Nowadays executives in and outside the UK have to ‘meet’ on the phone in audio ‘conference calls’ and, less often, video conferences in what is for them a second language. They may be colleagues on the continent having to conduct meetings in English or English native speakers having to participate or run meetings in French or Spanish etc.
Naturally people find speaking in these situations in a second language more challenging than speaking face to face. On a conference call you don’t have any of the visual signals or body language to help you communicate with and more easily understand the people you are listening to.
The great fear is that we may not be fully understood or fully understand what is being said to us, and if we are leading the meeting the pressure can be even greater – at worst we may lose control of the situation and the confidence of those participating.
Is there anything you can do to keep control of the conversation? Yes, there is.
On our courses the delegates have evolved a 10 point strategy to help keep control of meetings. This is what we practise in our sessions. The delegates agree the agenda, and face the wall so they can hear but not see each other. Then they run a conference call and practise the strategies and the stock phrases that go with them. Here are the ten points, applied to a conference call being held in English and led by a non-native speaker.
1 TAKE CONTROL FROM THE START.
If you are the convenor, take control from the start. Introduce the topic and check who is online. This gives you and everyone else a chance to hear and begin to get used to different accents of English used on the call.
2 DON’T TAKE THE MINUTES.
You can’t control the meeting and concentrate on taking the minutes. Delegate the minutes.
Arrange before the meeting if possible to avoid negotiation of who will do what. Make sure the minute taker checks with you and that you check them and send the minutes out to the meeting participants.
3 INTRODUCE AGENDA ITEMS AND CONTRIBUTORS.
Introduce each agenda item or point and identify the person who will introduce it.
4 THANK THE PRESENTER AND OPEN THE DISCUSSION.
At the end, thank the presenter and ask for contributions.
5 SUMMARISE THE DISCUSSION AND DECIDE WHAT TO MINUTE.
Summarise the key agenda point and say ‘Let’s minute that……’ usually the only things to minute are the action point (what), the action owner (who), and the deadline for completion (by when). However, a lot of ‘by whens’ are ‘Report back at next meeting.’
6 CONCLUDE AND SUM UP.
At the end of the agenda, many convenors sum up the key conclusions, or ask the minute taker to do so. Then they go round the table to ask ‘Any Other Business’ and fix the date of the next meeting. ‘Any Other Business’ is often known in British offices as ‘Gossip and Rumours!’
And that’s it. Except that everything doesn’t always go according to plan. So the final four points are tactics for keeping the meeting on track.
7 GOING TOO FAST
Native speakers often don’t realise how fast and indistinctly they speak. Many non-native speakers of English complain that when they ask the speaker to ‘Speak more slowly’, the native speaker repeats at EXACTLY THE SAME SPEED! Try this. Ask for slower speech but explain why. ‘Sorry, I’m not a native speaker. Could you slow down, please?’ or ‘Sorry, English isn’t my mother tongue could you speak a bit more slowly, please?’ The explanation usually gets a better result.
8 NEED REPETITION
We heard the wonderful story of a French executive who asked an American on a conference call. ‘Sorry, I didn’t catch that. Can you say it again, please?’
The American asked, ‘Which bit?’
The Frenchman responded, ‘All of it!’
9 GOING ON TOO LONG
Sometimes, people spend too long on a point and the non-native speaker convenor doesn’t know how to shut them up. Perhaps the best thing is to simply say, ‘Sorry, we’re very short of time. Could you sum up briefly, please?’
10 GETTING OFF THE POINT
Finally, what do you do when someone insists on talking about something completely different? Then you have to interrupt and say, ‘Sorry, can we get back to the agenda?’
To share your own experiences – good and bad – of participating in meetings held in a second language, do leave your comments below, especially any top tips for overcoming the language barriers we all encounter when not communicating in a face to face situation.
To find out more about SIMON & SIMON’s range of cultural training courses, and how these could benefit your organisation click here – or call us now, on 020 7821 0999