, I recognize that when it comes to remotes, there are good alternatives to the Spotlight and most, if not all, run on standard AAA batteries. That means there is always a risk that the batteries will run out of power during the presentation.
Here are five simple, but often overlooked, tips to avoid having your batteries run dry or, failing that, to allow you to react quickly if they do.
1. Never leave the batteries in the remote when not using it. Even if you turn the remote off, the batteries will still drain. Instead, remove them and keep them in the same case where you keep the remote.
2. Always have a fresh set of batteries as a back-up.
3. Leave the fresh set in an easily accessible location so that you can get them quickly, if necessary.
4. Know how to replace the batteries smoothly and correctly. You want to minimize the time spent doing this.
5. Stay calm while changing the batteries. Put the dead batteries in your pocket or somewhere out of sight. If you are comfortable, you can continue speaking to the audience; for example, by making light of the situation. If, by some chance, there is a way to relate your problem to what you are speaking about, even better.
If, after replacing the batteries, the remote still does not work, don’t make a big deal out of it. Just advance the slides by using the arrow keys on your keyboard. Not ideal, but you have to do what you have to do.
Richard Wagamese (1955 – 2017) Canadian Author and Journalist
“There is such a powerful eloquence in silence. True genius is knowing when to say nothing, to allow the experience, the moment itself, to carry the message, to say what needs to be said. Words are less important, less effective than feeling.”
As the clock winds down on 2019 and we enter a new year and a new decade, I wanted to share six posts from the past to inspire your speaking in 2020.
If you think that your speeches and presentations can’t have a major impact, think again. That’s what the ripple effect is all about.
Public speaking is a scary proposition for many people, but there are some speaking situations that make us more nervous than others. The public speaking fear grid examines those situations based on two variables: the size of the audience; and how well the speaker knows the audience members. The post then offers two dozen ideas for how to address those situations that make you the most nervous.
A public speaking lesson in a pot of clay is a simple story about a pottery class that contains an important truth on how to become a better speaker.
Finally, here are three posts from three previous New Year’s Eves: 2011, 2014 and 2018. Combined, they contain 70 ideas for your public speaking. Those ideas are just as valid for 2020 as they were in the past.
Questions from the audience. They are an important part of any presentation because they give members of the audience a chance to let the speaker know what is on their mind.
Sometimes, however, audience members might be reluctant to ask a question — after all, it requires them to speak in public — so I always recommend that speakers have a question “in their pocket” that they can ask themselves. For example, “While you’re thinking, one question that I often get is …”. That usually starts the ball rolling.
Today, while reading an interesting article entitled 52 things I learned in 2019, I discovered another tip (No. 52 on the list) to soliciting questions from the audience. It comes from Dr. Jacqueline Antonovich, an Assistant Professor at Muhlenberg College, specializing in history of medicine, gender and politics in the American West.
Her advice is not to ask your audience the standard, “Any questions?” — which leaves open the possibility that they might not have any — but instead to ask, “What questions do you have for me?”. The latter question assumes that there are questions.
According to Dr. Antonovich, the results from this simple shift in phrasing have been dramatic. I intend to try this out during my speaking engagements in 2020 and will let you know the results. And should you try this technique, I’d be interested in hearing about your experience. Just leave a comment below.
If you click on the image of the tweet above, you will be taken to the discussion thread. There you can read some other interesting shifts in phrasing, in different contexts, that have made a difference to people.
I finally got around to watching the film Bohemian Rhapsody. I was not disappointed.
Queen is one of my all-time favourite bands and the driving force behind Queen was the inimitable Freddie Mercury. It’s hard to believe that it has been 28 years since his far-too-early death on 24 November 1991. The movie is a fitting tribute to the iconic rockstar and the ups and downs he endured throughout his meteoric career.
I was hooked from the opening with a young Farrokh Bulsara – Mercury’s original name – as an unhappy baggage handler at Heathrow Airport to the final, triumphant appearance at Live Aid in 1985. But one scene in particular caught my attention.
It’s the scene in which Mercury first meets Jim Hutton, the man who would become Mercury’s long-term partner right up until the moment he died. It takes place in the early morning hours after one of Mercury’s self-loathing, hedonistic parties. Here it is:
“I like you.”
“I like you too, Freddie. Come and find me when you decide you like yourself.”
That simple, two-line exchange contains a profound lesson. How can we expect to engage with others in a meaningful way if we don’t like ourselves?
In my work with companies, organizations and individuals, I hear comments like the following all the time:
I’m a bad speaker.
I don’t have anything interesting to say.
My voice doesn’t sound good.
People won’t like me.
The list goes on but you get the idea. Perhaps you’ve even said some of the things above. The problem is that statements such as these have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.
If you want to be an effective speaker, you have to get over yourself; you have to like yourself. None of us will ever be perfect. We will always make mistakes. And while we can definitely become better speakers through practice, some things will never change. And that’s OK.
Once we move past ourselves and focus on the audience and our message, then we can truly make a giant leap forward in our speaking.