English as Business Gobbledygook (EBG) | A comic strip activity

business jargon gobbledygook.jpg

If had a dollar for every time my business participants said “deep dive”, I’d probably be able to retire from teaching and open up a boutique selling bromeliads in the Andamans. This activity is inspired by a Fast Company article with the finger-wagging title, You’re using business jargon to avoid solving problems – here’s how to stop. In the article, the author articulates the following message:

Jargon … usually prevents you from seeing problems clearly, let alone deconstructing them.



  • Develop an awareness of the overuse of corporate buzzwords and their potential impact.


  • You’ll need printouts of the comic strip below. Eco-friendly options including projecting it so that the whole class reads it on the screen or sending it as a JPEG over Whatsapp or Snapchat so participants read it on their own devices or hosting it online and sharing a link.


  • Ask the participants if they know what buzzwords are. Give the participants an example of a buzzword you tend to use very often at work. For example, I sometimes catch myself using ‘leverage’ as a verb (quite a controversial usage).
  • Get participants to work in pairs and create a word cloud of business buzzwords they use frequently.
  • Introduce the comic strip. Use any prediction exercise to help participants to anticipate content such as “Here’s a comic strip about a gang of four super heroes – what do you think they are discussing?” OR “Here’s a comic strip where four people are discussing their brand – what kind of people are they?” OR more contextually “Which of the buzzwords from your word cloud might appear in this comic strip?”
  • Participants read the comic strip and validate predictions.
  • Ask them to review it again, underlining any buzzwords. Pair share.
  • Ask participants to identify the superhero who uses a lot of buzz words. Elicit that it’s the woman with the goggles on her head.
  • Get participants to discuss why she might be using so many buzz words and what the impact is on other people and the discussion.


  • Ask participants to read and discuss this quote from the Fast Company article. Do they agree with the statement?  When do they use buzzwords most often?

We tend to fall back on corporate buzzwords when we feel a need to demonstrate we’re in control. Of course, we do that most often when we don’t feel in control, and jargon ends up communicating the opposite: ironically enough, its hallmark is the lack of resolution that vocabulary conveys, not its clarity.

Ted Leonhardt

Action planning 

  • Have participants discuss their responses to the following questions:
    • When might it be okay to use buzzwords in your business conversations?
    • Would you like to cut down on or eliminate the use of any buzzwords? Which ones and why?


  • You could run a similar exercise for a group of teachers using ELT jargon and learning buzzwords.


The comic strip was created using Comic Master

Ticktock | An intercultural activity

Time cultural differences.jpg

This activity looks at differing perceptions of time by exploring some intercultural critical incidents.


  • Explore varying perceptions of time causes by intercultural differences and their impact on work and relationships.


  • Making tape
  • OHP pen or similar
  • Critical incidents listed below

Pre-activity prep 

  • You’ll need to do this before participants come in. Stick 12 fairly long pieces of making tape in a large circle as if they were points on a clock face i.e., the masking tape takes the place of hour marks that run along the periphery of your imaginary clock.
  • On each bit of tape, write one of the critical incidents.
  • If you don’t have enough space for a clock, you could stick the masking tape on the floor along the walls of your classroom or anything else that works for you.

Critical incidents 

  1. When you mail your Japanese colleague to ask for his opinions on anything, he takes days to get back to you.
  2. Your Belgian French team members come in 5 – 10 minutes late for meetings after lunch, even important ones.
  3. Your Indian direct report commits to deadlines he can’t meet and asks for extensions only after you request for a progress update.
  4. You are debating a critical issue with your German stakeholders and the meeting runs over. You ask for 5 – 10 min to conclude but they refuse to stay.
  5. Your Dutch colleague gets annoyed when you send her reminder mails about upcoming deadlines.
  6. Your Thai client tells you that he will send you his requirements tomorrow but tomorrow never seems to come.
  7. Your Swedish coworker asks you to stop sending him mails over the weekend although you don’t expect him to respond until Monday.
  8. Your American team members want to implement ideas immediately often without spending time thinking through challenges and issues.
  9. Your Brazilian clients spend a lot of time in meetings on social conversation instead of focusing on the agenda.
  10. Your Australian team members stop responding to emails by 4 PM Sydney time and often leave for the day by 3 PM on Fridays.
  11. Your Omani counterpart refuses to commit to a specific timeline, preferring to focus on outcomes and whose support will be required.
  12. Your Filipino direct reports never seem to be able to submit their deliverables per the deadlines you’ve established.


  • Ask participants to stand up and find a partner.
  • Stand at 12 o’clock and signpost the clock on the floor of the classroom and ask the participants to quickly move to their favourite time of day with their partner. Make sure there isn’t more than one pair at each point.
  • Participants read the critical incident on the masking tape and discuss it with their partner. They should look at the situation from the perspectives of the two parties involved.
  • Ring a bell or strike a gong to signal that each pair should move clockwise to a new point and repeat the procedure.
  • You can have the participants process as few or as many critical incidents as you have time to cover. You can also stop and take whole class feedback in between.


  • Use fewer critical incidents.


  • Ask participants to talk about the critical incidents from this list that they have personally experienced or that they found interesting.
  • Point out to participants how easy it is to become judgmental when dealing with cultural differences over time – she’s inefficient – he’s lazy – they’re wasting time etc.

Action plan 

  • Ask participants to reflect and discuss how they would address or resolve intercultural critical incidents caused by different perceptions of time.
  • You could assign a critical incident to each participant and ask them to research different cultural orientations and report back to the group either in the next lesson or through asynchronous online forum.

Listen up | An evidence-based activity

listening skills.jpg

A couple of months ago, I was doing a classroom observation as part of an audit and found myself in a session on listening skills. At one point, the trainer said something to the extent of “to show the customer you are listening actively, nod your head vigorously and use verbal nods, okay?” To *show* the customer you are listening?!  This phrasing and the inane suggestion that followed really troubled me, particularly because I think I too am guilty of handing out prescriptions like these about listening.

What behaviours actually constitute effective listening? This evidence-based activity explores the results of a study done by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman into listening, summarized in this HBR article. While the context of the research and the context I envisioned for this activity both relate to business, I believe it could  also be used in teacher or mentor training situations.


  • Explore perceptions of effective and poor listening and contrast these with the results of research.


  • None but you might want to project key insights from the article on a slide or distribute the article as handouts. Alternatively, you could share the URL of the article URL of the article in a QR code and ask participants to access it on their phones.


  • Divide participants into pairs.
  • Ask participants to take turns talking about how the week’s been so far at work while their partner listens. Each partner should speak for a couple of minutes.
  • Draw a 1-10 scale on the whiteboard.
  • When participants finish talking, have them secretly rate each other on a scale of 1 to 10 on listening where 10 means that the partner listened to them really effectively. They should draw and mark up the scale in their notebook. They should then evaluate themselves on the same scale. Ask participants to think about the ‘why’ behind their scores.
  • Partners should now share their scores with each other and explain for example why they might have evaluated someone at a 7.
  • Seek whole class feedback and board behaviours participants seem to be associating with what they perceive to be effective or poor listening.


  • Present Zenger & Folkman’s research into listening behaviours among managers.
  • You might want to highlight the three attributes Zenger & Folkman suggests people perceive as good listening. Contrast these behaviours with the ones participants came up with:

Not talking when others are speaking

Letting others know you’re listening through facial expressions and verbal sounds (“Mmm-hmm”)

Being able to repeat what others have said, practically word-for-word (“So, let me make sure I understand. What you’re saying is …”)

  • While these tips often form the basis of listening advice in management resources, Zenger & Folkman’s research identified very different conclusions:
    • Good listeners don’t silently nod. They engage the other person in a two-way active dialogue.
    • Good listeners make the other person felt supported and communicate their own belief in them creating an environment where things could be discussed openly.
    • Good listeners are cooperative, not competitive. They “may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.”
    • Good listeners offer feedback or suggestions at opportune moments.
  • Ask participants to consider how frequently they practise these behaviours when they listen. What could be the benefits? What might be the challenges in using these strategies?

Action planning 

  • Time permitting, you could ask participants to review the six levels of listening listed in the concluding section of the article and evaluate at which level they generally listen with different audiences (direct reports, senior stakeholders & leaders, reporting managers, customers etc.)
  • Ask them to discuss what it would take for them to get to a higher level.


Image attribution: I listen by Olaf Meyer | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Culturestorming | An evidence-based intercultural activity

Brainstorming culture.jpg

Brainstorming is better suited to some personalities and cultures than others. Extroverts who “think out loud” and Westerners who have grown up in educational environments where classroom participation is required, usually thrive in brainstorming sessions. But others around the world grew up in classrooms where they were taught to think before speaking and to avoid standing out with unique ideas. As a result, many individuals in the global workplace dread brainstorming sessions and say very little. Livermore (2016)

They say diverse cross-border teams have the greatest potential for innovation. But this isn’t always true in practice. The work horse of innovation is idea generation and the strategy that we reach out to most frequently for idea generation is brainstorming. We treat brainstorming as if it were a universal technique but it’s one that grew out of North American cultural preferences and business norms. There are many cultures that find group brainstorming unnatural, intimidating, and uncomfortable. This activity adapts ideas from this HBR article and helps participants explore the issues surrounding the use of conventional brainstorming in intercultural settings.


  • Develop an awareness of the challenges of brainstorming in cross-border teams.


  • Flipcharts and markers
  • Printouts of a list of idea generation strategies (alternatively, you can project this on a slide)
  • Printouts of the article in its entirety or sections.


  • Divide participants into groups of four.
  • Ask them if they use team meetings and other group forums to generate ideas. How do they normally go about doing this? Participants will generally explain that they use brainstorming.
  • Get groups to create a mindmap with as many team idea generation strategies as possible. You’ll generally find that they articulate different versions of a conventional brainstorming activity.
  • Have groups take a look at each other’s mindmaps and note any differences.
  • Distribute or project a list of idea generation strategies like the one below and ask participants if there are any new techniques in the list. Quickly get feedback on how familiar participants are with these ideas.

1. Group brainstorming: Team members generate as many ideas as possible at a rapid pace by shouting them out while a scribe notes them down on a whiteboard or flipchart. Evaluation of these ideas is not immediate, and occurs after they have been generated.

2. Individual brainstorming: You come up with ideas on your own and send these to your team via email or share them during a meeting.

3. Group mindmapping: A graphical technique for creating a web of relationships between ideas. Team members shout out ideas while a scribe draws a mindmap on whiteboard or flipchart.

4. Individual mindmapping: Team members create a mindmap individually before coming together as a group to uncover insights.

5. Visual storyboarding: Often used by product teams for innovating, team members collectively view visual stimuli in the form of pictures, photographs and customer quotes to identify relationships and generate ideas.

6. Role playing: Team members play different characters such as customers in specific scenarios to discover ideas.

7. Attribute listing: Team members list all the attributes of specific components of a product or service to identify if there is any way to improve them.

8. Visualization and visual prompts (e.g., problem trees, fish bone analysis etc.): One of the team members draws a graphic organiser on the whiteboard and the others suggest ideas that can be populated within it to explore causal relationships.

9. Questioning assumptions: After determining a problem statement, team members come up with as many assumptions (valid and false) about the situation. They then collectively analyse each assumption to uncover insights.

10. Research: Individuals are allocated a problem statement or topics to research which they do by reading or consulting with others. They then bring these ideas to a meeting.

  • Distribute flipcharts and ask each group to divide it into three columns. Label column 1 – US team; label column 2 – Indonesian team; and label column 3 – cross-border team. You can select any other North American or Northern European culture for column 1 and most Asian and Latin American cultures will work for column 2.
  • Ask participants to imagine that they are responsible for facilitating idea generation sessions with three teams (An American one, an Indonesian one and a diverse cross-border team with people from different countries). How would they rank the idea generation strategies that they have just reviewed (where one is the strategy that would probably work best)?
  • Get groups to put the flipcharts on the wall and encourage them to do a wall crawl. Ask participants to defend the strategy they have at the very top and very bottom of their list.
  • To validate the rationale that participants suggest, ask them to either read printouts of the entire article or excerpts depending on their level.
  • Ask participants to compare their own ideas with the research presented in the article by discussing findings in groups.


  • Nominate participants to report back to the whole group.
  • Ask questions to elicit the following insights:
    • Although the article is about brainstorming, many of the other strategies work on similar principles. People come together to spontaneously assert their ideas in an environment that can be quite competitive.
    • Research suggests that in a brainstorming session, the first idea is likely to be the one that people are most receptive to. First ideas tend to be expressed by the most assertive in the group. Cultures like the United States tend to reinforce this kind of behaviour whereas cultures like Indonesia tend to be more reticent about being a first mover.
    • Team members’ level of fluency with English can hamper their ability to participate actively.
    • Asian cultures are often collectivistic, and consequently tend to value harmony and convergent thinking. Brainstorming was conceived by individualistic, competitive Western cultures which value divergent thinking. This behaviour of voicing contrarian ideas in an open forum can seem quite unnatural to many Asian cultures.
    • Whether the team members involved in an idea generation session have a preference for big picture or holistic thinking or a more detailed oriented approach can also affect the dynamics of brainstorming (The article suggests that Americans are big picture and Germans are detail oriented. This is both true and false. Americans are more holistic in their thinking than Germans but when compared to Japan, they are quite detail oriented. Cultural preferences are all fairly relative)

Action planning 

  • Ask participants to think and discuss how they can meet the challenges of brainstorming in a cross-border team (some suggestions are given in the concluding section of the article)


Image attribution: Brainstorm by theimagegroup | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) 

This is crap | An intercultural competence activity

This activity is based on an article by Erin Meyer titled How to say “this is crap” in different cultures. Meyer recycles some material from an old Internet meme about British-Dutch cultural differences. Nevertheless, it demonstrates differences in how people convey feedback linguistically quite well.

intercultural feedback

Image attribution: Meeting by Howard Jefferson | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0


Raise awareness of the cultural gap caused by direct vs. indirect approaches to giving feedback  and allow learners an opportunity to discuss ways of mitigating risks arising from these differences


Make copies of and cut up the table titled ‘Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide’ in this article. You don’t need to use the entire table as participants might take too long to unjumble it. Select four rows that your learners might find interesting.


  • Board the phrase “this is absolute crap” and ask participants if they would ever use this phrase while giving feedback to a colleague about some work they’ve done. Ask them to discuss the reasons for their response with a partner.
  • As you take whole class feedback, you’ll find some participants articulating a softer response such as “this is sort of what I was looking for”. Board these.
  • Derive that some cultures are more explicit or direct in communicating feedback.
    • Upgraders: These direct cultures tend to use upgraders such as absolutely, strongly, or totally before negative feedback to strengthen it such as “This is absolutely inappropriate”. In these cultures, “this is absolute crap” may be perceived as acceptable.
  • Point out that other cultures are more implicit or indirect as perhaps with the utterances shared by the participants for softening the message.
    • Downgraders: These indirect cultures tend to use downgraders such as kind of, sort of, a little, a bit, maybe and slightly to soften the blow. They might also use a type of downgrader called an understatement such as “We are not quite there yet”.
  • Ask participants to categorize some national cultures based on whether they are relatively direct or indirect (bear in mind that indirect cultures like India often perceive themselves as more or less direct).
  • Board participants’ suggestions and circle the UK & the Netherlands.
  • Signpost the cutouts and state that the cutouts belong under three headers: What the British say, What the British mean, and What the Dutch understand. Ask participants to work in groups to put them in the right categories.
  • Get participants to identify the gap between what is being said/meant and what is understood and the problems this might create.

Action planning

  • Ask participants to think about the kind of culture they come from – indirect/direct – and consider their own personal orientation to giving feedback. Do they use upgraders or downgraders?
  • Have them imagine a situation where they are working with someone who has a different preference to feedback than them, what could they do to ensure that they are not misunderstood or don’t end up damaging the business relationship.

Reference: Meyer, E., How To Say “This Is Crap” In Different Cultures in the Harvard Business Review, Feb 2014.

Repeat again | An evidence-based matrix activity

A matrix activity or game is an instructional strategy for getting learners to categorize, come up with solutions, or discuss points presented within a grid. This particular activity is based on research presented in the ‘Defend your research’ section of the Harvard Business Review.


Image attribution: Phone by HanZhan | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0


Redundancies (such as the one in this activity’s name) are seen as a sign of a poor communicator but a study in this area reveals that there may be a strategic purpose behind repeating yourself. The activity challenges learners to question popular perceptions about redundant communication and reflect on how they assign tasks to their team members.


It might be a good idea for the T to read this HBR article – Defend Your Research: Effective Managers Say the Same Thing Twice (or More)


You’ll need copies of the activity handout for each participant.


  • Lead in to the activity by asking participants to discuss in pairs how they go about assigning a task to a team member. You may want to give them an example such as “You need your team member to create a report for you” – how will you go about assigning this task?

Part A

  • Distribute the activity handout and ask participants to read the two caselets individually and fill the communication matrix. You may need to signpost the example and demonstrate that they need to do two things. First, put ticks and crosses based on which modes of communication they’d use in that situation. Second, rank their ticks based on what they’d do first, second, third, etc. Point out that they don’t need to necessarily have more than one tick.

Part B

  • Ask participants compare their matrices in pairs and discuss the rationale behind the modes they’ve selected.

Part C

  • Ask participants to now read the summary of the research provided in the handout. They should compare their own ideas to the findings of the study.

Part D 

  • Get participants to discuss some reflection questions on whether they agree with the study and why managers might be increasingly using redundant communication.

Action planning

You may want to conclude the exercise by getting participants to do some action planning. In light of this research, are there any changes they would want to make to their approach to assigning work?

Reference: Neely, T. & Leonardi, P.M., Defend your Research: Effective Managers Say the Same Thing Twice (or More) in the Harvard Business Review, May 2011.

Apple | An evidence-based jolt

A jolt is an engaging learning activity that lasts for a brief period of time and illustrates one or more important learning points …  A typical jolt does not teach a skill. Instead, it helps you experience an important principle in action and provides you an “aha” moment … They capture your attention by startling you … During the activity, jolts encourage you to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. After the activity, during the discussion, jolts encourage you to share your insights with other participants and to discover that different people have different perspectives.


I design a lot of activities using research published in the Harvard Business Review. There’s a regular feature called “Defend your research” which always inspires me to create a task, a discussion activity or in this case a jolt. Over the next couple of months, I’m going to try to share a few evidence-based activities on this blog.




This activity encourages metacognition and gets Ss to think about how their memory is not infallible and what that might mean for their performance or behaviour at work.


It might be a good idea for the T to read this HBR article – Defend your research: We can’t recall logos we see everyday.


Paper to draw on; the Apple logo on a slide or a printout; crayons and colouring pencils are optional


  • Take a quick poll to see if the Ss use any Apple products. Ask them work in triads to discuss which products they use, their experience overall with Apple and what they think of the brand.
  • Ask Ss to rate on a scale of 1 to 10, how familiar they are with the Apple brand (where 10 means extremely familiar). Have them write this number down.
  • Ask Ss to then rate how familiar they are with the Apple logo. (To make this interesting, ask them to draw a scale and then mark the two ratings on it).
  • Now ask Ss to draw the Apple logo. They can’t look at their phones, look it up on their phones and look in their bags. They must draw it from memory.
  • Once they’ve finished drawing, have them to compare their drawings with their neighbour. Then show them the actual logo and ask them to evaluate how near or far their drawings are from it. They should consider:
    • The shape of the apple
    • Where and how the bite mark is drawn.
    • Where and how the leaf is drawn
  • Get the Ss to take another look at the rating they gave themselves – how well do you know the Apple logo? Would they change the rating in light of this experience? What would they change it to?
  • Ss work in triads to discuss why most of them were over-confident about knowing the Apple logo.
  • Take whole class feedback and introduce the research:

“… there’s a lot of research proving we have a good memory for visual information. But we’re also dealing with attentional saturation. It would be overwhelming … to mentally record everything we see. So subconsciously we let some things fall away.”

The researchers thought that they would get different results with the Apple logo because it’s so ubiquitous. Of their 85 subjects …

“… only one got every part of the logo right, and just seven could draw it with three or fewer errors. And when we put the actual Apple logo in a line-up with seven altered versions, only 47% of people could identify it. We all know it looks like the fruit, but most of us don’t pay attention to the bite or the leaf. And that’s natural. We don’t burden ourselves with information we don’t think we’ll need to use.”

This fact most people are confident about drawing the logo is called “the availability heuristic: “I’ve seen this many times, so I should remember it.”

The researchers ran a similar experiment where office goers were asked to identify the location of the nearest fire extinguisher. Most got it wrong.

“In the study on fire extinguishers we also found evidence that people didn’t recall the location of the one nearest to them because they thought they knew where it should be—a phenomenon called gist memory. Several remarked that it was probably near the elevator and were surprised it wasn’t. We saw the same kind of thinking in the logo experiments. Many students assumed that if they were drawing a leaf, they should also draw a stem. In my own mind, the bite had teeth marks because no real bite is smooth. So our memories are contaminated by all the knowledge we’ve accumulated.”

  • Ask Ss to review this research and discuss its implications in the context of their own jobs. The researchers point to the following connection “Sometimes the information on the periphery is what leads us to the greatest insights, so
    we might want to fight our tendency to filter, our inattention, and our gist memory.”
  • The researchers suggest that failure and a greater understanding of metacognition – how our minds work- can help us combat these effects.

This activity worked well with my learners although the discussion was more about mindfulness in general rather than metacognition at work. I’d love to hear from you if you happen to run it in your classroom.


  • Castel, A. (2015) Defend your research: We can’t recall logos we see everyday in Harvard Business Review June 2015, pp.32-33.