English Skills for Business People

It is a fact that thousands of business people are self-conscious about the way they express themselves, to such an extent that they believe it is holding back their career. I know this from my own experience as a private tutor, because many of my clients have been in exactly that situation. They come to me to ask for my help in improving their writing or speaking skills, or both. They feel they are letting themselves down every time they open their mouths or write a sentence, either because of their accent, or the words they use, or because they are worried about a gap in their education.

Often the clients I see are professionals in senior management positions. They are clearly very capable in their chosen occupation, otherwise they could not have risen so high up the corporate ladder. At some point in their careers they find that personal communication skills have become an issue for them. This then damages their confidence – they actually feel inferior to more confident speakers or writers.

The fact is that effective spoken and written communications are more important now than ever before, and nobody feels confident if they think they lack them. The good news is these are skills that can be taught, and at any age.

A whole generation seems to have gone though the UK education system without being drilled in the essentials of English grammar, spelling and punctuation. If you are one of these people, it doesn’t mean you’re inferior, it just means that nobody showed you how to do it. If you like, it’s the same as riding a bike: if nobody ever showed you how, then you won’t be able to do it – but that doesn’t make you a bad person! A capable tutor can take you through the essentials of good written English and give you the skills that may have passed you by when you were at school.

The same goes for good spoken English. It’s a skill and it can be taught. Once you and your tutor have sorted out whatever it is about your speaking voice that embarrasses you, your confidence will soar.

I know what I’m talking about because I have worked with dozens of business people to improve their personal communication skills. Very often before they contact me they have spent years persuading themselves that there is something wrong with them because, for example, they don’t know how to use a semi-colon, or they have a strong regional accent which (they think) makes them stand out like sore thumb among their public school educated colleagues.

The problem, if it can even be called that, is rarely as bad as they have built it up in their minds to be. After a few sessions they get the hang of what they previously thought were the secrets of good English. Their self-consciousness begins to melt away and they are well on the road to being confident, effective speakers and writers.

Curiosity is the key

I have always believed that curiosity was a sign of intelligence. This has struck me over and over again: the people I have met whom I consider to be clever and successful in their field all share the characteristic of an enquiring mind – not just about their own chosen subject but about the world in general. They never stop learning and they are fascinated by new avenues of research. They find other people interesting. On the other hand, those who lack curiosity seem to me to be dull by comparison. Somehow they have decided they already know enough. They lack that spark of ingenuity that makes them want to find out more about what’s around them.

I had suspected this was a personal prejudice of mine, but a recent article seems to show that it now has some scientific backing. Psychologists have found that curiosity and diligence are as important as intelligence for a student’s success. The leader of the research team, based at Edinburgh University, says that “Teachers have a great opportunity to inspire curiosity in their students, to make them engaged and independent learners.”

You could say I was lucky. My parents, although they had no academic qualifications, instilled in their children a love of learning and a sense of wonder about the world. They thought that for any situation in which you find yourself, however mundane, there is something new to be learned to increase your personal intellectual storehouse. At school, the good teachers encouraged this mindset (I think I managed to ignore the poor teachers, although now I am an occasional tutor myself I find I can learn a lot even from their bad example!).

When I was working in the civil service I attended countless compulsory training sessions and workshops of widely variable relevance and originality, sometimes delivered by staff who – let us say – were not gifted trainers. I always tried to approach these with and open, enquiring mind and I usually found that, no matter how tedious the session itself was, I could take something new from it to enrich my experience. Sometimes I’m afraid it was how not to organise a training session, but even that can be helpful! The point I am making is that if we approach these potential learning opportunities thinking that we will get nothing out of them, then that is exactly what we will get – nothing.

I think that the greatest gift a student can be given by their teachers is what the Edinburgh psychologists call a “hunger for exploration”. This is true no matter what subject is being taught. Education is not something that should just be “delivered” like a big heavy box slammed down on the desk, job done. We want our students to be asking their teachers, and themselves, what? why? how? when? who? Where can they find out more?

Curiosity is the key.