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.

 


Objective 

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

Materials 

  • 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.

Procedure 

  • 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.

Debrief

  • 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?

Variation 

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

References

The comic strip was created using Comic Master

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Irritable Concall Syndrome | A structured-sharing activity

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Like most of my Ss, my meetings usually happen over the phone. So, when I saw the first of these strips, I knew my Ss would find it as amusing and close to home as I did. Here’s a 30 minute activity for reviewing common issues that hamper productivity on a conference call as well as addressing these problems using some formulaic language.  You might want to follow it up with a conference call simulation.

Materials 

Printouts of these Dilbert comic strips for each group.

Preparation 

Make enough copies of the comic strips for each group of three or four Ss. Blank cards (I recycled old unused certificates by cutting them into four pieces and stapling two together with the blank sides facing out).

Procedure

  • If your Ss are unfamiliar with Dilbert, you might want to preface it by showing them a brief animated sample from Youtube and pointing out the satirical humour that Scott Adams uses to lampoon modern corporate life.
  • Divide Ss into groups of four and distribute the comic strips to each group.
  • Ask the groups to think about the conference call irritants that underlie the humour in each of these comic strips and discuss whether they have experienced something similar on their own calls.
    • Strip 1: Background noise, not being on mute
    • Strip 2: Low turnout, compulsively being on mute
    • Strip 3: Technical problems, poor planning, bad acoustics
    • Strip 4: Multitasking, not paying attention
  • Now ask Ss to think of at least seven other irritants or problems or issues commonly faced on conference calls. Distributes cards and ask Ss to write each irritant legibly on a separate card.
  • Collect all the cards and shuffle them.
  • Redistribute them, handing out seven to each group.
  • Ask Ss to read the problem and come up with a (here’s the hard part) communication or language solution to the issue. For example, if the problem is background noise,  you might say to your concall attendees “Could you please put yourself on mute if you’re not speaking? or “Could I ask everyone except the speaker to go on mute?” 
  • Collect all the cards and shuffle them again. Redistribute them.
  • Now ask Ss to look through the responses and consider on a scale of 1 to 5 how polite they are and appropriate in a business situation which may involve managers, clients and other key stakeholders. If they rate anything less than four, ask them to tweak the response to make it sound more professional, while also correcting any language errors.
  • Have Ss share the concall irritants along with the suggested responses.

Verbal questions, Visual answers | An apptivity

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At TEDx Gateway 2014, there was a surprise speaker named K.K. Raghavan under the business maverick category. He spoke about all sorts of things but the crux of his talk was on how new technology has zombiefied us to a certain extent and leeched us of our humanity. Among his solutions is an app called Flipsicle – a combination of Twitter and Screenshot_2014-11-30-08-26-13Instagram-like features, whose goal is to evoke empathy. I’m not so sure about the empathy bit but I quite like the app’s main function. Any user can post a question just as people often do on Twitter such as “What motivates you?”. Other users respond by posting an image either from the image libraries on their phones or by taking a fresh photo. The creators of the app have already raised $2 million in seed capital. The app was designed “as a reaction to the two knowledge systems most prevalent in the world today — expert knowledge, which Raghava says is too biased to one person’s understanding, and crowd-sourced knowledge, where the truth that prevails is the one that “survives the edit war”, essentially, “the lowest common accepted bias survives.” This got me thinking and I managed to suss out a language activity.

In lessons on functions, we focus a lot on language for sharing one’s own opinions. However, in the modern, collaborative workplace, you are frequently required to talk about your colleagues’ opinions.  For example, “Jenny feels that we should go ahead with our initial plan however Rob’s take on this is that we ought to wait for leadership approval.”  Although I like Flipsicle, I chose not to use it because it’s got a couple of bugs. The main screen scrolls really slowly and asking questions of a private group is a feature that’s available but not activated. Additionally, some of the questions that have been posted make no sense.

Preparation 

Come up with a list of questions that your Ss will find interesting and write them up on a slide or a flipchart. Bear in mind that you will need to set the task as homework.

Materials

Your Ss will need phones with cameras.

Procedure

Pre-task

  • Display the slide/flipchart with the questions and ask Ss to take a picture of it/or write down the questions.
  • Tell Ss that you would like them to answer these questions for homework. As the inevitable groans start coming in, inform them that the answers must be visual. They will need to take pictures with their phone as responses to each of the questions either at work (if that’s allowed), or on their commute home or back to work the next morning.
  • Encourage them to take lots of pictures but select only one as a response for each question. Ask them to keep these identified images together in a single folder, deleting the others or shifting them into another folder. (This is to ensure that they don’t get distracted showing each other extraneous images).
  • Sample questions:
    • What motivates people to come to work?
    • What is power dressing?
    • What is the colour of success?
    • Why is it important to have friends at work?
    • What sort of a person should a mentor be?
    • What leads to a demotivated workplace?
  • NB: Ss seem to respond much more energetically to negative questions like their nightmare boss than positive ones but it’s really up to the T based on what kind of discussion she wants to facilitate.

Task

  • Ss merrily click pictures on their phones, hopefully not causing offence to anyone.

Post-task 

  • You may want to start your lesson with this activity.
  • Ask Ss to navigate to the folder where they have their visual answers. Bring up the questions on the slide or flipchart. Ask Ss to spend a minute thinking about why or how each of their images answers a question i.e., what does it represent? You may need to demonstrate with one.
  • Get Ss to stand up. Announce the first question. Have Ss mingle, showing each other their visual responses and explaining what it means. After a couple of minutes, move on to the next question. Ss keep mingling, trying to talk to someone new for each of the questions. They should attempt to pair up with at least two people for each question so they hear two different perspectives in addition to their own.

Language focus

  • Divide Ss into groups of four and ask them to share what they heard from their peers for each question.
  • Monitor for language used to share opinions expressed by others. It might also be worthwhile to observe how Ss use discourse markers to contrast differences in opinions.
  • Board some examples of phrases such as “Jaya is of the opinion that”, “Dev feels that”, “Samir’s perspective is that” and ask Ss to think back to the expressions they used to and work as a group to add to the list. Ask groups to compare their lists, adding from each other until each group has a long list of phrases.
  • Identify patterns and move the phrases into frames and slots and ask Ss to write these down individually.

Discussion functions | A turn-taking activity

Discussion functions

A couple of days ago, I wrote about a course I taught last week where I needed to encourage my Ss to speak up. The other activity I used to spur my Ss to participate more actively in discussions was one I borrowed from Leadership Games by Stephen S. Kaagan. I must confess that I didn’t really focus on turn-taking as a skill as much as I did on giving Ss doable ideas for making their voices heard but it could be used quite effectively to practice language for turn-taking. I thought this was a very successful activity.

Materials 

Discussion function cards for each person, you’ll need 1 NT, 1 S, 1 I, 2 Qs and 4 Bs as in the image.

Procedure 

  • Divide your class into groups of 5 or 6 but no more than that or it will get unwieldy.
  • Write up a key for the cards on the WB or on a slide:
    • B: Build on an idea shared by the previous speaker.
    • NT: Introduce a different topic into the discussion.
    • Q: Ask a question of a speaker or the group.
    • I: Interrupt the discussion.
    • S: Synthesize or summarize the points made by other speakers.
  • Announce the topic for discussion. I used this one: “How do we as a service line or an organization stay innovative in an extremely competitive market?” Set the timer as appropriate and allow the Ss to discuss the topic.
  • Each time Ss speak, they must use one of the cards, slapping it on the table as they take their turn.
  • Ss must try to use up all their cards by the end of the discussion. They should be careful to space out their contributions so they don’t end up exhausting their cards too early. This should encourage them to listen to their colleagues and then comment appropriately instead of just hogging the limelight.
  • Debrief the activity by asking Ss to reflect on how they participated in the discussion and what they would do differently if they were to run the activity again. Ask them which cards they found easy to use and which cards more challenging. Did any of the cards compel them to participate in a way they wouldn’t normally do in a meeting?

Adapted from Discussion Functions. Kaagan, S.S., Leadership Games: Experiential Learning for Organizational Development. Sage Publications, 1999, pp.77-79

Speak up | A technique for immediate feedback

I’ve been away in Bangalore teaching a short course for a team of software professionals. One of the areas I needed to focus on was encouraging these Ss to speak up in meetings. Their reluctance to say anything at all during conference calls was leading to serious issues with their clients. This was partly due to inadequate language for expressing different meeting functions for some Ss but for most it was down to cultural reasons. Indian professionals tend not to express their opinions as openly as perhaps their American counterparts. They are particularly hesitant or inhibited when people at a higher career level, key stakeholders or clients are involved; even more so when the topic of discussion involves something negative or unpleasant such as the inability to meet a deadline or a mistake that has cascading consequences.

This particular group represented an extreme because they would simply refuse to speak on conference calls that involved their American clients to the extent that on one such occasion, the client complained to the team’s manager that no one from the team bothered to attend a critical meeting despite the fact that there were five people from the Bangalore office logged in – they were there but as quiet as a mouse.

I used two techniques to encourage Ss to participate more actively and make their voices heard. The first I adapted from a book on Leadership Games which I’ll share soon.  The second was my attempt to put into use some maths puzzle blocks which I received at a recent TEDx Gateway event as a part of a promo by a new international school. It was something I did on the spur but worked out quite well.

The objective of using these blocks to give feedback is to make sure Ss are not just sitting back and listening to others and essentially wasting opportunities for practice during a meeting simulation – but compel them into participating as well as refine their manner of contributing to the discussion. I had two classes and I tried this technique with both. It worked really well with the smaller group of seven but was less effective with my larger batch of 13.

Immediate feedback

Materials

  • Blocks in different shapes and colours.

Procedure

  • Write up a key on the whiteboard preferably using the same WB marker colours as the blocks themselves.
  • Explain the key to the SS and what they should do if they receive a particular block during the meeting simulation.
  • Start the meeting simulation.
  • Observe participation and dole out blocks according to the key. Make notes on how Ss are able to increase their level of participation or enhance their clarity of speech.
  • Take back blocks when Ss increase or decrease their level of participation.
  • At the end of the meeting simulation, after you’ve facilitated content feedback, ask Ss to recall the blocks they received and self-evaluate their speaking skills during the simulation – noting down feedback against little drawings of the blocks in their notebooks. Ask them to share this feedback in pairs or small groups.
  • The feedback against the yellow and red blocks can become things to work on for the next lesson.

Interruptions | A meeting skills activity

Business meeting

Interruptions … it’s something most my learners struggle with and it’s a skill they require daily because no one in a corporate setting can escape attending at least one meeting a day, if not more. To complicate matters, turn taking varies across cultures. In the US, Northern Europe and Japan, interruptions are uncommon and generally considered rude. In France, Brazil and India, interruptions are more common and are sometimes seen as a sign of being engaged. I’ve also observed that some of my learners in India tend to completely shut up when they are in meetings with overseas clients and seniors, to the extent that even when they genuinely need to interrupt to clarify something or provide some information, they don’t.  Here’s an activity that addresses both these issues. For learners who sort of talk over each other, it offers statements that can help them more politely take the turn. For learners who don’t interrupt at for fear of causing offence, it provides practice with interrupting.

Materials 

A deck of playing cards, whiteboard, WB markers. You’ll need to install Triptico and download the interruption spinner file – ideally you’ll need an LCD projector to project the spinner. Alternatively, you could just use an ordinary computer or a laptop.  Fair warning! Triptico unfortunately doesn’t run without internet connectivity but I’m sure you’ll be resourceful enough to find a tech free equivalent.

Preparation 

Divide the deck of cards according to the number of Ss but spread evenly across the same cards from the four suits . For example, if you have 16 Ss, take 2, 3, 4, 5 of Hearts; then 2, 3, 4, 5 of Diamonds and repeat across Spades and Clubs so you have 16 cards in all.  Open up Triptico and access Text Spinner under Selectors. Click on ‘Load from cloud’ and then ‘Load a text file’. Navigate to wherever you saved the interruption spinner file and you’re all set.

Procedure

  • Stage 1
    • Shuffle the cards and distribute them to Ss.
    • Ask Ss to find other Ss who have the same suit as them. Allocate different corners/tables to each suit.
    • Ss work with their groups to come up with phrases that can be used to interrupt during meetings. As groups settle on a list of phrases, ask them to send up group members to write the phrases up on the WB.
    • Elicit corrections if required and add any other expressions that might be appropriate or useful. Organize language into frames and chunks if you’re lexically inclined. Alex Case over at the TEFLtastic blog has a list of expressions for turn taking.
    • Ask Ss to decide whether some expressions are more appropriate for conference calls and which ones for in-person meetings.
  • Stage 2
    • Now ask Ss to regroup. To find their new groups, they’ll need to look for Ss who have the same number as them. So 2 of hearts, 2 of spades, 2 of diamonds and 2 of clubs get together etc.
    • Assign any meeting role play or scenario that’s appropriate to the groups.
    • Bring up the interruption spinner on the LCD projector. Explain to the Ss that once they start the meeting role play, you’ll spin the interruption spinner. If it lands up at Hearts, anyone who has a Hearts card will need to interrupt using one of the phrases listed on the WB and take the turn. There are three googlies as we like to say in India – Red, Black and Random. If the spinner displays Red – anyone who has hearts or diamonds can interrupt; likewise with black. Random means anyone can interrupt (this one’s a whole heap of fun!).

Debrief

  • Ask Ss which phrases were used most frequently and which ones least. What could be the reasons for this?
  • Ask Ss why interrupting might be easier in an in-person meeting (paralinguistic cues) than in telephonic one.
  • Lead a discussion about different perceptions towards interruptions across cultures and encourage Ss to talk about their discomfort if any with interrupting colleagues, clients and stakeholders in meetings.

Triptico Text Spinner

Image attribution: Meeting by John Benson | Creative Commons by 2.0 

Muscular Language | A gender-discourse activity

Man Meets Woman by Yang Liu

I’ve observed that in meetings and other forums, female managers all too frequently offer their perspectives couched in tentative language or hedge their opinions when they ought to be asserting their views more compellingly.  I recently read an article (Women find your voice) in the Harvard Business Review that validated my observations through research done on how men view women and women view themselves in meetings:

 “The male managers we interviewed were well aware that women often have a hard time making their otherwise strong voices heard in meetings, either because they’re not speaking loudly enough or because they can’t find a way to break into the conversation at all. More than a third of indicated that when their female peers do speak up, they fail to articulate a strong point of view. Half said that women allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize repeatedly, and fail to back up opinions with evidence.” (Heath, Flynn & Dolt, p.119)

The team behind the research believe that although their investigation focused exclusively on women, their findings could also apply to professionals from other cultural orientations as well as men who have more reserved personalities. This struck a chord with me because if you’re from a collectivistic, cooperative culture (like India and like a lot of Asia) where you are not used to asserting your opinion, let alone doing so with strong language, it could be challenging to convince colleagues about your views. This is compounded by an indirect style of speaking.

The article inspired me to design an activity which could be used specifically with female professionals and managers or with learners in intercultural settings.

Preparation

It might be a good idea to read the HBR article before you run this activity.

Materials

  • Photocopy and cut up page 1 for the lead-in activity based on how many groups you’re going to create.
  • You’ll need copies of pages 2-3 from this handout for each participant.

Procedure

Lead-in

  • Lead-in to the activity by whetting Ss’ appetites about this topic. Board “Men and women speak differently in meetings.” Ask Ss to work in pairs or groups to discuss their opinions on this topic. Ask them to consider why they agree or disagree and their own experiences. This might be a good time to monitor and write down language that the Ss are using to express their opinions as it will probably dovetail into the language you are looking to highlight. Take whole class feedback.
  • Tell the Ss that a team of researchers did some work in this area and they asked male professionals to evaluate how their female colleagues spoke in meetings. They also asked women to evaluate themselves on their meeting participation style. Signpost the cut-ups and say that you have some comments from the research – from both men and women. However, they are jumbled up and most of the pronouns have been removed. In pairs, Ss will need to decide which comments belongs to the ‘he said’ column and which to ‘she said’. Pre-teach ‘off the cuff’, ‘fully at the table’ and ‘repackage’ if required.
  • After confirming answers, ask Ss to summarize what the male point of view is (women are defensive and emotional and unable to speak concisely and confidently) and the female point of view (women like to prepare and are passionate about sharing new ideas but feel discouraged by others).
  • Interestingly, in these interviews, “men acknowledged that women often struggled to make themselves heard at meetings, but they didn’t always agree with their female peers about the reasons”. (Heath, Flynn & Dolt, p.120)

Muscular language

Text 

  • Ask Ss to skim the conversation and answer question 1. Share in pairs before taking whole class feedback.
  • Ss then scan and answer question 2.
  • Ask Ss what they think about Tanya’s style of communication in the meeting. Elicit that she needs to be more assertive, less defensive and not hedge her statements i.e., own her opinions more fully.  Elicit language that could enable Tanya to overcome some of these issues.

Language work

  • Have Ss go through the conversation and underline words or phrases that they think are weakening Tanya’s position.
  • Ask Ss work in pairs to use words from the Muscular Language box to make her utterances more assertive.
  • As an optional step, you could have Ss read out the conversation in groups using their reworked sentences, focusing on their tone and voice.

Extension

  • Ask Ss to role play the follow-up meeting on Friday where Tanya expresses her ideas more assertively. Remind them that she wants to create an optional mentoring program where people sign-up for self-development rather than being forced into it. Form groups of three or four and have an observer write down weak and muscular phrases used by his or her group members.
  • Alternatively ask Ss to select a scenario that’s relevant to them and role play it, expressing their opinions using more muscular language.

Debrief

  • You may want to highlight aspects of Tanya’s style such as the fact she talks the most out of everyone in the meeting and yet doesn’t manage to get her point across or convince her peers. Ask Ss to notice how David sometimes cuts her off? Ask them what could be some of the reasons for this. Here are some more points from the research that you could discuss, referring Ss back to the transcript:
    • The research found that many women get ‘rattled’ when their ideas are challenged in meetings.
    • Some men state that their female peers don’t stay focused on the issue, go off topic, bringing in unrelated points without backing them up with facts.
    • Other men said that their female peers are not able to articulate a strong point of view and many allow themselves to be interrupted, apologize repeatedly and don’t back up opinions with evidence
    • Men often describe women as getting defensive when questioned and sometimes panicking or freezing when they no longer hold the floor.
    • Women say that they often get lukewarm responses when they propose an opposing view after the group has already started to agree on an idea.
    • Women also say that they don’t like repeating others’ ideas in different words (repackaging) which is something they think their male colleagues do often.

I haven’t yet found an opportunity to use this activity with an all female group. It would be interesting to see how they respond to it. If you do happen to run this activity with your learners, please share your feedback. I’d be curious to know how Ss around the world react to these findings.

References 

  • Lead-in activity and ‘Muscular language’ adapted from Heath, K., Flynn, J. & Dolt, M.D. Women, Find Your Voice in Harvard Business Review, June 2014.
  • Comic strip created using Pixton