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Skills 360 – Teleconferences (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 participate in a teleconference.

With modern technology, you don’t have to be in the same room to have a meeting with other people. Teleconferencing tools allow us to connect by phone, VOIP, or video from across the country, or around the world. You can even join a meeting from home, your car or on plane at 30,000 feet in the air. Sure, it’s amazing, but teleconferencing brings special challenges, and we have to be mindful of things that real-life meetings don’t require.

For starters, you need to take steps to ensure clear and clean sound. You’ve probably been on a teleconference before and become annoyed by the sound of someone typing away at their keyboard. Or you’ve heard someone’s music or the clanking of cups and plates in a busy coffee shop. It’s not just irritating; it makes it difficult to hear people. So minimize this kind of background noise. Find a quiet place and use your mute button wisely. And try to avoid distractions. Some people think a teleconference is a good chance to get other work done, or check Facebook, but there’s nothing worse than getting asked a question when you weren’t really paying attention.

Now, there are several other ways that you can be a good teleconferencer. One of the keys is giving good verbal clues to other participants, because they don’t have any visual clues to go on. When you join the call, announce that you’ve arrived and let everyone know who you are. For example, a simple “Hello, it’s Dave here” should suffice if it’s an internal call. And if you join in the middle of the call, wait for a good time to introduce yourself rather than jumping in right away.

Besides introducing yourself at the beginning, you can say your name when you start speaking about something, like “Dave here. And I’d just like to add that we did even better than our original forecasts.” In fact, that example shows another handy technique that we might call “signposting.” Basically, signposting is when we announce what we’re about to do. It could be “I just want to add something,” or “I have a question,” or “I’d like to make a comment about that.” This helps manage the flow of discussion and makes it easier for people to follow you.

Sometimes the discussion gets chaotic. For example, it often happens that two people begin talking at the same time. In this case, it’s polite to let the other person go first, with a simple “please, go ahead” or “after you.” And being a polite and active participant also means demonstrating active listening techniques. In person, you can see someone nod or smile. But on a teleconference, you don’t have that kind of visual feedback, so you need to throw in a few “yeahs” and “rights” and “mm-hms” to show that you’re engaged, or that you’re even still there.

Of course, there are times when you might need to duck out mid-call. In that case, it’s best to just let everyone know, and to briefly announce when you’re back. You don’t want people asking you questions and getting dead air in response.

Now, sometimes it happens that you’ve got several people in a room crowded around one phone hub. It’s usually pretty obvious, because you get a lot of background chit chat. That can be really distracting, so keep that chatter to a minimum. And explain what’s going on in the room if necessary, like if people are laughing because of a joke.

If everyone can take steps to reduce background noise and be active participants in the ways I’ve described, you can have a great teleconference. And when it’s time to wrap up, don’t forget to officially sign off rather than just hanging up. Something like “Thanks everyone. I look forward to the minutes,” or “Great work everyone. Chicago signing off.”

Speaking of signing off, that’s all for today. So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – Dealing with Criticism (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 some more ways of dealing with criticism.

Unless you’re perfect, you have room to improve. That doesn’t sound like a difficult idea to accept, but what is difficult is when other people point it out to us. They might tell us that we’ve done something wrong, or done something poorly, or shouldn’t have done something at all. Some people might tell us in a polite and professional manner, just as a wise and diplomatic boss might. But others might just sound harsh or rude. So, what should we do in the face of criticism?

Well, today I want to focus on validity. That is, on whether the criticism is valid, justified, or reasonable. If it is, then we should treat it as helpful and constructive. And if it’s not, then we might need a different approach.

All right, but first how do we know if criticism is valid or not? How do we know it is correct and reasonable? Well, sometimes you know it’s valid if you’ve heard it before. So, the first time you hear that you don’t sound polite enough on the phone, you might just think it’s one person’s opinion. But if you hear it numerous times, then you’d better watch your language.

Also, valid criticism is often tied to specifics. That is, the person says exactly what is wrong, not just generally that something is wrong. So, “you work too slowly” is questionable. But “you need to pick up the pace because you’ve delivered the past three reports late” is specific.

Of course, as I mentioned in the last lesson, you can ask questions to encourage the person criticizing you to be more specific. And that will help you figure out if the criticism is valid.

But sometimes criticism isn’t valid. Sometimes it’s unfair. Sometimes it’s a grumpy colleague who thinks he will look better if you look bad. That kind of criticism is sometimes delivered emotionally, rather than calmly and reasonably. Sometimes invalid criticism lacks specifics. And sometimes it just comes naturally from people who don’t play well with others.

Again, asking questions can help you figure it out. If the person can’t give you specifics, then maybe the criticism isn’t so valid after all. And if you’re really not sure, you can always try asking for a second opinion. So when Mike tells you that you’re a terrible negotiator, go ask Larry whether it’s true or not.

So why think about whether criticism is valid? Well, first of all because valid criticism is an opportunity to improve. We all need good feedback to learn how we can change or adapt what we do in order to get better. Don’t be afraid of that feedback. Embrace it. It will help you grow.

In other words, you need to learn to say “you’re right,” even when it hurts. In fact, sometimes we get most upset when someone criticizes us for something that we know is perfectly true and that we already feel bad about! But if the criticism is valid, then take it. And if that means you need to swallow your pride, then swallow it.

In some cases, criticism isn’t completely valid, but only partly. Surely you know someone who adds “never” or “always” to every piece of criticism? As in, “you never pick up your stuff in the staff room” or “you always change my settings when you use my computer.” Well, you should still acknowledge the valid part, even if it’s not completely true or it’s exaggerated. So you might say, “well, it’s true that I changed some settings last week, and for that I’m sorry.”

But what about that criticism that is not valid? What about the truly unfair comments that we have to put up with? You’ve got a few options. First, you can ignore it. And if the source is someone who everyone knows is cantankerous, it probably won’t matter. You can also challenge the criticism. Once again, this can mean asking questions. Invalid criticism will fall apart at the seams under scrutiny.

Thirdly, if the criticism isn’t fair because of a misunderstanding, then clear it up professionally, without making excuses or scapegoating. So if it wasn’t you who changed the computer settings, then don’t say “no way man, it was Rick!” Instead, try “I’m sorry but I think you’re mistaken. I haven’t used your computer. It may have been someone else.”

And finally, you can deal with the personal issue behind the criticism. I mean, if someone is criticizing you unfairly because they don’t like you, or they’re competing with you, then it may not be enough to deal with each point of criticism. You need to solve the underlying problem.

So remember, your approach to valid and invalid criticism may be different, but in any case you need to start out with an open mind. If you’re confident in yourself and your efforts, then you shouldn’t feel attacked when you’re criticized. Keep your chin up and learn from what others have to say. After all, you’re not perfect, right?

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

Skills 360 – Dealing with Criticism (Part 1)

Free Resources: Lesson Module | Quiz & Vocab | PDF Transcript | Mobile Quizzes


Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at ways to deal with criticism.

Criticism is something we all have to face. During a performance review, we have to listen as our boss criticizes our work. In meetings, people criticize our ideas. And every day we might hear people criticize us in the staff room and over the phone. We might also hear praise in these situations, but more often than not it’s the sting of criticism that lingers. And let’s face it: hearing people criticize our work, or criticize us, is never really easy.

So, how can we face criticism with the right attitude and approach? Well, start by thinking about the situation and the source. The situation might be formal, like your performance review or another evaluation process. Or it might be informal, like in the staff room.

In formal situations, it’s often a supervisor or superior who is criticizing; in informal situations, well, it could be anyone. It’s important to think of the situation and the source, because that might help determine whether the criticism is constructive or destructive.

Although some people use the word “criticism” to refer to unfair negative comments, a lot of criticism is actually constructive. I mean, it’s intended to help us do something better, to improve, to change in positive ways. Of course, there’s always destructive criticism, which has different motivations. Destructive criticism is sometimes personal, intended to hurt people rather than help people. You need to be able to handle both.

Now, we’ve talked about formal and informal situations and constructive and destructive criticism. You can probably see the difference here: constructive criticism in formal situations is just a part of working life! More than that, it’s necessary. And your job probably requires you to deliver this type of criticism too. So you should look at this criticism as an opportunity – as hard as that might be to do.

Okay, but what about destructive criticism, especially in informal situations? I mean, what do you do when Dave your snarky colleague says “Geez, you really messed up that presentation, didn’t you?” Well, your attitude and approach shouldn’t actually be too different, even though you want to tell Dave exactly what you think of him.

You see, the best thing to do first, no matter what the situation, is to ask a question. If your boss says you need to take more initiative, you can ask “can you give me an example of a situation where I should have taken more initiative?” And if Dave tells you you’re terrible with PowerPoint, you can ask, “what do you think I need to do better, Dave?” By asking questions, you show that you take constructive criticism seriously, and you can challenge destructive criticism. Either way, you are maintaining a professional attitude.

The alternative to maintaining a professional attitude is getting defensive, angry, or resentful. In other words, responding emotionally. Nothing good will come of that type of reaction, regardless of the situation. In fact, studies have shown a connection between emotional responses to criticism and a lack of confidence or self-esteem. It’s true! If you get defensive, you show people that you’re fragile, and that’s not one of the qualities that leads to success.

Maintaining a professional attitude also means not shooting back with your own criticism against the other person. So that means we shouldn’t say “Oh yeah Dave? Well your writing skills leave a lot to be desired.” That kind of response is a one-way ticket to a nasty argument.

Of course, you probably wouldn’t be tempted to respond critically in a formal situation, when you’re listening to your boss review your performance. Still, in these formal situations, criticism can still be tough, and some people are not very skilled at giving criticism gently. We’ve all had bosses who sound harsh, or rude, without even knowing it. But we still need to separate the how from the what. That is, it’s not about tone of voice or word choice. It’s about the work, the performance, and the outcomes.

That’s the secret right there: think about outcomes. Don’t take things too personally. Instead, leave your ego out of it and consider your work objectively. Think about what you do and how you might do it better. If you can focus on improvement, and maintain a professional attitude, you’ll shine in the face of criticism, no matter what the situation.

So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – How to Improve your English Vocabulary 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 more ways to take your English vocabulary to the next level.

So, you’ve found some great resources for studying English that suit your purpose. You’ve got a variety of listening and reading material chock full of great words and expressions that you want to learn to use. But how do you do it? How do you take those words and expressions and not only remember them but also make them an active part of your working vocabulary? Well, there are several things to keep in mind, and a few key techniques that you can use, as we’ll see today.

One really important idea is that words are used in groups. Sometimes we call them “chunks” or “collocations.” The basic idea is that we put words together in common patterns, and we should learn those patterns, not just individual words. Think of a simple sentence like “Dave is interested in golf.” Understanding what “interested” means is a piece of cake. But if you really want to make that a useful word, you need to pay attention to the fact that we say be interested in something. Take another example like the noun “profit.” It’s hard to use the word if you don’t know that we usually say make a profit or turn a profit.

The idea of groups of words is especially important when it comes to idioms and phrasal verbs, because together words can have a new meaning. So when we hear “give up”, we don’t think about giving or the idea of up, but the meaning they have together, which is “quit”. And don’t think about squares when you hear the expression “back to square one.” Together, those words mean “start again.”

Once you understand the importance of chunks of language, how can you sort out what those chunks mean? A good starting place is context. Look at how the words are used in the situation. From the situation, you can usually get clues to the meaning. Only after examining the context should you look at a definition. And if you really want to get a solid grasp on the meaning, you should look at more examples of the word or expression in a sentence. Good study materials should give you example sentences to learn from.

But it’s not enough just to notice vocabulary and chew over its meaning. You need to do something with it if you’re going to remember it and be able to use it. That starts with writing vocabulary down. Keep a record of good words and expressions that you come across. Write down the word, the context, and example sentences if you can. This is not just so that you have something to review. The act of writing the word and examples down will help you remember it later.

Okay, beyond writing down what you’ve learned, you need to put your new vocabulary to good use. The means trying to use the words you’ve learned in new sentences. You don’t need to write a masterpiece on business communication; you just need to practice putting that new word into a different context. And if you struggle, look back to where you found it or your example sentences. From that context, you should be able to see how the word or expression fits into a sentence. And again, practicing like this will really give you a leg up in recalling the words.

Okay, it seems like we’ve been dwelling on reading and writing, but let’s not forget listening. Learning words through listening is great if you want to actually apply them in conversation. We can learn how individual words sound, and how groups of words sound together. If you’re using listening materials that include a transcript, don’t lean on that transcript too soon. Really listen carefully before reaching for the written version.

Again, vocabulary you learn through listening should be written down and practiced in sentences. But to really take it to the next level, you should actually say the words. Start by repeating what you hear in your listening. Really try to mimic the sound and flow of speech. Then read aloud from your examples or the sentences you’ve written. And try to make completely new sentences just in speaking. In this way, you’re getting your brain and mouth ready to actually apply the words in conversation.

As you probably realize, it’s pretty easy to forget new words if we don’t take steps to commit them to memory. And even when we remember them when we hear or read them, it can be difficult to use them. But if you focus on chunks of language, if you look closely at how words are used in context, and if you write them down and practice using them in writing and speaking, you’ll be well on your way to building a better vocabulary.

That’s all for today. If you’d like to test yourself on what we’ve just covered, have a look at the website. There you’ll find a quiz about today’s show as well as a complete transcript.

So long. And see you again soon.

Skills 360 – How to Improve your English Vocabulary 1

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Free Resources: Quiz & Vocab | PDF Transcript


Hello and welcome back to the Skills 360 podcast. I’m your host, Tim Simmons, and today I want to look at ways to take your English vocabulary to the next level.

Many students of English have the feeling that they’ve learned pretty much all the grammar they need. Many also feel that they can understand fairly well and speak and write at an acceptable level. But these same people sometimes feel that they’re missing something, and that they say the same things in the same way all the time.

In fact, once you’ve reached an intermediate level, vocabulary becomes more important than ever. You need to add more and more words, idioms, and expressions to your stock of language so that you can take the next step up in proficiency. So how can you learn new words? What are the secrets of expanding your language ability?

First, let’s talk about materials, or what you use to learn English. You need to find good sources of English that will include words and expressions that will be useful to you. I strongly recommend you use both listening and reading materials. If you focus only on reading, as many students do, you won’t learn how language sounds and feels in your mouth. If you focus only on listening, you won’t know how it’s written.

So then what should you be listening to and reading? You want resources that are relevant to your purpose, both in terms of context and topic. Let me explain what I mean. If your purpose is to improve your conversation and presentations skills to do your job as a salesperson, then use resources that teach you conversational English and the language of presentations. That’s the correct match for the context of your English development. And if your work as a salesperson is in the hi-tech sector, then find resources that include vocabulary related to technology. That’s the correct match for the topic of your studies.

I don’t mean that you should limit yourself to only the kinds of language that you’ll meet every day. Variety is important too, and you need to read and listen to things that are interesting to you, not just practical. But there are only so many hours in a day, and if you’re like most people in business, you need to find what gives you the best bang for your buck.

Now, I’ve mentioned what kind of resources you should look for, and you’ll notice that I didn’t mention anything that is specifically about vocabulary. I mean like a vocabulary book, or word lists. That’s because it’s best to study vocabulary in context. You might have memorized words and definitions for language tests in high school or university. But did that really teach you how to use those words? Did you really understand the kinds of situations that those words can be used in? Probably not, so instead of memorizing lists, study vocabulary in its natural environment, and it’ll be easier to incorporate new words into your own speaking and writing.

So, you have found some good resources, and you understand the importance of context, but when you read and listen, which words and expressions should you be learning? How do you choose the vocabulary that you should study? Well, a lot of good study materials will identify the useful vocabulary for you. And they might give you definitions and examples. So with the context and this added info, you’ve got something to work with.

But if you’re trying to choose vocabulary on your own, you should focus on two ideas: relevance and frequency. Put another way: words that suit your purpose and words that are common. Words that suit your purpose are those that are related to your work and your English output. If you never write formally in English, then a word like “hence” might not really be relevant to you. And if you work in finance, then a marketing term like “segmentation” might not be relevant. Words that are common are important, because you’ll hear them more often and they’ll be more useful. So although you might encounter the word “pip” and think it’s interesting, it’s very uncommon, and so you shouldn’t spent your mental energy trying to remember it. There are thousands of more common and more useful words that you should learn first.

The fact is, we can’t learn every word we meet. We need to pick and choose carefully, and that means focusing on what is relevant and common. And we’ll find what is relevant and common in reading and listening resources that have the right topic and language context.

So long. And see you again soon.