If you work with executive managers who do a lot of meetings through conference calls, this was the talk to attend; not only was it lively, it was spot on in terms of how to help our business learners participate in meetings more effectively.
Barry invited us to brainstorm some problems our business learners have in conf calls. One particularly interesting cultural issue came up in the discussion—how to do small talk before a virtual meeting, how long should it last, and how to stop it. Rapport building is thus a problem for conf call meetings, as well as “native speaker insensitivity” or rather “unawareness” as Barry preferred. By this, we meant native speakers making little or no effort to make their language more understandable and also not taking cultural issues into consideration. Imagine Canadian workers trying to socialize about last weekend’s hockey match with a group of south Indian workers and you see what he meant.
Barry pointed out that of course, there are issues of confidence, hierarchy, and accent that get in the way of communication. In terms of comprehension, learners can often feel they lose 30-50% of the conversation and feel too intimidated to speak as much as they should or would like to. We as language trainers can help them with these problems.
Barry suggested building up systematic organization, showing learners how not to lose control, and how to intervene or interrupt. These problems are particularly present in the French context, but are in no way limited to French business people .
Barry’s plan for building confidence in conf calls includes:
A framework for conf calls and meetings
- Agree who will take the minutes
- Go through each item
- Summarize at the end
- Main conclusions
- AOB (this is a problem because foreign participants don’t know what acronyms mean or even what we mean by “business” in this context)
- Date of next meeting
Stock phrases to help learners manage turns
- Introductions: Have them say their name and what they do so people can start to get used to the accent.
- Thanks: Thank you all for connecting.
- Welcome: I’d like to welcome everybody here today
- Apologies: …won’t be here because…
- Minutes of the last meeting: “Did everyone get the minutes from the last meeting?
Another important cultural issue came up in the discussion. Americans tend to dominate meetings and many non-native speakers feel they can’t get a word in! But, by using the techniques above, learners can better keep control when with dealing with Americans. Not only will this lead to more balanced exchanges, but more confidence and higher self-esteem.
Remember, a trainee may have difficulties in L2 but in L1 they are used to making decisions, wielding power, and being the leader of the pack. Having to bow to a linguistically superior other can feel humiliating. Barry’s strategies for establishing and keeping control will help our business trainees match their L1 and L2 selves.
Barry suggested trainees take 4 steps to intervening in a meeting
- Get the agenda in advance to identify points of interest
- Tell the convenor in advance that they want to contribute on a certain point
- Make sure the convenor can see/identify you in the conf call
- Make your point firmly. Keep it clear, light, tight, polite. If they can express one idea per sentence in short sentences, they’ll be much more effective. Trainees must also make sure they’re not too serious, especially in meetings with Brits and Americans. Of course, politeness is something to be aware of as well.
This led to something that we should remind learners of when working on conf call etiquette: How to be concise. This means being:
- Short: One idea per sentence, no sentences over 25 words
- Sharp: To the point, no waffling
- Sweet: Say it nicely and say it politely
As teachers, we can elicit or teach one stock phrase per stage of the meeting then practice the meeting and the phrases. This way the participants have a library of simple stock phrases for each stage. They’ll come away with a framework and phrases for each part.
Barry reported that his learners take more than just English away from these lessons. Citing feedback from his learners, he mentioned increased confidence, savings of time, and ‘we should use this structure in our own country’-type remarks. You’re then teaching them not only language but meeting management techniques. This is a powerful motivator indeed.
To put this all together into a lesson, Barry suggested having trainees select the content of a meeting, decide on a framework then run the meeting while the trainer takes notes on the language to look at after the activity.
Again learner feedback suggested that this tactic gave them more confidence and a feeling of being much more effective in meetings. Learners came away feeling more confident and more effective. Some even reported that these were “effective tips I can use in French as well.”
To finish, we came back to the difficulty of building rapport in meetings where you can’t see the other participants. One must also be aware of the role of hierarchy in certain cultures. For example, light questions would be met with silence at the beginning of a conf call to India or China. It would be a good idea to find out who is the leader, address questions to the leader, and the leader designates someone on his team to answer. This notion would seem completely foreign to Western business culture.
An interesting suggestion was to save 10 minutes for participants to ask any questions they want—about family, weather, sports, whatever once the meeting is over. This does take some time to establish as a habit. At first, the meetings may just end very quickly, but after a few sessions, this often becomes a highly anticipated part of the meetings.
Also, we should not underestimate the importance of seeing participants in meetings. This means that all kickoff meetings should be done through video conferencing. We should suggest this to our clients. If a company does not have the means to do so, suggest that the participants exchange photos of each other. Simply being able to see the person you’re talking to, even in a photo, greatly changes the amount of rapport.
To finish, Barry also suggested that we can help deal with native speaker unawareness. In a very practical activity, he has native speakers read their business card, pausing after key information. This helps them to slow down and remember that their listeners may need that extra bit of processing time. If you can’t understand a person’s name, generally you avoid talking to them. So to build rapport, it pays to pronounce your name clearly, pausing afterwards.
You can follow Barry Tomalin at www.culture-training.com where you can also download the presentation slides. His book Key Business Skills is available from Collins.