We can feel for both Carl-Henric Svanberg, the chairman of BP, and England Manager, Fabio Capello, they have been much in the spotlight this past week and have, in their very different ways, been found wanting. One of the reasons they did not come up to scratch was due to their knowledge of English. Although they can both use English well enough for their respective jobs, I am not sure that when thrown into the limelight and expected both to speak on behalf of and defend their respective teams, they are quite up to the job.
We all know what it feels like to be ‘put on the spot’, to have to argue the case and discuss and debate issues – this is not an easy task even in your own language. When you get agitated, excited or annoyed, words desert you and sentences struggle to maintain meaning. Imagine having to do this in another language and imagine having to do it to the world’s media who are masters of manipulating language and tying people in linguistic knots.
So what happened?
His English is good there is no denying this. He speaks in a fairly measured way, taking care over his delivery. It all boils down to two things; his pronunciation – which could be better – it is very deadpan almost to the extent of being dis-interested, then there is that one, disastrous phrase ‘small people’ made all the worse by repeating it no less than three times! It’s amazing that one small word could cause such a furore – but in language ‘least said, soonest mended’ could just be a maxim to keep in mind!
What would we say – man in the street, ordinary citizens, the US public? Answers on a postcard please! Certainly not ‘small people’. Did anybody check? Did he rehearse? Was this off the cuff? One small phrase caused so much anger and hurt that there was absolutely no consideration of the fact that he wasn’t a native speaker of English!
If you go into the lion’s den – be very prepared!
Fabio is now in his third year as England Manager and there are many who worry about his commitment to improving his English skills. England fans are very passionate about their team and they have, in the past, been very sceptical about having non-English managers. Will a non-English manager have the same passion for England’s football mission?With Capello they are doubtful as to whether he can truly command respect and really communicate his ideas when his language ability is still so poor.
To be fair in this footage he manages very well. He knows the vocabulary he needs, he gets his message across clearly and with some humour. He maintains the gravitas required for his role and, despite his lack of correct word order, his strong accent and his limited vocabulary, we are quite clear about his points.
Fast forward to more recent times.
There was the row with the photographers, then the criticism about his choice of goalkeeper and finally his defence of England’s first two games.
(recent footage wasn’t available to embed so here’s a link)
The pressure and the constant barrage of questions puts a lot of strain on language delivery. As emotion takes over so coherent language retreats.
This is natural but if your work demands that you put yourself in these situations then the need for competency becomes all the more important. You have to maintain decorum, you have to maintain self-respect, you have to avoid controversy and you need to preserve the good name of your company as well as that of yourself. This is important stuff!
When you lose your cool – make sure you can still look cool!
So, my top tips for avoiding situations like the Svanberg/Cappello ones above.
- Don’t be complacent – if you are going to be the face of your global/UK/US company make sure you have the language skills to do it – ‘good enough’ might just not be good enough when really tested!
- Use models – who are the great speakers in English? Find some whom you admire and study their form, note down some of the expressions they use, how do they deliver, what makes them stand out? Model yourself on them
- Practise! – I would never go into a presentation or meeting where I have to represent someone or put forward ideas or proposals without practising. Going in cold is a foolhardy thing to do and you are taking a big risk.
- Ask someone to check – don’t try to do too much off the cuff, if you have a presentation ask a native speaker to check it, a friend or teacher – if you can practise in front of them too then this is very valuable – don’t underestimate how useful your teacher can be to you, it’s not all about grammar and vocabulary!!
- Check current and cultural sensitivities – when tempers are high people are less likely to be tolerant or understanding. Make sure you are not going to offend anybody culturally or because of a current situation (for example when people are complaining about some work-related issue).
- Do not translate! – don’t assume that the way you would do it in your own language is going to translate to another culture or another language (small people). Check and find out!
Now I am going to get someone to check this before I post it – I don’t want to offend anybody either!!
March 2011 – I rest my case!!
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