English can be a foreign language

It is time to express yourself, says Cristina Stuart

RESEARCH revealing a shift in British speech patterns hit the headlines this week. Young people, it suggests, are talking like characters out of an Australian soap opera and are unable to express their views or impart information firmly and confidently.

This is a worrying trend. I believe that as a nation we are developing a communication problem and it is beginning to affect corporate performance.

The blame cannot be laid entirely at the door of Neighbours. A lack of emphasis on the spoken word in education and the current reliance on information technology has created a generation of managers who mumble, speak too quickly and lack confidence.

The trouble with the speech patterns that are emerging in business is that they do not convey professionalism and authority. Research by Barbara Bradford, a language expert, highlights, for example, a tendency to raise the tone of voice towards the end of a sentence - a practice that turns a statement into a question. I have noticed other anomalies. First, there is the "tag" question ("It's a growing market, isn't it?"), which gives the impression the speaker is not sure of his or her ground and is seeking reassurance.

Then there is the qualifying statement ("We're quite successful"), which demonstrates a reluctance to commit fully to a view. Finally, there is the disclaimer, which generally prefaces an opinion ("You'll probably disagree with me, but ..."). The message the speaker is trying to get across to colleagues or a client is immediately devalued.

A typical scenario is the internal meeting in which a manager fails to get backing for a project. Later, the same idea is put forward by a more articulate, confident colleague and wins universal approval. In other words it is not just what you say, it is also how you say it.

People who work in information technology are often the worst offenders. Long hours spent in front of a computer screen have damaged their interpersonal and social skills.

I do not have to be told at the start of a public training course which of the delegates are IT professionals. They are generally the ones standing slightly apart from the crowd, clutching their coffee and hoping no one will speak to them.

The professions are poor at getting their message across, too. The lawyers and accountants rising through today's ranks are no doubt highly skilled in the technicalities but they often perform badly in new business beauty parades and struggle to build rapport with clients.

How many presentations have you sat through that are delivered in a monotone by a manager with about as much charisma as a sack of potatoes? How often have your attempts to use a professional service been met with hesitation and prevarication, leaving you wondering about the capability of the firm?

Securing business and keeping clients happy is, of course, only a small part of the picture. The inability to communicate clearly is having reverberations across the organisation.

As traditional hierarchical structures are abandoned in favour of flatter organisations teamwork has become more important. But teams will only be effective if their members are able to express ideas clearly, manage conflict, and promote the results of their work. Managers are increasingly shouldering responsibility for facilitating change. But the ability to do this calls for a level of spoken communication that is beyond many, even quite senior, people.

I am not suggesting everyone should start talking like a BBC announcer. But it is about being able to pack a powerful message, understanding how to use language and having the confidence to stand up for your ideas. If this is not happening, organisations must investigate why. Does the corporate culture discourage open, direct communication? Are employees worried they will be seen as aggressive if they speak out? Have interpersonal skills been overlooked to stay ahead in the technological race? Individual managers also need to take a look at themselves and make sure that poor spoken communication is not stifling a promising career.

o Cristina Stuart is managing director of SpeakEasy Training, phone 0181-446 0797.

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