2 Myths about Business English and How to Improve Your Communication Right Now

In this article I’ll give you a few tips as well as try to dispel some myths about what constitutes good ‘professional English’.

It’s clear that in today’s globalized workplace, the ability to communicate effectively in English is crucial for your career advancement. Whether you’re working in the US, or for a US firm overseas, or if you simply have US vendors and stakeholders as clients, you need to be able to express yourself effectively. For international professionals, mastering professional English can be a game-changer, opening doors to new opportunities and fostering professional growth. It can also help you create interesting and useful connections with Americans and other native speakers. This is not just about having a skill you can “leverage.” It’s also about making friends, contributing in a concrete way to your team, and forming sound business relationships.

What is Business English anyway?

You might have heard a lot on this topic in your country. What is professional Business English? What does it sound like? Supposedly, it goes beyond basic language skills, right? It’s a more sophisticated form of the language that demands a formal tone, appropriate vocabulary, and elaborate, impressive sentence structure. If you’re going to sound “professional,” your English should be complex and include fancy, memorized idioms such as “what’s our exposure?” and “plug and play.” And if at last you can finally master this esoteric form of English, you will be incredibly successful. In fact, you’ll be King of the World!

Unfortunately, a lot of this is totally untrue. Of course it’s not a bad idea to memorize and use vocabulary and idioms (you should be doing this simply by reading English daily and watching movies on topics that interest you). But this whole approach by and large is completely wrong. I understand why international professionals think this way. I understand where it comes from. But these ideas are doing damage to your career, your self-esteem, and your ability to communicate in the real world.

So now, I’m going to expose a couple of commonly-held myths for the untruths they are and explain what you should be doing instead to improve your business communication.

Myth #1: I have to speak in a formal, sophisticated manner with complex sentences and a lot of advanced vocabulary.

This is utter nonsense. First of all, the business culture nowadays in the US is not like it was in the past (say in my parents’ or grandparents’ generation). It is much more casual than you realize and very likely more easy-going than the business culture in your home country. For one thing, the US doesn’t maintain strict hierarchies. We don’t live in fear of the “big boss” or need to be careful about formalities in our interaction. We’re casual in our business interactions in a way that’s shocking to newcomers. And this is casualness is reflected in the way we communicate. Particularly in the tech world (but increasingly in other sectors as well), Americans have adopted a lighter, simpler, and more casual way of speaking. And you should, too.

Second, if English is your second language, the reality is that simplicity is going to be your best friend. Complex, sophisticated sentences with intricate structures, impressive vocabulary, and long flowing paragraphs sounded great in the 19th century, but they don’t have any place in modern business culture. As Steve Jobs put it, “The best way to convey a complex idea is to make it so simple that even a child could understand it.” In other words, don’t overburden your sentences or your listeners. Remember that the people you’re addressing (team members, stakeholders, potential partners etc) have a lot on their plate. They don’t have time to figure out what you’re trying to say. You need to make it simple for them or they’re simply not going to listen or care. Your primary job is to decrease their cognitive load.

Third, the more complex your spoken English is, the more likely you are to make mistakes. Give yourself a break. Focus on simplicity. Make sure your English is basically correct and clear, and you’ll get better results. Be concise. Long windedness is terrible for business. “Fancy” and “sophisticated” are its worst enemies. You don’t need to sound like a professor or Charles Dickens. And you don’t have to be 100% grammatically correct. Don’t be so hard on yourself. If you’re a CEO or founder, the expectations are higher; you’re representing your company and your brand. Of course the quality of your English should reflect a loftier standard. But for other employees, the key is to be basically clear and concise. That’s it.

Myth #2: I shouldn’t speak up unless I’m 100% sure of my ideas.

This is one of the greatest mindset obstacles that international professionals struggle with in the US workplace. You might believe that if your idea isn’t 100% backed up by data, evidence, and authority, you shouldn’t even mention it. You need to be quiet. You don’t want to embarrass the team or to bring criticism on yourself. You don’t want people to think you’re foolish. You’ll lose your credibility and your career will be ruined. Again, I understand why many international pros think this way, but it’s 100% wrong.

In fact, if you do think and behave this way and you work in a company trying to innovate, you’ll be considered a problem. They didn’t hire you just for your technical competencies. They didn’t hire you to sit there and listen passively. They hired you to contribute your ideas, intuitions, and half-realized imaginings. You’re building a product. You need to contribute. They regard you as intelligent and creative and want you involved in the ideation process. So stop worrying about the consequences if you’re wrong. It’s ok to be wrong. In fact, being wrong is part of the goal. As a lead designer at Google (who was also from Asia) once told me, many of the great innovations come from silly ideas. There’s wisdom in that. In fact, her quote is so good, I need to provide it here in full:

It’s rare for an idea to come out of nowhere; in many cases, it comes from a conversation, a tedious iteration, or even from a failed product. So don’t get frustrated by your imperfect ideas or even if in the moment you don’t have an idea. The idea is not to create it alone, but to create it together with your team members. We can do this together – no one’s ideas are perfect or shiny. They get built up and refined in the group.

No one’s ideas are perfect or shiny. Even VPs and CEOs who’ve been at it for decades have unsure moments. They don’t know what the next stage of development is. They don’t have all the answers. And they don’t need to – and neither do you. As a product manager for a consulting firm I worked with once put it, just use a phrase such as “I believe this is directionally correct.” That one made me laugh but think about the essence of what he was saying. “I’m not 100% sure but I believe this is right based on my experience and my intuition.” That’s enough. It’s ok to be unsure. Your idea might be 90% useless but there are also might be 10% gold in there. Maybe you can’t see that nugget of gold because of your negative mindset, but one of your teammates probably will. And as a group you will create the value together.

The sad reality is that not speaking up might prevent the product from being successful. Think about that for a minute. Worrying about whether you’re perfect or not might be slowing down innovation at your company. Do you want that on your conscience? And as has been the case with several of my clients, you might be in danger of losing your job as a result. So stop worrying and start speaking up. Shoot for baby steps at first. Speak up once a week in a meeting then slowly increase the amount of contribution. It will be difficult at first but keep at it, and you’ll get better.

So in summary, what are my tips to help you improve your business English right now?

1.Stop worrying about perfection in your spoken English and focus on clarity and being concise. The most successful entrepreneurs and leaders rely on clear, simple, concise communication to get the job done.

2.Stop worrying about perfection in your ideas and instead contribute even when you’re unsure. Your teammates and supervisor (and the product you’re all working on) will thank you.

All of this is more important than linguistic sophistication and fancy idioms.

As a bonus, here are some phrases you can use when you’re not sure in order to give yourself an “escape route.” 😉

I am still working through this, but here’s what I think….

I’m still thinking through this, but….

I’d have to go back and check my data, but….

Let me explain what I’m thinking then I can email you some more details.

Still working through the details on this, but….

I’ve gone back and forth on this but…

I’m not 100% yet but this is how I see it….

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