Business is hard enough without communication making opportunities even more difficult. If English is your native language, you may have some advantages but if it is not, you have to work harder. Meetings, presentations, and negotiations are key to your company’s sales growth and as good as your speaking is, there will be times when it is not good enough. Business English is a soft skill that native speakers need to learn and develop, so what makes you think you can do your best with an EFL diploma?
What is Business English?
Business English is a general agreement of the use of words and phrases within the context of commerce, trade, finance, and international relations. For example, ‘Engagement’ in a marriage context is when two people agree to be married but in marketing, it means the degree of attention and involvement you get from prospective buyers. In engineering, it can mean the contact of mechanical parts. In world politics, it can be a military conflict. In public relations, it can be a formal arrangement to meet. Business English is the Lingua Franca or shared language of those who aim to achieve some negotiation or transaction and as it is often used by non-native speakers, it can deviate from strict grammar rules. A proficient user will have the adaptability to either impose their use on the other party or comply with the other party’s use of the language.
Hiring New Staff
When you employ a new staff member who will have contact with overseas clients, how do you assess their skills? You will check their qualifications and work experience. How do you verify their skills? You will often see their formal qualifications and diplomas but Cambridge and Michigan ESOL diplomas are not a reliable indication of real-world communication skills. I have met many English diploma-holders who did not have the skills to promote their company well enough, these types of exams (Proficiency and FCE) were never intended to train people for business. Interviews are a stressful situation, much like professional meetings and negotiations and a perfect opportunity to assess your candidate’s ability to use their English in a commercial context. If you cannot do this yourself, bring somebody into the interview who can or bring in a professional. You will invest time and effort in taking them on and training them to your standards, you don’t want the added expense of losing business because their language skills are not strong enough or training them so that they are.
Sometimes the best candidate will be missing this skill and despite this lack, you will want to invest in them. Then you will need the skills of someone who is experienced in training them for that purpose and not a tutor who is focused on doing grammar exercises for exam grades.
You have made every effort to promote your brand, invested money in your business and then one of your employees responds to an email with English that looks like it was composed by google translate! This costs you money. There may be misunderstandings, there may be time wasted getting the message clear but it will make you look amateurish and tarnish your brand. I have experience of companies in the UK that laughed at faxes (showing my age now!) and emails from foreign service providers and needless to say, they were never top of our list when we needed such services. Don’t think this is unique to native-speaking companies, non-native speakers can be even bigger ‘Language snobs’.
Reaching Rapport with international partners when your interaction is mostly written is a challenge. It is important to be able to recognise register and tone and reciprocate appropriately. Misunderstandings in written correspondence are easily done and we cannot use emojis to clarify whether we are being ironic, joking or are genuinely displeased. Building written rapport is an important skill and once achieved you will be in a position to lead conversations and negotiations more effectively, getting the most from your partnership.
Negotiations are strategic discussions that aim to achieve a professional goal. They can be as simple as getting a colleague to bring you a coffee on their way to the office or the most pivotal points of a contract. Negotiation is the most critical skill in business, we are negotiating all the time whether we realise it or not. The preamble to negotiation is the best time to build rapport, learn about your opponents and formulate the best way to get to the YES that profits your company.
Some schools have debate teams and nurture these skills from a young age, but for most, it is something that must be learned. Many cultures encourage haggling over prices and this stands them in good stead for business. I remember as a child going with my dad to buy cars and commercial vehicles for his business. He would stand with his hand in his pocket as a clear sign that he was not ready to shake on a deal, sometimes his hand would slip out and I would watch his adversary’s hopes rise before it slipped back in. He taught me a lot about controlling the negotiation arena. I used them in debates in the Government and Politics module at college and I was surprised in adult life to find that even in the boardroom, many of his strategies were still effective. The language changed and I learned many approaches but I still imagine my hand in my pocket while negotiating. That said, handshaking etiquette in many cultures is quite different from how it is in the west.
Along with driving the dialogue to a favourable outcome, the most important part of negotiation is clarity. Achieving this can make the difference between a clean handshake and one that is haunted by many misunderstandings and friction after the agreement has been made. Clarity can only be achieved through incisive questions and repeating agreement points in a way that is clear to both parties, otherwise, you may find that each party has agreed to something different.
How you communicate with your colleagues, whether peers or subordinates is one of the premier soft skills that companies look for nowadays. Good management depends so much on how good you are at motivating your team while keeping them on track. If your company has a quick turnover of staff (less than 2 years) you may have a critical internal communication problem. HR specialists say that it can take up to 18 months for a new staff member to be truly productive, until that time they are an investment and if you are losing your investments too quickly, you are harming the potential of your company. Bad internal communication, cliques, and oppressive management styles all contribute to making staff disengaged from the company’s goals. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is clear that people need to feel valued and have opportunities for personal development before money. Now, you may be able to keep your office full with pay rises or difficult economic conditions in your country but don’t fool yourself! You will have an office filled with people working half-steam unless you can get them invested in their role. You can yell at your teenager to go to their room and sit with their books but they will only study if they understand the payoff. The way you talk to your colleagues or employees will determine how motivated they are to get productive. Bullying bosses may feel like they are the Alpha male but they don’t keep their best assets for long.
Public Promotion Events
Promoting your services or products may involve print marketing, social media, and trade exhibitions. I will cover those in another article but for now, I want to cover demonstrations, presentations, seminars, and pitching. Public Speaking skills. A representative of your company has the job of persuading an audience that what you know, can do or produce has value to them. I have seen the use of PowerPoint improve hugely over the last decade but it is still seen as a staple of all presentations, this is lazy. The presenter should have strong oratory skills without PowerPoint. It is important to research your audience and set a clear goal for your presentation and use the appropriate language to both communicate your message and drive them to recognise your value. Your speech should speak to the audience and not just reel off your brochure’s bullet points. In this situation, there are so many other languages being spoken and I would argue that words are among the least important. Tone, body language, animation, and facial expression communicate so much to the audience that they cannot be disregarded. You may think that standing behind a desk or podium is the best way to project authority you are still in the dark ages, do Elon Musk or Richard Branson use one? Or Alison Levine or Seth Godine or Gary Vaynerchuk? NO! Learn from the best. And as for PowerPoint, get your speech strong then see if visualisations could help make it better, not the other way round!
There is so much more to Business English than your school teacher, private language tutor or exam practice ever prepared you for. It could be what makes the difference between business success and business failure. It could be the difference between a productive team and one that just gets from 9 to 5. It could help build strong partnerships with other businesses. It could help you get the right person for the job and close the deal that will take you to the next level. We cannot look to borders but beyond, as Chris Voss says in his negotiation skills book ‘Never Split the Difference’ are you leaving money on the table?