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BLOGSpeaking of Language

by Randall CraigFiled in: Blog, Communication, Global Business, Make It Happen Tipsheet, PresentationsTagged as: , ,

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 into your ideas. And if they don’t buy into your ideas, they won’t buy you: a critical issue if you are looking to sell yourself into a special project, sell a service, or sell a product.

The problem is compounded by the fear of embarrassment; very few people 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 mouth of 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, or use visually contextual clues in your presentation Powerpoint. (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 professional colleagues. And it is also true when delivering a high-stakes presentation, facilitating a critical meeting, or running a workshop.


Go through some of your writing: a proposal, an informal email, and perhaps your website. Then make it more understandable by checking it against the list. Use the same guidelines for your next presentation.

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