Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Adding pragmatics to training: Example lesson

It's great that the field of pragmatics is getting so much attention in Business English at the moment.  I see the Chua Suan Chong gave a presentation on the topic at IATEFL Manchester. And over the last several years, I have been talking with Ed Pegg from The London School of English about the issue, especially as it pertains to the soft-skills aspects of his training.  We see it as an important aspect of the training and perhaps something which is either misunderstood or under-represented in training.

In fact, I am not completely clear about how to integrate the 'meaning derived from context' into my training.  I am not educated as a linguist and my knowledge in pragmatics is less than expert to say the least.  Luckily, I have access to the Journal of Pragmatics, but my general thinking comes from Steven Pinker.

But I decided to give it a try with a controlled scenario and topic... namely giving tasks to others and politeness.  This is a good situation because the situation is easily identifiable and there are normally only two people involved.  Second, forms of politeness are probably the simplest form of altering language to fit the relationship and situation; it can done at sentence level.

The lesson

Participants:  2-6
Time:  60 minutes
Level:  B1 and above
Training aids:  whiteboard/flipchart

Training objectives:
- be able to give clear tasks and instructions which include task, method and outcome
- be able to encode the imperative based on the relationship/desired relationship with the audience
- understand how language conveys both content and interpersonal information

Method: presentation with open questions/discussion, modelling and practice

Step 1 - The structure of giving tasks

Note: This structure is based on the military standard of task, condition, standard for giving tasks/orders.

With 60 minute lessons, we don't have a bunch of time for all that schema activation rigmarole so I tell them that we are going to look at the language for giving tasks.

I write the three steps on the board with space in between:
1.  Clear task statement
2.  Method (tools, resources, etch.)
3.  Outcome (expected result, timeline)

We talked about the consequences for productivity if one of these items is missing.  We all shared examples where one element was missing and how it could cause confusion or some mismatch between the expected outcome and the actual result.

My example: I work embedded in a team and we have worked out a standard method for giving component status updates during their weekly engineering steering meeting with the full development team.  One week, a peripheral member of the team was asked to give an update on his component.  It was a very nice presentation but it did not fit the group norm.  The standard is 1-2 slides, both of which have agreed upon templates, content and style.  The update should take 5-7 minutes with questions and discussions taking 5-10 minutes longer.  His presentation was well done but didn't follow the template, went into too much detail and took over 20 minutes.  He not only wasted the time of others but also his own by preparing such a long slide deck.  He had been given the task, but not the method (the template) or the outcome (the group expectation).  This caused a slightly embarrassing moment as the manager had to remind him at the end of the presentation to watch the video I created with guidance and ask the others for advice on how we do things.

This is the communication skills section of the lesson.  But as a BE Trainer, my job is also to take it to the next step and break this down to sentence level.

Step 2 - Task and method verbs

The next step is to fill the steps with language.  I focus on the verbs.  I explain that some verbs make good task statements and others don't.  We should use verbs with a clear outcome like present, report, test, make, create, design, etc.  We should not confuse them with method verbs like consider, talk to, contact, think about, discuss, use, compare, etc. which do not have a clear outcome.

This learning point often generates a little discussion because it is common practice in the company for managers to confuse the two, especially the word discuss.  Then they often wonder why there is no tangible outcome.

To close this section, I write a few example task and method sentences on the board for demonstration (in imperative form).

They practice this by giving me/their partner tasks from their work.

Step 3 - The communication model

With these established, I draw a simple sender-receiver model on the board.  I use light bulbs and binary to represent message and encoding/decoding.  I explain that in the best case the receiver's light bulb is the same size and color as the sender's light bulb.  To do that we encode the message, which we have just done by giving it structure and words.

But then I change marker colors and explain that we also encode messages to deal with the relationship with person.  This can be independent of the content.  I draw a second set of binary (encoding/decoding) to show this second layer of communication.

In some groups the discussion moves into eliciting feedback or getting a backbrief from the receiver to ensure the meaning has been transferred accurately.  This is a common question/problem, but it is only a secondary aim of this training session.

Step 4 - Changing politeness

Using the relationship color, we add phrases and formulations to change the imperative task and method sentences.  I add them on a continuum from most polite to more direct.  The usual suspects arrive on the board like "Would you please..." and "We would like you to...".

The board then looks like this:

This is when things get interesting because as we increase in politeness, the formulations move from command form into either requests or suggestions.  It starts the longest part of the lesson as we discuss and debate situations in which to use these different formulations, how they can change even with the same person, etc.

One issue we discussed at length was whether the receiver would understand the request and suggestion forms as an order, or merely an option.  In other words, would they work?  Of course the answer to that depends on the situation and whether the relationship was dominance, reciprocity or communality.

Another that came up is how relationships can shift and change.  For example, sometimes the participants and I have a reciprocal relationship, but that during this lesson, I was in a position of dominance because I was the content holder.  They were the recipients and even the setup of the room gave me the dominant position (at the board, standing, all eyes on me, note taking).  At that moment, it was perfectly acceptable for me to use the raw imperative to give them instructions.

A third issue was to discuss how the encoding is not just a product of the relationship and context, but also helps define the relationship.  We brought out examples in which the relationship is unclear, such as when they communicate with the engineers in China.  By using the imperative (or even the 'please version') we sending interpersonal information.  It seems to create a subordinate role for the Chinese and what happens when we want to change that role?  More importantly, how do they feel about that role?

One discussion went into learning pragmatic understanding.  We all laughed at how children do not understand the request and suggestion forms as a command.  They view it as license to do what they want.  We talked about how we knowingly teach this to our kids.  I used this as an example that we all have the ability to understand pragmatics from our native language.

Another point we discussed is dealing with low-level speakers.  We agreed that in the case of low-levels, we can use a more direct form to assist comprehension, but that we should also plant these sentences in other words/body language to convey the desired relationship information.

A final topic we discussed was how switching occurs within formalized relationships types.  For example, why do some managers encode orders to their assistance as requests even though both sides are fully aware of the dominant relationship?  This corresponds to whether the request and suggestion forms would be understood as the commands they really are.  A second example is what happens when a team member is promoted from within to lead the team.  In that case, the new leader has to 'work down the ladder' because an immediate use of the straight imperative can cause awkwardness and animosity.

Throughout the lesson, whenever there was uncertainty or a debatable issue, we acted out the situation at hand and gathered group feedback on how it felt and whether it was appropriate.  The task structure is very simple and requires little prep.

So as you can see, there is a lot to discuss here.  I reminded every group that the best communicators are the ones who can adeptly switch encoding depending on the situation and the audience.  Furthermore, learning these concepts helps open the door to future training in more complex situations.  I can now link this with formality, genre and tone.

So far, I have used this lesson five times.  Each one was slightly different, but I am extremely happy with the results.  The participants were fully engaged, they included repetitive practice of the learning points and I believe they now have a basic understanding of how language affects relationships.  Perhaps I have stumbled upon a nice method for bringing pragmatics into the classroom.

Monday, April 27, 2015

10 Things you should learn when starting Business English training

Just doing a little Sunday blog catch up when I came across Rachel Dew's report from week two of her CELTA training in Berlin. It was interesting for me because she is attending the same program I finished six years ago. I thought it was (and I see it still is) a well-run program. Of course looking back, some things are more useful and some less so, but it is not a training course for Business English trainers. It is a preparation course for the more educational side of the ELT industry.

With that in mind, here are 10 things you should learn when starting work in Business English.

1. How to complete a proper needs analysis

This is the starting point with every client. There are many examples of poor needs analysis from the ELT industry. They fit into two categories: 1) those that assess the big four language skills of the reading, writing, speaking and listening; and 2) those that focus solely on the big skills of meetings, telephoning, emails, presentations and negotiations without digging deeper.  Neither will give you much information about what content to bring to the training.

International Business English communication is either event driven (often problem-related) or time driven (routine). Each time the learner needs to communicate in English, there is a clear purpose and desired outcome. The method is secondary (written, in a presentation, etc.).  I recommend either using my analysis of the communicative events or using business processes as Even Frendo has shown. They approach the same problem (why someone is communicating) from two perspectives.

2. How to teach one-to-one

Teaching one-to-one is much different than training a group. The skills for teaching one-to-one are much more closely related to coaching. The training materials needed are different, the methods are different, etc. You will also likely find yourself in very small groups (2-3) which is closer to one-to-one teaching than some of the group methods taught in teacher-training courses. Onestop English has some useful starter tips about managing the one-to-one environment.

As a further step, you may want to learn some methods coaches use to help their clients meet their goals.

3. How to design a training plan assuming fluctuating attendance

Assuming you are working with 'in-service' learners (I hate that term :)) you will most likely face wildly fluctuating attendance. The best you can expect in an in-company course is 80%, but 50-60% is more realistic if there is no training certificate. Do not take attendance personally, it is not completely connected to enjoyment and usefulness. It is often simply a result of the participants' busy lives.

Because of that, you should learn how to be flexible in your course design. In general, each lesson should complete the learning objective for the session - stand-alone. Course plans need to have a more modular structure. It is generally not a good idea to assume the same people will attend next week and they will have prepared thoroughly for the training. This is one reason coursebooks are a bad idea. Books are only slightly modular by lesson (some more than others). I suspect this is to thwart photocopying.

4. How to effectively monitor and give feedback

You will quickly find that speaking is the most desired and most important language skill. Without question, people read and write a lot in their work. But they get by with dictionaries and clarification. It's not the most efficient method, but most learners are focused on speaking.

This means you need to learn how to take effective monitoring notes. Understand the difference between fluency and accuracy speaking activities. I write my notes/monitor on different levels.

  1. Content - What are they saying? What are they talking about?
  2. Errors - Are they making mistakes they shouldn't? Will they lead to misunderstandings or distract the purpose of communication?
  3. Gaps - What are they avoiding? Are they explaining around missing vocabulary or grammar?
  4. Emergence - Are they taking risks? What are they creating which we should share with everyone?

Giving feedback is also a skill to learn. It's a good idea for you to process your feedback before throwing it back at the learners. It's also nice to explain the effect of the performance (e.g. how it could cause a misunderstanding). And don't forget the praise - put yourself in their shoes.

5. How to be flexible in the training room

Current teacher training courses stress planning on the assumption of linear course plans. Business English courses (outside of educational institutions) are rarely linear. You will find yourself helping the learners to be highly proficient at one communicative event while largely ignoring others. You will also have to respond quickly to requests or 'just-in-time' learning needs.

As a first step, you should develop and perfect materials-free mini-lessons for common grammar points. Grammar is by far the easiest subset to train because there are a limited number of learning points and they generally have rules. Plus, mistakes are easier to identify than gaps. The greater flexibility you have in the training room to create off-the-cuff activities, the better you can respond to needs and feedback.

6. How to write simple materials quickly

Simple materials are things like vocabulary worksheets and role-plays. You don't need to write an entire coursebook, but you should be able to pound out a worksheet in under a half-hour. In fact, a real skill is to be able to make the worksheet in class with the participants.

Vocabulary is the main issue here. Few available materials can correctly identify the vocabulary your students need. Business communication is content high and quite specific. Publisher have to approach things from a much higher level. You will find yourself collecting dozens of words and terms (don't forget to bring the internet) and you need to do something with them.

You will get better at writing and organizing your simple materials so that they are re-usable and easy to locate at the spur of the moment.

7. How to be a 'model' for skills training

Coursebook audio files are often abysmal. Many are good for listening comprehension because they bring another voice in the training room, but the modelling is often so far from reality that they border on humor. In many cases it is up to the trainer to model certain communicative events.

You will often be the chair of meetings, the presenter, the negotiating partner. You should learn how to do these things well and in the context of the their needs. If you are teaching language for leading a workshop... lead a workshop. Monitor yourself and highlight key strategies and language. And finally, make the model authentic.

8. How to find 'target language' from authentic materials

Authenticity and relevance are key words in Business English and they support something called transfer design, which means to design training so that it is clear and easy to transfer the skill into the workplace. The short cut for transfer is using authentic materials. Be aware that there are two types of authentic materials, those which talk about work (e.g. articles) and those which perform work (e.g. slide decks and emails). In my jargon, I use 'authentic' only for the latter.

If you are working in the company, it's slightly easier to come by authentic materials than sitting in a language school. There are fewer concerns about confidentiality and it's just logistically simpler. When mining authentic materials, it is a good idea to focus more on vocabulary (especially high frequency lexis) than on grammar. You are starting to tap the discourse community, this is only the first step on a long road. :)

9. How to walk and talk like someone on the same level as the participants

You will likely hear at some point that "we bring the language and they bring the business". In other words, we don't need to know their field (or even that it is impossible). Don't fall into this trap. Naturally, it is not possible to be an expert in the field of the learners, but it is possible to become an 'informed interlocutor'. This is someone who can carry on a meaningful conversation about the field and understand the concepts (and even many details) about the work. This takes time and research.

The value of becoming an informed interlocutor is that you can drive the learners into greater detail and create more realistic training. Everyday business communication is extremely content heavy and detail focused. Whenever starting work in a new field (e.g. finance or engineering), do some research about the company, processes and concepts in the industry. Seek to drive learners into greater and greater detail.

Finally, your whole presence and appearance should emulate their discourse community.

10. How to take from coursebooks without breaking copyright

Content will be one of your main concerns when starting out in Business English. Published materials are most people's starting point. Keep in mind that while coursebooks are pedagogically sound, they are not designed with your specific participants in mind. It is also unethical (and illegal) to break copyrights. But coursebooks are extremely helpful.

First, they provide great ideas for activities, especially role-plays. One trick is to read the role-play and think about how you can perform the intent of the activity without the content, or alter the situation to better fit your participants. Plus, nearly every activity type in coursebooks can be replaced with a materials light alternative using the whiteboard, note cards, flip chart paper, etc. Deconstruct coursebook activities to find the core process and insert your own content.

Second, they are a useful resource for determining learning objectives. The table of contents is perhaps the most useful section and I like to consult several books of the same level when laying out course plans. Caution however, most books cover much more grammar than is needed by your participants. For example, if you find yourself inserting the Past Perfect into an intermediate-level course plan, make sure that is really the best use of everyone's time for reaching their communication goals. Also, double-check the communicative events of your learners before embarking on that phrasal verb and idioms module. You can probably find something more valuable.

So, those are my top ten things to learn (and master) during your first view years in Business English.  Also, these are basically the starting points for every trend in BE including coaching, English as a Lingua Franca, materials and learner motivation. I wish you the best of luck and don't forget to have fun.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Life inside a virtual team: Communication, language and culture

I have had the opportunity to work in or observe countless virtual teams over the past 15 years. From the military, an online degree program and my in-company work, it is clear that virtual team communication is a critical component of success in international organizations.

Over the past two years, I have largely specialized my training to deal with the unique challenges virtual teams face.

So let's look at a few of the key factors which support or hinder communication in virtual teams.

1.  Technical Skills

The members of a virtual team must master a range of technical applications to communicate effectively. Often this is taken for granted and the team members have only a superficial knowledge of communication tools.  Additionally, team members tend to rely on communication methods they use to enhance face-to-face communication in the local workplace (dear email, I am talking about you).

Here are some examples of technical skills which can support better virtual communication. But of course, this is not all.
  • Use all the tools in virtual meeting software (and no, companies do not use Skype).
  • Create PowerPoint slides which are designed to be read and not presented. This includes things like inserting documents and objects into slides, drastically changing formatting, etc.
  • Create and manage an organized document library, including naming standards, types, searchability, etc.
  • Use graphics tools like MS Visio to create diagrams (preferably those linked to data).
  • Troubleshoot and diagnose technical issues like bandwidth limitations, audio and video problems, etc.
  • Create and maintain a team website/portal in applications like SharePoint or SalesForce
  • Use the complete functionality of Outlook
2.  Communication Channels

Understanding communication channels within organizations has always been an important part of collaboration and communication in teams, but it is especially important in virtual groups. I notice that virtual team members and managers do not completely understand the communication channels within their organization or how to change them.

Employees talk about long (or non-existent) feedback loops quite often without understanding the communication exact 'workflow'. Virtual team members typically complain about lack of information without seeing the number of stops between the origin of the information and their location in the social network.

A lack of understanding of how information flows through the team leads to unnecessary and unproductive meetings, massive communication overhead among network nodes, and a lack of information transparency among the team. The result is often redundant work and even unproductive affective conflicts between team members.

3.  Stages of Team Development and Team Dynamics

Many managers these days are trained in team building and educated in how teams change over time.  But in reality I see a couple of things happening. First, virtual groups evolve into teams and aren't expressly formed. For example, a team in India begins as an 'internal supplier' for a team in the US. The Americans send clearly defined workpackages to the Indians, which are then completed and sent back as deliverables. But over time, the two groups start working more closely together and eventually collaborate on a new product innovation jointly. The result is a team. The manager and the team members likely didn't even feel the change because it happened gradually and we cannot point to specific formation.

Second, managers attempt to copy team development strategies from their co-located teams in the past. They organize kick-offs and team building activities. They create team rituals and talk a lot about values and mindset. This is valuable of course, but virtual team development faces some unique challenges the managers and members are unprepared for. Especially in building trust, the written word of email leaves a lot of space for misinterpretation and I see that virtual teams move a slower through Tuckman's stages than co-located colleagues.

4.  Culture

Everybody likes talking about culture these days and I can see why. After all, you can explain nearly any misunderstanding or awkward moment simply by saying, "It must be the culture." But let's take a step back here for a moment and look at this sentence for the cop out it really is. From my observation, nearly all misunderstanding and awkward moments are caused by something other than culture.
  • Okay, so he didn't respond to you email. - Not culture, he's busy and you're not a priority.
  • She always goes off on a tangent. - Guess what... she does that with everyone.  Not culture.
  • They are always very direct. - Well, they are working in a second language and the meeting is only 30 minutes long. They are trying to avoid a misunderstanding and get things done. Not culture (well, okay some might say there is some culture here).
Now, I am not saying that culture does not play a role in virtual teams. I am sure it does, but let's not place the culture label on everything. One problem with culture is the national culture idea. Research like Hofstede and Trompenaars is based on huge sample sizes to draw conclusions about values, tendencies and behaviors. But in virtual teams we are talking about individuals with distinct backgrounds, goals and personalities.

My clients don't need to know how to convince 'Germans', they need to know how to convince Anja, Thomas and Hans. I'm not advocating the abolition of country-specific culture training, but it should certainly include a large warning label, "Some or all of this may not apply to the person you are talking to. If in doubt, get to know the person." Character assumptions are the fastest way to make someone not like you.

There is another aspect of culture which plays a role: company culture. Employees are sick of hearing about it because I think every company in the world is trying to refine it, change it or implement it. They are largely numb to the whole topic, but there is a certain 'way of doing things' in companies and departments. Organizations have values, methods and rituals. If you want to improve communication in a virtual team, it might be helpful to look at how it works in the local offices, not a generalization about the whole country. (I have been guilty of this in the past... lesson learned.)

5.  Communication Norms

Building on points 2, 3 and 4, we come to communication norms.  Communication norms consist of agreements on channels, methods and formats. At the lowest level we are talking about terminology. At an organizational level we are talking about the project communication plan. Somewhere in between we look at things like slide templates, forms, collaborative document set up, standards for correspondence, meeting agendas, etc.

The local team members come into a virtual team with certain communication norms like how they report information, what meetings look like, etc.. Often, these norms are incompatible and virtual teams need to compromise their norms. At a low level, we may agree (explicitly or implicitly) on certain vocabulary and terms. At a larger level, the group may agree on norms for meeting presentations (e.g. no more than 10 minutes).

The point is that norms will emerge. The key is making sure they are appropriate for the group. One type of meeting agenda may work great in a face-to-face setting, but fall flat when we have a large virtual meeting.  That report structure may be perfect for stimulating discussion at the home office, but might not include enough information to be shared to a distributed team.

I see that managers and employees take norms for granted and several things happen.
  • The team does not discuss the norms, which results in ambiguity (no meta-communication)
  • The team adopts norms from one location which are ineffective (e.g. bad meeting styles are copied into the virtual team)
  • The team adopts norms which do not fit the communication tools and methods
  • Team members and managers do not hold others accountable when they violate the norms (e.g. no one says anything when the presenter takes too long)
6.  Language

This is typically the default diagnosis (along with culture) for why many virtual teams are underperforming. And managers and team members are not completely wrong. Communication in a second language takes more time and effort than in a first language. Meetings are longer or cover less content. Proper understanding often takes more repetition (either synchronously or via follow up correspondence). Writing takes longer, including emails, reports, documentation, etc. But where there is the will and need to communicate an idea, there is a way. Teams make it work, but it is frustrating and puts pressure on their already busy schedule. After all, project schedules and team goals are set on the assumption that worker efficiency is constant.

The magic level seems to be around B1-B2. Team members who are lower than B1 cost the team efficiency and time. Due to poor comprehension, meetings have to be slower and the communication overhead is higher for repetition and follow up. On the other side, the team suffers from their inability to contribute effectively - costing time and energy. Notice, I am talking about the communication workload on the whole team, not just the low-level speaker.

At B1 or B2, the team is generally able to coordinate action effectively if the right norms, channels and strategies are used to accommodate the distributed team set up and language burden. Groups of workers at this level are able to achieve L1-like efficiency under the right conditions. Team members in the B2-C1 levels are instrumental in helping to set up these norms. These are the team members who are best suited for moderating discussions and chairing meetings.

If there are team members above C1 or native speakers in the group, the challenge changes. As many have mentioned, the ability of high-level/native speakers to adapt to ELF is crucial. In my experience, learners come with ELF and it is not something I train. Their English has been formed by their exposure prior to the training. My job then is so simply formalize ELF as a standard and get everyone speaking the same 'English'. If left 'untuned' to ELF, high-level speakers cause higher communication overhead and actually hurt the team's efficiency. With the natural belief among language learners that greater proficiency means greater communicative skill, the realization that they are actually causing problems can be a real eye-opener.


I have highlighted six aspects to communication in the virtual team environment. Many Business English Trainers will be focused on the language aspect because they either do not have access to the inner workings of the organization or their mandate does not include broader communication issues. But I suspect that many trainers are willing to expand their 'English teacher' role if they see the opportunity to deliver added value or help solve the real communication barriers of the company.

My advice is that training experts enhance their skill set to stay one step ahead of clients in virtual team communication. This includes obtaining the technical know-how, matching reality with organizational theory, revisiting the field of communications and expanding their approach to language in the workplace. Clients will be extremely grateful for you ability to deliver greater efficiency and project success.