Our Thinking

Speaking of Language

I once worked for a brilliant leader… whose mother tongue wasn’t English. To my horror, I discovered that he didn’t always understand every word that I spoke or wrote. With increased diversity and a more global business environment, expect this to happen more and more frequently.

The challenge selling a concept to a non-fluent person is that if they do not fully understand you, they will not buy your ideas. And if they don’t buy your ideas, they won’t buy you: a critical issue if you are looking to sell yourself into a promotion, a special project, or a new job.

The problem is compounded by the fear of embarrassment; very few people in positions of authority are keen to admit a lack of understanding. They reason that this could be interpreted (by you) as a lack of intellect or a lack of business acumen.

So how do you make sure that your message is heard – and understood? Keep these points in mind:

  • Understanding is in the mind of the recipient, not the speaker.
  • Use simple grammar. (I could have said “Simplify the grammatical constructs used”.)
  • Use shorter words when possible.
  • Use contextual clues to reinforce meaning.
  • Avoid using idioms and unclear expressions.
  • Give examples for key points, and explain concepts a second time using different word choices.
  • Follow-up a conversation with a memo. (They can discretely look up unfamiliar words.)
  • Don’t speak louder to them. They hear your words quite well – they may just not understand them.
  • Speak at a measured, “average” pace. If you speak too slowly, you will seem patronizing.
  • Don’t mistake your cultural clues for theirs. For example, nodding or saying yes may only indicate that your words were received – but the words may not be understood. And if this is the case, saying yes has nothing to do with gaining agreement.
  • Don’t assume that because someone has an accent that they aren’t as fluent as you; they may be.

The value of simple communications is that your message will be better understood by everyone – whether their mother tongue is yours or not. This is true when speaking to your manager, your peers, or your subordinates. It is also true when speaking to suppliers, customers, and partners.

This week’s action item: Go through some of your writing: a proposal, an informal email, and perhaps your resume. Then make it more understandable by checking it against the list. Use the same guidelines for your next presentation or interview.

This post has been written by 108’s Senior Advisor and former CEO Randall Craig.