• Business Skills And Business Language. Can we teach both?


    Barry Tomalin

    Author ‘Key Business Skills’ (Harper Collins 2012)

    Jean-Francois is frustrated. He’s a senior manager in an international computer business services firm. He works with UK, US, Chinese and Egyptian colleagues and he can’t get through to them. And he is not getting the results he needs.

    ‘I’ve learned business English for five years in France,’ he says, ‘But I’m not communicating in the way my overseas colleagues need. What do I need to do?’

    Jean-Francois is right. Like a large number of business executives working with overseas colleagues and customers, he is not confident in communicating internationally.

    Therefore, all the business English he has so carefully learned is not much use because he lacks the international business communication skills to go with it.

    What are these skills? There are four.

    NETWORKING The skill of networking and building good relations with overseas colleagues and customers

    PRESENTATIONS The skill of making a successful presentation to international colleagues and customers

    MEETINGS The knowledge to run or take part in successful conference calls

    NEGOTIATIONS The skills of negotiating internationally

    What’s the solution? Jean-Francois needs to leverage his language. He needs to learn how to present his ideas as a clear package. He needs to learn business communication skills. And he needs to learn the language that delivers these skills. But not any language. The language native speakers use. That will create a ’no surprises’ communications culture and free him to concentrate on what he really wants to say.

    We can present the three ingredients of successful communication like this.


    (See your ideas as a Product, present them as a Package and be Positive.)


    (Use structures so you don’t forget things.) (Use everyday phrases people are familiar with.

    How can Jean-Francois apply these three ingredients to the areas he needs to deal with?

    Here are a few ideas.


    Learn to listen not to judge, not to evaluate and certainly not to take over the conversation.

    If you can learn to listen quietly and appreciatively, it can work to your advantage. Suddenly, you are showing interest in the other person. You are in touch with how they feel, not just the words they use. Do you know how they will describe you? An excellent conversationalist!

    A lot of people feel uncomfortable just keeping silent and listening. If that is your case, why not use F.A.C.E? F.A.C.E is an acronym. It stands for:

    F Focus

    A Acknowledge

    C Clarify

    E Empathise.

    That’s the structure you can use in listening appreciatively to another person. What is the language you can use with each word?

    Well, Focus is essentially body language, eye contact. But you must be careful. In Asia, especially in Japan, eye contact may be intermittent or even avoided rather than constant.

    Acknowledge is nodding and showing appreciation. South Indians might do it with a head roll, Europeans with a nod. We may also add an ‘Uh huh’, or maybe a ‘Really!’

    Clarifying is asking questions to help the story move along. ‘So what happened next?’, ‘What did you do then?’, ‘How did you solve that problem?’ . Remember, your aim is not to evaluate. It is to encourage the speaker to develop the story or argument.

    Finally, Empathise is to show appreciation. There are various phrases people use, depending on the situation. However, they all have one thing in common. They are always positive and sympathetic. ‘Wow!’, ‘Congratulations’, ‘That’s great!’, ‘How awful!’. You probably get the idea.

    Active listening and using F.A.C.E is a great way to build empathy with your contact, face-to-face or virtually but you can lose any advantage gained if you say the wrong thing. The most common ‘intercultural’ question I am asked is, ‘How can I avoid causing offence?’

    The answer is be sensitive to cultural fault lines. Fault line is a geological term. It describes the movement in the earth’s tectonic plates that causes earthquakes and tsunamis. In culture, cultural faultiness identify areas that might cause tension within a community. They seem to break down into six areas. Here they are, with examples.


    LINGUISTIC - French in Belgium vs Flemish in Belgium. Which language shuold you use or is it better to use English?

    RELIGIOUS - Protestant vs Catholic in Northern Ireland ad elsewhere and lots of other examples

    REGIONAL - In France it’s a bit of a joke but Paris Vs the rest of France, or Bavaria and the rest of Germany.

    ECONOMIC - Greece in the Eurozone but also the perceived economic difference between the richer North of Italy and the ‘Mezzogiorno’ South.

    RACIAL - Tensions in the ‘rainbow state’ of South Africa or even today between black and white and Hispanic in the US.

    POLITICAL/HISTORICAL - Calling Canadians ‘Americans’, traditional rivalries within Europe between UK, France, Germany and Russia and countless other examples.

    In all these environments it’s perfectly possible to discuss issues with people you know, but it might be risky to raise it immediately.

    So for networking you have a structure for conversation, you have common phrases people use and by definition you are being more concise and organised in your presentation.


    Speaking of presentations, the structure I use is the one to answer questions. It’s called ‘the 4 ASKS’. Don’t ask me why. The 4 ASKS structure has a ‘stock phrase associated with each ASK.’ Here they are. When you answer a question: -

    Notice that last stock phrase, ‘Does THAT answer your question?’ not ‘Have I answered your question?’ It is a technique we call ‘depersonalisation’. If you’re not happy with the answer, it’s not me that’s the problem, it’s the answer. I can try again!


    One of Jean-Francois’s problems is running conf. calls. Because of his English he often feels he loses control of meetings and they go on too long with no positive result. Is there a structure he can use that will help him control his meetings? Yes, there is.

    The 9-point meeting control framework

    POINT 1 Establish control early: Kick off meeting, welcome and get guests to identify themselves.

    POINT 2 Don’t take your own minutes. Get someone else to do it. Frees you to run meeting.

    POINT 3 Introduce each item and speaker.

    POINT 4 Elicit contributions.

    POINT 5 Keep to time.

    POINT 6 Keep to agenda.

    POINT 7 Summarise discussion and decide what to minute.

    POINT 8 If people digress or get aggressive, suggest you discuss ‘outside the meeting’.

    POINT 9 Thank and close meeting, check minutes and circulate.

    Points 7 and 9 are specially important. Remember what people say. ‘Whoever controls the minutes, controls the meeting.’


    This is our final point. But surely, Jean-Francois knows how to negotiate! Yes, he’s very good at it. But he’s not good at judging his negotiating partner’s position from the language used.

    He thinks his partner is ready to agree but suddenly he realises that the partner has raised a new point and gone right back to the start of the negotiation. Is there, he asks, a structure he can use to help him identify his negotiating partner’s position from the language he is using? Yes, there is.

    He can use the five stage negotiation process defined by Professor Gavin Kennedy of Glasgow University and a ‘guru’ of negotiating.

    Kennedy identifies five stages in any negotiation. They are: -

    PREPARE: Prepare the ground. Explain your position.

    DEBATE: Discuss each side’s position.

    PROPOSE: On the basis of what you have discussed, make a proposal.

    BARGAIN: Argue about what you will or won’t do to reach agreement.

    AGREE: Finally, hopefully, you reach agreement.

    Easy! What’s the problem? The problem is it is not a linear process. Negotiatiors may change the stage they are at, at any time. If they are doing it in a foreign language it is difficult to know what is happening. Are there any stock phrases which will give us a clue?

    Yes, there are but you have to find them. We suggest you make a list of the five stages and keep them in front of you in any negotiation. Then when you hear a phrase, match it to the stage of negotiation. This way you will build up phrases and vocabulary and their relation to each stage of a negotiation that will make you feel more confident. And Jean-Francois as well! To help you, here is one we have prepared.

    So, we have looked at frameworks and associated common phrases that you and Jean-Francois you can use to help you be more confident and fluent in networking, presentations, running conference calls and negotiations. And if you use these techniques you will sound more concise and much clearer and more decisive. Try them one by one and see what happens. You will be delighted by the results.

    BARRY TOMALIN is the author of KEY BUSINESS SKILLS: Presentations, Meetings, Negotiations and Networking, a one-stop guide, published by HARPER COLLINS ELT on December 6th. You can see all these techniques explained with exercises and recordings to help you practise.


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