What can native speakers of English do to improve international conference calls

Our previous blog discussed the problems with international conference calls where English is the lingua franca. We dared to suggest that some of these problems lie with native speakers of English as they often speak too quickly or use difficult language. Here are our suggestions on how you, as a native speaker of English, can help your colleagues get the best out of conference calls.

1) Ensure there is a chairperson on the call:

Assign someone to manage contributions, ensure everyone takes part, and monitor the effectiveness of the call. This person needs to be clear on the objectives of the call, but doesn’t have to be the manager or the senior person on the call. They should be responsible for managing the process and ensuring the outcomes are reached, and actions agreed. They could also be the person responsible for sending an email afterwards to summarise the discussion and confirm the agreed actions.

2) We suggest that the chairperson is NOT a native speaker of English.

This way they can ensure that the pace of speech and content of the discussion is suitable for the non-native speakers, and as chair they can readily ask people to adjust their communication style to accommodate non-native speakers. They can also pick up on misunderstandings or misinterpretations.

3) Where possible, help your team agree a conference call etiquette:

Work out a set of agreed behaviours which would make the call work well for everyone. E.g. Should each person use the “raise your hand” indicator on the conference call software if they want to speak, or does the team prefer a more free-flowing conversation? Should people refrain from interrupting or talking over one another, or does the team prefer and more spontaneous and robust discussion?

4) Take into account cultural differences in communication:

In our experience cultural aspects of communicating in groups apply equally in conference calls as they do in face to face meetings, so you may have to take into account cultural differences in communication styles too. In these cases it is often best to set ground rules and expectations that suit everyone before you embark on a call. Where this is not possible, try to be aware of those that are finding the situation difficult, or where over-enthusiasm is stifling others on the call.

5) As a native speaker, you need to moderate your language:

This means stripping out any unnecessary or culturally specific idioms and phrases. Here are a couple of examples:

  • When asked “How is the weather in the UK?” try not to use phrases like “It’s raining cats and dogs” or “It’s chucking it down”, try to simplify your responses for example “It’s raining a lot today”.
  • When discussing budget try not to use phrases like “Is there room for manoeuvre with the budget?” or “Is there any wiggle room on those figures?” instead use clear language like “Is that budget fixed or can you adjust the budget if necessary?”

Start to listen to yourself and clear out any redundant words and phrases from your language. The clearer you are the more easily you will be understood. Don’t forget conference calls are very difficult because your colleagues do not have the usual visual cues (if using audio only) and the sound quality is challenging. Anything you can do to help your colleagues understand you quickly and easily will be much appreciated.

6) Be mindful of the speed you are speaking:

Speak slower than normal, but not so slow that your speech sounds unnatural and stilted. Regularly check that you can be understood and that you are making yourself clear. You can do this politely in a way that doesn’t feel like you are putting someone on the spot e.g. “Andreas, I know I often talk too fast on conference calls, so I’d like to check that everyone has understood me, please could you let me know what you’ve understood so far?”

7) Ensure that all conference calls are administered well:

Where possible send an agenda out beforehand, and ensure that all actions and agreements are documented and sent to everyone on the call. Send meeting invites out asking people to join the call 5 minutes before the start time.

For some of your colleagues handling conference calls in English is the most difficult aspect of their job. Above all, be patient and understanding. Consider each participant’s skill level in English – if they struggle in a face-to-face meeting in English, then conference calls are going to be even worse. If appropriate you could ask your colleagues what they need you to do to help them feel more comfortable in a conference call situation. Remember that communication is a shared responsibility, i.e. it is your responsibility to ensure you can be understood.

We have years of experience of training non-native speakers in conference calls, and have lots of good ideas to share with you! If you would like to discuss any of the above issues further, please give us a call on 01666825060 or email us at english@abbeycommunication.com.

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