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Skills 360 – Business English Hacks (Part 2)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want look to give you more great tips for ramping up your business English skills.

You’ve probably heard that one of the traits of a great business leader is the ability to communicate. So, what does it mean to be a good communicator? What does a good communicator actually do? Well, there are a few things that every good communicator does. In our last lesson I covered a few of these simple techniques, and today I want to add to that list.

When you think of being a good communicator, you probably think about speaking skills. But my first bit of advice is all about listening. Nobody likes it if you drone on and never give anyone else a chance to speak. You’ve got to learn to keep your mouth closed and your ears open. And you’ve got to listen actively to actually show people you’re listening. That starts with smiling and nodding, which are simple habits that let the speaker know you’re tuned in.

But that’s not all. You can throw in the occasional “yes,” or “I see.” Or you can echo what the other person is saying, like “a 30% increase? Impressive.” If you do this, people know you’re engaged. And that’s especially important when you can’t actually see the other person, like when you’re talking on the phone or in a teleconference.

All right, so we’ve covered listening. Now I want to give you some speaking techniques. First off, have you ever found yourself at a loss for words when you have to criticize someone or their work? Because you know that it’s not just what you say that is important, it’s how you say it, right? If you just come out and say “your report was lousy,” you’re going to put the person on the defensive. Instead, you need to be a bit more indirect. Try something like “well, I think there are some things you could work on.” Better yet, combine the criticism with some praise, like this: “I think you captured the main ideas, but you might want to make the summary a little clearer.” Wouldn’t you rather hear feedback like that?

This kind of indirect criticism is wrapped up in something bigger that every great communicator has a special knack for: being diplomatic. Diplomatic language is careful language. And I’m not just talking about criticizing or disagreeing. Careful language is also necessary when you make suggestions or pitch an idea.

One of the tricks to being diplomatic is using words that soften what you’re saying. We can do that with modal verbs, like “can” and “could” and “might.” For example, think about the difference between “that is too expensive” and “that might be too expensive.” Sure they have the same meaning, but one is softer. And a bit of indirect language will make it even more diplomatic, like “I’m wondering if that idea might be a bit on the expensive side.” That’s certainly not going to get anyone’s back up, is it?

Another way to soften a statement is to use words of possibility, such as “maybe” or “perhaps.” Imagine you want to suggest buying new computers. You might say “we need to buy new computers,” but that might sound too forceful. Instead, how about something like “perhaps we could buy some new computers?”

So, a diplomatic approach can make people more receptive. But you also want your ideas to stick in people’s memory, and a great way to do that is with repetition. You can try repeating an important word or idea so people don’t forget it. Or you can try repeating a certain structure or way of saying something. For example, think about a sentence like “we’ve got to get costs down and get our revenue up.” Using “get down” and “get up” in this way makes it more impactful, and more memorable.

So there we have it: some quick and easy ways to improve your business English… Oh wait, there’s one more killer technique that beats all the rest: preparation. If you have difficulty speaking on the fly or phrasing things the way you want them, then plan ahead. Find out who you’re going to be talking to, and adapt what you say for that audience. Make sure you know what talking points are so you can do well in that negotiation. Before that big interview, rehearse your answers. Whatever you do, don’t go in blind.

So there you have it: surefire ways to be a great communicator. Remember to be an active listener, careful with criticism, diplomatic, and use repetition. And finally, don’t forget there’s no substitute for good preparation.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Business English Hacks (Part 1)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want look at some quick and easy hacks you can use to improve your business English.

Business is all about relationships, and relationships are founded on good communication. And while English may seem like a difficult language, being a great communicator and connecting with people isn’t rocket science. You can learn just a few techniques that will take your business English skills to the next level. And I’m not talking about learning a thousand new words or some obscure rules of grammar. The tips I want to give you are fully within your grasp right now.

Let’s start with a real easy one: keep it simple. Use the language you know, and that your listeners know, to communicate your message in simple terms. Do you really think a sophisticated vocabulary is going to impress people? Or help you negotiate a good price from a supplier? Probably not. And it won’t help you connect with people on a human level. Listen to any great political speech or watch any great presentation online, and you’ll notice that the speaker keeps things simple.

Simple also means short, or concise. Why use 50 words when you can use 15? Everyone appreciates language that is clear and to-the-point. So keep it simple, and you’ll keep people engaged.

But what happens when other people don’t keep it simple? Communication is a two-way street, and sometimes you find yourself scratching your head at what someone else is saying. So what you really need to do is to clarify. And remember to be specific about what it is you don’t understand. If a supplier tells you a part is “temporarily unavailable,” which isn’t very clear, don’t just raise your eyebrows and say “pardon?” Instead, say something like “what exactly do you mean when you say this part is temporarily unavailable?” That will encourage the speaker to be more specific.

Another way to clarify is to check back and confirm. That sounds something like “So, you think we shouldn’t build a new website, right?” Or maybe it means saying “You’re saying John is the best applicant, am I correct?” Checking back and confirming is a great way to clarify because it poses a yes-no question. The person can either say “yes, that’s what I mean,” or “no, that’s not what I mean.” And if it’s the latter, the person can then give it another shot. And you can bet they’ll be extra clear so you don’t have to ask again.

So, we’ve talked about being simple and clarifying. Now here’s another crucial technique for communicating clearly: connect your ideas. Your ideas are, in fact, connected, right? So make that clear to your listeners. You can use simple linking words, like “and,” “so,” and “but.”

Or you can dress it up a bit with some more formal expressions. For example, you might say: “Product A is the cheapest. However, cost is not the only consideration. We also need to think about quality. For this reason, I think we should go with Product B.” Can you hear how important those words “however” and “also” and “for this reason” are? These linking words help show the connection between your ideas. And they help listeners see your logic.

Connecting your ideas can also mean showing a sequence. And once again, you don’t have to get fancy. Basic words like “first,” “second,” “next,” and “lastly” can help people see where you’re going. But if you don’t connect your ideas, they will sound like a random collection of thoughts. And you yourself might have to answer some of those clarifying questions I just mentioned.

Now there’s one more business English hack I want to give you today: remember to be polite and courteous. After all, you’re trying to connect with people and make a good impression, right? There’s an old saying that goes like this: “people buy from people they like.” So be friendly and polite.

And being polite begins with those little words we call modals, like “could,” “might,” and “would.” Whether you’re making a suggestion, giving feedback, or asking permission, modals are your ticket to courtesy. And remember that questions are always better than commands. So we don’t say “give me a pen.” Instead, use a modal and a question and say: “could I have a pen?” You don’t have to go over the top, but with a simple, polite, and courteous approach, you’ll do great.

So, let’s run through these four tips once again. First of all, I suggested keeping it simple to keep people engaged. Next, I advised you to ask questions to clarify when you don’t understand. Then I talked about the importance of connecting your ideas so listeners can understand your train of thought. And finally, I suggested making sure you’re friendly and polite. These are all great ways to communicate better and connect with people. But is that all there is to it? No, actually, I’ve got a few more great techniques for you in our next episode. So be sure to tune in!

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Technical Job Interviews (Part 2)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how to succeed in a technical interview.

A technical interview can sound like a pretty scary prospect. The interviewers will test your knowledge and understanding of technical concepts, and your problem-solving abilities. You’ll also need to show them what you know and how you think. This is a pretty high-pressure situation, a difficult hoop to jump through for that job in finance or engineering or tech.

But there’s no way around it, so you’d better get used to the idea. Last week, I talked about how to answer those tough questions that you face. Today I want to talk about some of the common pitfalls that you might encounter in a technical interview. I mean those moments when your heart sinks because you don’t know what’s being asked, you don’t know the answer, or you make a mistake.

Of course, there’s a good way to prevent these things from happening in the first place. It’s the same key to success for any interview, presentation, or sales pitch. And that’s preparation. But even preparation can present challenges. One of the biggest mistakes is to over prepare or to cram too much new information into your head. What the interviewers really want to see is a clear grasp of fundamental principles and concepts. So don’t go trying to learn a new programming language before your interview.

Still, no matter how wisely you prepare, you might face some challenges. For one thing, you might not be sure exactly what the interviewer is asking. If you’re afraid of appearing dumb, you might just wing it and try to answer the question anyway. But that’s not such a great idea. It’s always best to get clarity first. You might ask “Could you please repeat the question?” Or you might say “could you rephrase that please?” Or even “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking. Could you explain?” That certainly sounds less dumb – and more honest – than giving an answer that’s way off base.

So, what if you understand the question, but you just don’t know the answer? Or what if you’re asked to solve a problem that you’re not really so sure about? Well, you can attempt to answer with what you’ve got. For example, you might say “I’m not certain about the programming language you’ve asked about, but I know that in C++ you could do it this way…”

But if the question requires you to actually know something and you don’t, then fess up. You can be honest about your ignorance and still maintain dignity. For example, you might say, “To be frank, I haven’t had to calculate such a thing before.” Or maybe, “That’s a very interesting question and one that I’d really like to find out an answer to.” In fact, many people report getting a job even when they couldn’t answer several questions in their technical interview. So don’t sweat it too much.

Now, what you shouldn’t do in these situations is show frustration. You see, it’s not just about what you know; it’s also about how you deal with pressure. The interviewer may be evaluating whether you’re a good person to have on a team with a tight deadline or crunching a tough problem. And in this case a good person is a calm person, one that doesn’t break under pressure.

There’s another situation in which it’s important to keep your cool, and that’s when you make a mistake. Imagine, for example, that you’re asked to calculate some financial ratios. And when you get to the end of your solution you realize the final number is way off and that you must have made an error. Do you just hope the interviewers don’t realize? Do you finish incorrectly and just apologize for messing up?

No, you do neither of those things. Instead, you calmly admit your mistake, back up, and correct yourself as you try again. Everybody makes mistakes. Only smart and dependable people admit it and try to make it right. And remember that the interviewers want to see your thought process. So you might say “Wait a second. It seems that I made a mistake. Let’s see… ah yes, here it is.” Or you could try: “Well that certainly seems wrong. I need to go back here and check my work…”

Now let’s go back and run through what we’ve just covered. Remember that good preparation goes a long way in tough situations. But if you don’t understand something, seek clarification. And if you don’t know something, be upfront about it. Do not show frustration. Instead, keep your head on your shoulders and face these obstacles calmly. Even when you make a mistake. Just explain what you’re thinking and move on. Technical interviews can be tough, but let your interviewers know that you’ve got a solid understanding of the basic concepts and that you can deal with adversity confidently.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Technical Job Interviews (Part 1)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how to handle a technical interview.

Whether you’re in finance, engineering, technology, or software design, your job search might involve a technical interview. In a technical interview, you have to do more than just answer questions about your background and experience. You have show you understand the technical ins and outs of your field and have a sharp mind. And you’ll do that by solving technical problems and answering brainteasers.

That might sound challenging, but if you get a technical interview, consider yourself lucky as they’re typically reserved only for the best candidates. But chances are when you face a technical interview you feel more anxiety than good fortune. So how can you head into your interview with confidence and deal with the questions effectively?

For starters, you need to make sure you actually understand the question. If it’s not clear right away what the interviewers are asking you to do, be upfront about it and ask for clarification. For example, you might ask “exactly which programming language do you mean?” Or “should my calculations be adjusted for inflation?” If you don’t understand the exact question right off the bat, your solution or answer will be off base. It’s always best to clarify everything right at the start, rather than finding out you’re confused in the middle of your response.

Once you understand what is being asked, you can craft a good response. And you should realize that a technical interview is designed to test more than just your technical know-how. You’re also being assessed on your communication skills and problem-solving abilities. So make sure your answers are short, concise, and well-organized. Keep this in mind when you prepare for your interview. You shouldn’t just be brushing up on formulas – though that might also be important – you should also be practicing giving good clear answers and solutions.

But good clear answers aren’t always easy, and being clear might require you to take the time to stop and think. Problem-solving is a process. For example, if you’re asked how you would design a program that manages customer information and sorts it for marketing purposes, you won’t be expected to rattle off a solution off the top of your head. You’ll need to think about it. And when you do, avoid filling the time with useless chatter like “hmm… that’s a tough one” or “well, maybe I could try… oh… no, that wouldn’t work…”

But while you want to avoid useless chatter, you do want to show the interviewers your thought process. That’s really what they’re interested in! So think it through out loud. Describe the mental steps you’re taking. Give them insight on how you’re approaching the problem while minimizing “ums” and “ahs” that are meant just to fill the silence.

Another good little strategy you can use when answering questions is relating your ideas or the problem to previous work situations you’ve faced. This is a good way to underline key experiences and show how you’ve learnt from them. For example, imagine you’re in an accounting interview faced with the question “is it possible for a company to show positive cash flow yet be in serious trouble?” You can answer “yes” and explain how a company might be selling off inventory and delaying payables. But you can also add “and I saw several examples of this during my time with KPMG.”

Some questions might require pretty long and complex answers, particularly ones in which you have to design a program or analyze a situation. You might even be asked to work out a problem on a whiteboard. Once again, you need to make sure you’re clear on the task from the get-go.

But you should also make sure your audience is clear at the end of your response. You might say “is that the kind of solution you were looking for?” Or “is there any part of my solution that wasn’t clear?” Or “would you like me to explain any of these steps in more detail?” Questions like that will give you the chance to clear up anything that you didn’t get across perfectly, and it shows that you care about making yourself understood.

Now let’s run through all of this again to make sure you’re clear on what I’ve suggested. Start by clarifying the question, if necessary. Next, craft a brief and concise response. Stop to think when necessary and walk the interviewers through your thought process. Relate problems or ideas to previous experience if you can, and finish up by checking that everyone’s understood.

And remember, this gets easier with practice, so don’t forget to spend some quality time preparing and rehearsing technical questions. In our next lesson, I’ll talk about some common pitfalls and how to avoid or deal with them.

That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Teleconferences (Part 2)

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Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at how to lead a teleconference.

Leading a meeting is rarely easy. You’ve got to manage time, an agenda, and – most importantly – a diverse group of people. Now, what about if the meeting happens by phone, with each person or small group calling in from a different location? Nobody can see each other, and there may be a variety of distractions that you, as the leader, can’t shut out simply by closing the door. Sure, teleconferencing is a marvel of modern technology, but it can be challenging.

If you’re leading a teleconference, the usual advice about facilitating meetings becomes all the more important. That includes having a clear agenda and starting on time, which is sometimes difficult because of an added layer of technical complexity. So well before the meeting, make sure everyone has the correct call-in instructions and that everyone knows what time the meeting starts in their local time. Then sign in early so you can deal with any technical problems as people join.

And what should you do as people join? As the leader, you need to welcome them, by saying things like: “Oh hi Dave. Glad you could make it,” and “Welcome Janet from Miami.” Take the time right at the beginning of the meeting to introduce everyone, or have everyone introduce themselves, saying their name and where they’re calling in from. Remember, people can’t see each other, so they only have voices to go on. Doing a roll call at the beginning let’s people associate names with voices.

Now, during the meeting, your job is similar to that of a traffic controller. You need to help the discussion flow around each point on the agenda and lead the group to destinations, or decisions. A free-flowing discussion is somewhat easier in-person, when everyone can see each other and signal that they want to say something.

But on a teleconference, this is more difficult. You might want to try more formal turn-taking – or “go around the circle” – at certain points because it’s more orderly. For example, you could say: “Okay I’d like to hear what everyone has to say on the CFO’s announcement. Let’s hear from Susan first, then Sam, then Nick and finally Brenda.”

If you do let the discussion flow, you may have to encourage participation from everyone. It’s pretty easy on a conference call, especially with lots of people, to hide in the background. Feel free to call on people by name, like “Tanis, do you have any thoughts on this?” As you manage the discussion, you may also need to help people understand. For example, you might say “Just so everyone’s clear, Tanis just said…”

Managing the flow also means responding when people want to cut in or cut people off, like this: “Okay Roger, if you can just wait a sec and let Tanis finish please.” Or if two people begin talking at the same time, you might have to say something like “Okay, let’s have Wendy first, then Frank.”

The whole point of this traffic control is to instill order and improve understanding. But how do you know if people understand? You don’t have frowns and furrowed brows to tell you that people are lost. So conduct regular check-ins, like this: “Okay, is everyone clear on this so far? Any questions?”

Difficulties with understanding are not only due to a lack of visual clues. Sometimes it’s about how people are speaking. If they are too fast or too soft, ask them to slow down or speak up. And if there’s background noise that’s driving everyone bonkers, suss out the cause and resolve the problem. Remember, people are relying on you as facilitator.

We’ve talked about starting and managing the meeting, but what happens at the end? Just as with an in-person meeting, it’s good to summarize action points before thanking everyone and giving some kind of closing statement. That might sound like “All right, thanks for taking the time today everyone. Have a great day and I’ll send the minutes around later.”

And there you have it. If you follow these tips, you should have a great teleconference. That’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.