Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Revisiting the Communicative Event

Another post-Cologne article...

During the workshop, we talked some about customizing training.  But following the discussions within some of the groups, there seemed to be some uncertainty over communicative events.  In general, I thought this idea had spread so far through conferences and blog posts that most trainers understood.  Or maybe it is just so ingrained in my training that I can't see training without it.

Let's look quickly at customization.  We can customize a course/lesson at several levels.

A slide I didn't use in Cologne, but probably should have.
At the top level is the skill (e.g. write a report, lead a meeting).  I don't really see this as customization.  Sure, we can give the skills various priorities and/or remove a skill completely, but this is still course book territory.

Below that is a skill to perform a certain function.  For presentations, that might be to persuade, introduce, report, etc.  Most course books have taken lessons to this level and include different sections for different types of meetings.  This is nice but we're really counting on the fact that the course book author hit the nail on the head.

My default level of customization is on the specific event, which includes contextual information (but is still largely content neutral).  For example, writing emails to request information, making a telephone call to confirm arrangements, etc.

Finally, I will customize to what I call the 'ESP' level which includes content.  This is usually accompanied by more corpus analysis.

If you look through the levels, the assessment criteria change considerably from one level to the next.  Moving to each level requires that the participants have more uniform needs.  My general rule is to customize to the lowest level, and approach the next level outside of the group.  If the client isn't willing to pay for the next level, I stop.

Defining performance objectives

This has a huge impact on defining performance objectives.  If you are designing a course, only write the can-do statements to the appropriate level.  For large groups (hundreds of participants), I typically stop at the second level.  For groups which share a job function or field, I can often get to high frequency events.

The difference between a communicative event and an English situation

I am guilty of often using the terms 'situation' and 'event' interchangeably, but they are decidedly different.  A situation includes one or more communicative events.

For example, a presentation may include several communicative events.

Slide 1 - Inform management on status of a project
Slide 2 - Report on research
Slide 3 - Compare alternatives
Slide 4 - Propose a solution

This presentation may be accompanied by...
- defending an idea
- asking questions of speculation
- responding to factual questions
- eliciting opinions
- adding additional comments to presented information
- summarize an agreed decision
- delegate tasks

These generally look like a classical list of functions from a course book.  The contextual information makes them communicative events.  How many people are in the meeting and who are they?  How much time do you have?  What types of interference (or 'noise') are present?  These factors affect communication style, register, etc.

The same is also true for things like emails.  In well written emails, each paragraph performs a different function.  How you organize those paragraphs and the wording you use depends on the context.

As you can see, we are starting to enter the world of communication skills here.

Does a description of the situation give you the communicative events?

Yes and no.  I still use the needs analysis form I mentioned at BESIG Stuttgart (blog post), but it takes some further questioning and analysis to get to the communicative events.  I typically do this by asking a series of questions to describe the 'steps' of the situation.  I may draw a diagram of the situation on the board and ask about the participants, objectives, etc.

Back to sourcing materials... this is where getting a look at artifacts can be really helpful.  Without question, some background in business really helps in 'visualizing' a situation and dissecting it into its various communicative events.

I have found that there is considerable overlap among communicative events.  This is true among different fields, job descriptions and channel (email, telephone, meeting, etc.).  The interlocutors are generally the same (i.e. the learner communicates with a certain group) and the purpose of the communication is often similar.  For example, adding a comment to a pdf report written by a colleague is often identical to adding a verbal comment in a meeting.  However, if the report/presentation is by a manager or someone external to the company, the language changes.

Is there a list of communicative events?

Not yet.  If there were, it would probably look like a matrix.


We can assume that there are a definite number of functions.  We can also assume that there are definite number of contextual combinations.  Theoretically then, there is a relatively fixed number of communicative events.  It may then be possible to somehow create a database which takes contextual information and matches it with the purpose of communication to spit out the best possible language.

But that is all theory... in my next post we'll look at "Training for the Real World".

Sourcing Materials

This past weekend, I held a workshop with ELTA Rhine on customizing training and materials lights lessons.  During and after the session, it was clear that sourcing materials was an issue for trainers looking to focus on relevance.  Let's dive a little deeper into the topic of materials and examine what we need, why we need them and where we can find them.

Assumption 1 - There is a difference between "talking about business" and "talking to do business".

This is Evan Frendo's concise and clear statement about not only materials, but also about the tasks we ask our learners to accomplish.  It is great for the learners to 'teach us their business', but this falls into the first category and will not accomplish all the training needs.  We have to balance both types of activities.

The problem for trainers is that materials "about" business are much easier to find.  The internet is full of them.  Let's take a simple example.

You are training a group in production and one of your can-do statements is that they can explain the production process.  You decide to use a YouTube video about how Lego blocks are made, mine the video for key language and have the participants give talks describing their production process (maybe even on the shop floor).  It's likely that this is a useful skill, but it does not fully simulate a meeting to discuss changes to refine the production process.  We are a step short of achieving full relevance.  Wouldn't it be nice to have an example of the real meeting?

Assumption 2 - Getting the "real thing" is nearly impossible.

We can hypothesize all we want about recording real meetings and presentations.  The simple fact is that we will probably never get the approval to do it.  Non-disclosure agreements are key part of doing business, but they are only a baseline for trust.  There is still a 'need-to-know' level of integration.

The main reason why recording real meetings is a no-go is because the learners are not lab rats.  They are trying to do business in these situations.  Politics, reputations and personal relationships all come into play in meetings.  It is generally best if we don't ask to record them for 'research purposes'.

Assumption 3 - Real meetings are much different than the recorded models in the course book.

Meetings are messy affairs.  I'm convinced that meetings are the most difficult skill.  Topics appear out of blue, there is so much interference (semantic, cultural, pronunciation, technical, etc.) that its a wonder they work at all.  But for the trainer, the most difficult part is that meetings contain highly detailed information exchange.  For an outsider, it is very difficult to 'script' a meeting and practice it.

Additionally, meetings can be very boring.  There are many books and websites about effective meetings for good reason.  Employees are often justified for hating them.  Even if I did have a recording, I probably wouldn't play it because everyone would be asleep.  Most participants and chairpersons will acknowledge that their meetings could be better, but they probably can't say exactly how they should improve.

Example dialog with a participant:

Me:  How could the meeting be better?
Them:  Some people are giving too much information about their topic and it is not interesting for the group.
Me:  Okay, where is the line?  How much information is too much?
Them:  Well, they should only talk about what has an impact on the others.
Me:  I agree, let's try it... in your area, where is the 'information line'?  What level of information is valuable for the others (including the manager), and what is too much?
Them:  Hmm... good question.  That's difficult to say.

Okay, so what can we do?

1.  Gather artifacts.  Emails and PowerPoint slides are relatively easy to get.  One main constraint is the group setting.  If you have learners from different companies and/or departments, the materials cannot usually be used in class verbatim.  They typically need to be altered to conceal the information.  I will often use emails and slides to create my own 'similar' materials - using the same language, but with different content.  Even if you can't get them digitally, just looking at them is helpful.

I call them artifacts because like a researcher, these are any item which reveals something about communication.  Artifacts fall into two categories - communication itself, and evidence of communication.

Communication itself:
- Emails
- Presentations (the written communication)
- How-to's
- Forms (e.g. change request forms)
- Reports
- Handbooks
- Contracts and other formal documents

Evidence of communication:
- Meeting minutes and agendas
- Presentations (evidence of the verbal part)
- Descriptions of meeting (like for a communicative event needs analysis)
- Diagrams and charts
- Excel spreadsheets
- Workflows and flow charts

While these artifacts cannot always be used to re-enact the exact situation, they will often get you much closer.

2.  Research English in use.  I generally use several sources for this.

First, if you haven't read Almut Koester's books on workplace discourse, now is the time.  I also recommend Patrick Lencioni's Death by Meeting and Five Dysfunctions of a Team because they are narratives with great dialog from meetings.

Second, I have used transcripts from meetings to identify some key language.  If you enter "meeting transcripts" into Google, you will find many transcribed sessions from government meetings, hearings, presentations, etc.  I don't use them in class because they are horribly boring, but there are some great phrases.  The problem with these is that they are too organized.  Real meetings are generally more chaotic.  For emails, Evan Frendo has recommended the Enron corpus and it looks promising.  Sadly, I haven't had the chance to go through it.

Third, I use my own life.  I have meetings, write emails, make telephone calls, etc.  I have used my inbox several times in training as the basis for language work.  I collect phrases and vocabulary from meetings I have with other trainers, clients, etc (even if the meeting is in German).

A note about Listening: Collins English for Business by Ian Badger.  This book made quite a splash a few years ago for its recording of real people.  I use it and I like it.  Sadly, there are too few examples of dialog.

3.  Refine role-plays and simulations.  

It is a good idea to ask the participants how the rehearsed situation differs from the real thing.  Inevitably, they will give you a list of things you can't really change, such as accent.  However, they may also give you ideas for your next role-play.  For example, if I get the feedback that some people in the meeting speak too quickly with higher vocabulary, then I might participate in the next meeting and try to fulfill that role.

So, I admit that sourcing materials/resources for customized training is not easy.  But I guess that is the nature of the beast.  If sourcing materials were easy, it wouldn't be customized training, would it?

One final note - observing real meetings is really the best we can do.  I am lucky enough to have a project in which that is possible.  But I understand that this project is different.  It has strong management and participant support is limited to a specific team with in a department.  I have offered to observe meetings in other projects to no avail (after all, you have to get the buy-in from all the participants).  If you find the opportunity... take it.

Friday, August 8, 2014

ELTA Rhine Workshop - Solving Challenges

On Saturday, August 23rd, I will be leading a workshop with ELTA Rhine in Cologne to talk about some of the difficult aspects of teaching/training Business English.


When I completed my CELTA I was always uncomfortable with the idea that the method was hidden from the students.  I had the feeling that we should work as wizards behind the curtain, leading participants through a series of pedagogically sound activities.  Over the years, I have become more and more comfortable with transparency in the classroom.  I feel it helps me build a better relationship with the participants, provides space for feedback, gives them more control over their learning and may even help them become more autonomous learners outside the class.

The same is true for workshops like the ELTA Rhine event in a few weeks.  I want the event to reflect how I train and I want the participants be involved in developing the content.

So, with two weeks to go before the event, let me outline what is going on behind the scenes.

Step 1 - Gather Information

This step is currently under way.  I am using several resources.  Questions I have sought to answer:

What topics and speakers has ELTA Rhine covered in the past or will cover in the future?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Website

Unquestionably, the answer to this question makes me a bit nervous.  The list of speakers reads like a who's who list of ELT authors.  These are the people at conferences I am trying to introduce myself to with the hope that they might remember my name.  As for the topics, I see that the events have covered a wide range of topics but that there is room for discussion where the rubber meets the road of Business English.  There is also a mix between the novel and the classic.

Decision:  I don't want to cover areas which have already been discussed.  I also don't want to cover something which someone else can do better.

What does the audience look like?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator and Participant Survey

Everyone knows that the key step in preparing a talk/workshop is to understand the audience.  To achieve relevance, we need to understand the audience's situation and expectations.  First, I spoke with the events coordinator to get an idea of attendees.  Are they mostly freelancers working in companies?  Do they work in schools or universities with prescribed curricula?

I decided to augment this information with a participant survey to get critical information about the audience.  The first question of the survey is designed to get 'demographic' information.  The second question is designed to gauge the emotional response to Business English.  The third question is set up as open response to get an idea of teaching styles and ideas for how they view Business English.

Decision:  I am speaking to an experienced group and we have much in common.  I will share the results of the survey in the workshop (they are anonymous).  A workshop in its true form (creating value/intellectual property) is the best fit because the collective knowledge is greater than mine alone.

What topics are most important to the participants?
Resource:  Participant Survey and Social Media Monitoring

A common pitfall is assuming that certain topics are important simply based on the audience profile.  For example, it may be tempting to think that if the audience is made up of freelancers then administration skills and tips are interesting.  Likewise, if the audience uses a coursebook, then maximizing published materials would be the best topic.  But when dealing with experts, they have probably already found the answers to these questions.  The same is true in my classes.  In a group of marketing people, talking about presentations for the 10,000th time is not really that helpful.

So, I wanted to do a mini 'needs analysis' to find out what topics are important to the audience.  What do they need/want?  For the survey, I created a ranking question for the participants to order which topics are most important.  The topics were a mix of topics I feel comfortable speaking about in front of experts and listening to social media/blogs.

Decision:  The results have been eye-opening for sure.  As of now, "Designing Customized Courses" is well in front, with "Leading Materials Light Lessons" in second place.  "Handling ESP Needs" and "Needs Analysis" are bringing up the rear.  This is not what I expected.  I'm very happy that I didn't choose a topic I wanted to talk about... I probably would have wasted everyone's time.  I won't divulge which topic it was. :)

What are the constraints?
Resource:  ELTA Rhine Events Coordinator

There are constraints in every situation.  In particular I am looking at audience size, time and training aids.  First, we have 2.5 hours to discuss content.  The workshop is 3 hours but I will have to factor in a break and socializing.  Second, it appears that the event will be fairly intimate (less than 50 attendees).  This means that going into more detail will be possible.  Third, I am thinking about whiteboards, technology, table set up, etc.  I am still thinking about how to augment the training aids to reach the goal.

Step 2 - Creating 'Prepared Flexibility'

Once I have the information, it is time to starting creating a framework for the event.  I wrote a blog post a while back that "I Only Have One Lesson Plan" and that still holds true (I delete or revise my blog to reflect changes.).  I want to find the right balance between control and chaos.

So first, I am outlining the goal of the workshop.  In this case, the goal is to create a product which collects and organizes the collective knowledge of me and the audience.  I am still not sure what form this product should take.  Perhaps it is a handbook (Word document), perhaps it is a slide deck... maybe a video.  I am not sure yet.  But my goal is to hand ELTA Rhine a prepared product to deliver value to their members, first and foremost to the participants.

To do this, I am working on several things.  First, I am dissecting the needs/wants to figure out what I want to say.  Can I break this down into "Three Steps" or "5 Tips"?  For example, if customizing courses remains the main focus, I analyze the process into several topics areas:
- Recognizing decision points in class (where are the opportunities to improvise and customize?)
- Performance-based training (relating to test-teach-test for skills)
- Identifying language gaps and skills gaps in participant performance
- Avoiding the "hard Business English" trap and driving our students away (e.g. writing reports) - The making them eat their broccoli problem.
- Assessing resources for customization, taking far away content and adapting it to a customized need

This step includes creating slides, thinking about vignettes and documenting activities from the past.

Another step is to plan for contingencies.  Because I am giving up control to the audience, I want to be prepared for unexpected events.  I will start with known issues.  Some people have dominant personalities.  They might wish to dominate the session or a group.  What will I say to that person?  Someone will ask a fundamental question which brings my entire approach into question.  How will I deal with that?  Perhaps a participant will contribute the "TED Tip".  This is the activity, tip or resource which everyone already knows.  What will I say to help them save face but also move the discussion further?  Finally, how will I handle external issues like dry markers, a hot room, late attendees, etc.?

Finally, which activities will support the goal, deliver my message and promote productive discussion during the workshop?  This is where is all comes together.  I will devise a list of workshop activities.  I will think about what materials I need to reach the goal.  For example, right now I am designing an "Activity Description Sheet" for participants to fill out as the discussion evolves.  The sheet will be a simple form which documents successful activities.  This form will help me create the final product.

Step 3 - Refine and Rehearse

A common mistake is to take the list of activities and create a final plan.  I will not sit down and prescribe which activities will go where.  I will keep the entire list in mind and select the most appropriate during the workshop.  However, I will create a framework within the constraints.

So far, I have divided the session into various time blocks. (Grammar note for teachers:  I originally wrote that sentence in the past simple, but I changed to the present perfect for British sensitivity.)  I have a general idea of how I will organize the participants.  I also have a pretty clear idea about how I will collect knowledge and transform it into useful information.  I am creating the slides to express my message.  I have a plan for topics which are not covered due to constraints.  I have a list of 'challenge questions' to push the audience.

Next, I will rehearse the workshop.  I will stand in my office and give the workshop... in real time (I will actually rehearse what I am doing during group work for the 3 hours).  I will rehearse the contingencies and I will make sure that the various possible activities are time neutral - meaning they can be replaced without affecting the constraint.  I will rehearse collecting ideas.  I will assess the rehearsal based on the audience profile and survey responses.  Additionally, I will focus on the instructions.  I will rehearse giving the instructions for each task.

This rehearsal will continue all the way up to the event... on the train to Cologne... in the taxi from the train station... in the few minutes before the event.  The goal of the rehearsal is to be completely comfortable with the chaos of giving up control.  Inevitably, the participants will surprise me... but hopefully I can rehearse 90% of the contingencies.

Yes, this is the same as my training.

Back to revealing the wizard behind the curtain... I have recently pulled it back even further in the context of socializing.  My participants often say they need small talk and socializing (I distinguish the two).  They are also amazed at how easy it is for me to conduct socializing and assume it is a native speaker thing.  I now deal with the fact that the language is not the constraint for socializing, it is cultural and personal.

I recently said to participants (in a group).

We have talked before that trust is built on competence and character.  We also know that building personal relationships is important for making communication work.  The same is true for us.  I want you to trust me and I think a personal relationship will make learning easier.

When I came here today, I thought about you.  I thought about your daughter because you said she was preparing for her A-Levels.  I thought about the small talk.  I said to myself, "I should ask about her daughter."  I thought of sentences to ask like "So, how did the A-Levels go?"

Joachim, you told me last time that you were planning your honeymoon.  I came prepared with questions about your honeymoon.

How did that feel for someone to remember what you told them and ask about it?

So, in the spirit of the workshop... how can you make this an activity?  Would you like to write a comment?

Planned flexibility... the method of the workshop and perhaps a few tips for trainers.  If you haven't registered and you'll be in the best city in Germany on August 23rd, please come.  I can't promise excellence, but I'll do my best.