Managing those Mind Monkeys For Better Career Opportunities
Together we’ll discover how to talk yourself into an international career without the bullshit. And at the end of each episode, I give you an opportunity to try out what you have just learned on the show. Because I give you Coco’s Communication Challenge and that gives you an opportunity to get out there and try out one of the tools, techniques or tips that you will have heard on the show.
I’m Corinne Wilhelm, I’m a corporate communication coach with over 20 years experience of helping leaders to secure the career that they deserve through intentional communication, intercultural awareness, and the confidence to show up as the English speaking expert. So let’s get cracking, shall we?
You see, when we speak another language professionally, some words are more difficult to understand with your accent than others.
Now, I am not an advocate of perfect English – after all, this is Lingua Franca. All over the world, people are speaking English at work to make things happen across countries and cultures, from aid to zoos. So, who is to decide what is correct or incorrect? Just because I’m British, that doesn’t mean that I’m entitled to insist that my version is the only pure version on the planet.
In fact, in terms of perfect English, there’s rarely a conversation that you have where it is perfect, even for me as a native speaker. So, perfection is not the goal here, professionalism is. And that comes with practice. We all make mistakes, even in our own languages when we’re stressed or passionate or tired. That’s just the way that humans work – or don’t work. I have episodes about sleep and stress too, because all of this feeds into your performance and that is reflected in your communication. So, I’ll link to those in the show notes.
When I’m working with non-native speakers, there are two types of pronunciation that affect their ability to make a good impression on people. To have more of a professional impact on people, pronunciation counts, both at the individual words themselves, but also the melody, if you like, of the sentence as a whole. And that can influence the impression that you make.
Where you put the focus can make you sound self-centred, disrespectful, doubtful, or unreliable. So, let’s take a closer look at that, shall we? Because I doubt that any of us wants to come across as being arrogant or flaky. But your pronunciation can have exactly that effect.
Now, when you are learning to speak a foreign language, you copy the pronunciation of the teacher at school, for instance. And if you are learning a language independently – like I do – then, you listen carefully to what the native speakers say and you try and mimic their pronunciation. You try and say it the same way that they do. Much like a parrot would do. Now, in order to say something correctly, you have to hear it correctly. And as non-native speakers, what we hear and what we think we hear, are often two different things.
This is why it’s vital to practise saying new words and phrases out loud. Just like you hear your answerphone message differently when it’s played back to you and grown, even in your own language, it’s the same with the way that you say things in a foreign language. That’s frustrating as hell, I get it! In my head, my German sounds very German, just like everyone else’s. But to a German, it clearly doesn’t because I always get asked where I come from. Huh…, how depressing, right?
So, clearly, what sounds to me is very Germanic – is not. That’s why we need to find a communication accountability partner. I’ll come back to that shortly. I’ll give you an example: When I came to Germany, I simply couldn’t hear the difference between “schon”, the word for already, and “schön”, the word for pretty. And a lot of English speakers can’t hear the difference between “quite” and “quiet”. Now, admittedly, the difference is very subtle. You really have to pay attention to hear it, but the meaning is quite different. “Quite” means “just a little bit”, so if I am having one of my hot flashes, for example, I might say, “Ooh, it’s quite hot in here, isn’t it?”, or “Ask Neera, she’s quite good at things like that”.
And “quiet” is the opposite of “loud”. The difference is easier to hear when the words are next to each other. So, for example, “I like working in libraries because it is usually quite quiet” or in German with “schon” and “schön”, I would say, “Oh, sie sieht schon schön aus”. You see? If you hear them together, it’s a lot easier. So that’s my top tip for you: Listen to them together, that makes it a lot easier.
don't assume that you are saying things correctly - check!
Now, if you’re on the way to a party or on holiday, it doesn’t really matter if you make a pronunciation mistake. You can have a bit of a laugh about it, no big deal, right? But in a professional setting, a pronunciation mistake can make it difficult to show up as the expert.
So instead of saying that “the problem is really small, really”, I know someone who’s English is excellent and he often says “wheally small willy”. Well, “Willy” in English is a children’s name for penis, so it sounds like he’s talking about his really small willy. And I’m sure he doesn’t want to be talking about that. So talking about a “really small willy” – not “really small, really” in a business setting can certainly take the attention away from your objection. Especially if someone starts sniggering in the audience. That can certainly affect your confidence and throw you off balance, right? He ended up losing some of the audience as their mind drifted off to smaller parts of the anatomy. A pronunciation fail despite having excellent English.
Or at the beginning of the war with the Ukraine, I was helping someone to prepare as the moderator of an online event, and she said, “Let’s pray for piss”. What she wanted to say was, “Let’s pray for peace”. So, for a solemn situation, making a mistake like this could certainly have backfired. Now, for this VIP client of mine, she made this mistake with me and her lesson was learned, we sorted it out. Now, she went on to moderate this with the tact and diplomacy that she intended to have. So can you see how just a few letters can affect the impression that you have on people?
Now, my intention here is not to make you paranoid, but instead to make you aware of the potential pitfalls and brave enough to reach out for help. If you persistently pronounce a key word in your industry incorrectly, then unfortunately, people start to wonder how good your language skills really are. They might ask themselves “Hmm… if they keep making this super basic mistake in English, maybe I should speak slowly for her” or “Maybe he understands less than I thought he did”.
Say, for example, if you work in an IT department. So, as programmers, they are often more than familiar with the word agile, right? It’s what they’re doing day in and day out. If they see it written down, they immediately know which working methodology is in place. But you would be amazed how many software developers and recruiters, trying to get those guys to join their team, pronounce the word “agile” in a way that sounds like HR. That could be confusing, right?
And if you have ever had someone suddenly speaking to you in a really patronizing way, then think back to what you just said and try to work out what you said incorrectly, or ask your communication accountability partner.
You see, career success is based on people having faith in your abilities. You can be brilliant at what you do, but if you sound uncertain, it affects your trustworthiness. That’s when you’ll hear that you’re not ready for promotion yet or that your colleague got the new account because he feels more comfortable speaking English. We can’t let that happen just because of a few basic and easy to fix pronunciation mistakes, now, can we?
Career success is all about know, like and trust. And if the person you’re speaking to really has to concentrate and focus to understand what you’re trying to say that affects their confidence in you. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it’s human nature to take the easy route. Let’s just twist this around for a moment. If there were two candidates for a job interview and you were recruiting and one is super easy to understand and the other has an accent that you’re having to do cognitive somersaults to understand, then which of these applicants would you prefer to work with in the future?
Do you want to be repeating yourself all the time? Do you want to be straining all day? Human nature, you see? Your pronunciation could be limiting your ability to be noticed at work. So, poor pronunciation could be affecting your ability to perform to the best of your ability and yet it’s so easy to fix. Unclear pronunciation could be restricting the opportunities that you deserve as the expert.
Let’s start with the terms and words that you need in your job or your industry. It’s hugely important to get these right if you want to be taken seriously. The good news is: There are probably only about 20 to 50 of those words, depending on the complexity of your industry and your seniority. I know this because when I worked at Reuters, I was the equity analyst for the Nordic markets, but I could only speak Finnish and some Swedish. So, that meant for the Danish and Norwegian markets I had to start from zero with a daily 9-a.m.-deadline to get my markets up-to-date. So, from day one I needed to learn all of the terminology, otherwise, tickets would start flying in, only adding to my workload. There was no time to procrastinate. If I was to perform as the Nordic equity analyst for Finnish, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian stock exchanges, then I had to learn all of those financial terms in all four languages – like yesterday!
I also had to be able to say them because if there was a problem with the data, I needed to call the stock exchanges to get clarification. Now, I could have done it in English, but since the information in the feed and the newspapers was in those languages, it was just simpler to stick to their language.
Now, this ballpark figure of, say, 40 words per job title has established itself over the years of coaching experts in a wide range of industries. This is what I hear coming up time and time again. It’s around the 40-word-mark. So, have a go, make a list of the words that come up the most often in your industry and make sure that you’re really saying them the right way. Check it – don’t just guess! And remember: Just because you think you’re saying it right or you assume that you’re saying it right doesn’t mean that you’re actually saying it the correct way.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you might well have to pitch to get finance and getting to know the right pronunciation of the financial terms might not feel like a priority for you, but for the decisionmakers it is. It’s what they’ll be focusing on. So, try working with phonetics. Break the words up to make it easier to say: in-for-ma-tion – split it up! There are four sections of the word “information”, four syllables. And, by the way: there was no “s” on there, just saying. “Informations” doesn’t exist, not even in the U.S. It’s singular, always singular.
“Can I have the information?”, “Do you have the information yet?”, “How much information do you have?”, “Is that accurate information?”, “Is the information out of date?” – it’s always singular. Anyway.
So, because it’s a fairly long word for the English language, just put in a couple of gaps, especially if you are presenting. You can learn a script with the phonetics that you need to say it correctly, nobody sees that except you. You can also put the words in bold that you need to pronounce in the sentence, and you can make the part of the word that you need to emphasise in capital letters. Whatever works for you. In time, you won’t need it, it’s just a crutch to get you to where you want to be. In this case a “Yes” for your loan or funding round.
Now, I’ll give you an example on the web page for this episode of how I work with my VIP-clients to do that, and you’ll get to see what I mean with “capital letters” and “bold”.
Now, if you’re working as an academic, for example, whether you work more as a researcher or a professor, but even if you’re working as a guest lecturer or a trainer or something, then words like “texts, hypothesis and analysis” might feel familiar, but I can assure you, the majority of academics struggle to pronounce at least one of these words. That’s okay, you can work on it so that you get to make a good impression on your team members, your boss, and secure the trust and respect of your students. But you need to know where you are going wrong first. The truth is that you are not going to sound professional if you don’t pronounce the basics right.
Let’s take another example: Many of my clients work in engineering and struggle with words like “vacuum”, “correlation” and “accident”. You need to get feedback first to know where to start. Now, I have noticed, especially with women, that doubt can creep into your communication by going up at the end of the sentence. You watch out for this! Next time you’re in a meeting, you’ll hear it happen.
What you need to know is that native speakers will always make a question go up at the end.
Would you like to come to the party?
Are you going to the meeting?
Do you have time for me today?
These are all questions. And at the end, often the last word in the sentence, the intonation goes up. Let me demonstrate taking a classic question used in a daily meeting:
“Is the documentation finished yet?”,
“How are you getting on with the testing?”,
“Have you spoken to the client yet?”.
Can you see?
The intonation went up at the end of the sentence, making it seem like a question, something open for you to respond to.
Now, many Germans can be a little bit lazy about forming sentences correctly, and they just add a “Yes” to the end, which is how it works in their own language. So, it will sound like this:
“Die Dokumentation ist fertig, oder?”
, or they would say in English:
“The documentation is ready, yes?”. Now, in the UK we would use question tags, so we’d say something like: “The documentation is ready, isn’t it?”, whereas the Americans prefer to keep it simple with “Is the documentation ready?”. Now, in the British language, when your intonation goes up at the end, you are telling the listener that it is a question, or at least not a fact. There is an element of uncertainty involved. Now, this is also the case in German, but not as much as in the English language. So, by inadvertently going up at the end of the sentence, it makes the impression that you’re not really quite sure about what you’re saying.
If you are trying to make a statement, provide a fact, or tell people the status of the situation, telling them, not asking them, then you have to watch the intonation at the end of the sentence. It has to stay flat – flat, fact, flat, fact – you decide. Is what you have to say certain? Stay level – the fact is flat – or is it a question, option, suggestion or choice – need to go up at the end. Be prepared for someone to jump in and offer their opinion because your tone of voice just invited your audience to do just that. They want to provide clarity. If people interrupt a lot, the chances are that your international pronunciation is to blame.
So, Coco’s Communication Challenge for this week is to make sure you ask yourself before you say something if it is certain or not. If it’s a fact, keep it flat. Make a decision and change your pronunciation to fit and then observe the difference in the impact you’re making on people. Are they taking you more seriously? That’s communication clout for you, without the bullshit, you see? Just being more intentional about your communication, you can secure yourself a stronger reputation.
Now, the way to intuitively know if you are making mistakes is to listen to more native speakers talk about your industry. Listen, this is the secret sauce. Now, podcasts are great for this. You’re already listening to podcasts, so that’s an easy one for you to introduce into your daily schedule. But if you prefer books, you might prefer Audible, and if you prefer something more chatty, informal and light-hearted, check into Clubhouse. Now, at Clubhouse you’ll hear more American accents, so if that’s easier for you, take the opportunity to listen or even go up on the stage to speak, you’ll get exposure to a wide range of accents, which is great listening practice. And in nearly all of the socials, we have more audio events happening now, including LinkedIn.
So, my VIP-clients get the opportunity to practice pronunciation on a regular basis as I will often get them to write a text or a dialogue about something in their industry, something that they can use later to post on LinkedIn as a rule. I send back the correct version and get them to record themselves reading it out loud. Some people practice on their own first, but the key is to escape the comfort zone where you limit yourself to reading and writing. It is critical to read out loud.
Now, being an advocate of (private) WhatsApp for my coaching, this is something that they can do at a time and place that suits them. And then I’ll pick it up and send back a corrected audio for them to try again. It is this to and fro of pronunciation practice that gives them the confidence to speak up and get familiar with the key terms in their industry. At the same time as building their personal brand through content that is perfect and professional.
I’m a practical kind of girl, and this approach is very popular, even for people that hated reading out loud at school. After all, this is just the two of us, right?
Now, in terms of building their knowledge and network, I encourage my VIP-clients to read an industry article every week. By being up-to-date you establish yourself as the expert and you can share the article by tagging a few other experts, potential clients, or employers on your radar. The trick is to add a couple of lines telling them what you enjoy most about the article, perhaps with an example, a thought provoking question or possibly an exception. Whilst this part has nothing to do with pronunciation, we do ensure that a conversation about the article could happen on the phone or in person by identifying those pronunciation power-ups before that article is shared. If someone was to call on the spur of the moment, you’d be able to talk about it.
So, to do that, the danger zones are identified and marked in pink, not because it’s girly, but just because “pronunciation” and “pink” start with “P”. This type of deep reading gives your brain a bigger bang for it’s buck and you’ll remember more. And in case you’re wondering: “green” is for “grammar”, and “blue” is for “business vocabulary”.
Now, if you’re not sure how to say a word, you mark it in pink. That’s the first scan. The second scan, you say these words out loud. Can you say them or does your tongue do all kinds of things except what you want it to? Mark the problem-makers with a star.
Now, for the third sweep or scan, you can choose the top 5 pronunciation problem-words to create a text out of it. It might be a tongue-twister or a dialogue or a joke. It doesn’t matter. Have a bit of fun with this. Those five words aren’t always easy to fit into a text or a dialogue, but you can be a bit silly to make it work. That’s good for creativity, and a little bit of laughter makes learning easier, too.
My VIP-clients send it to me via WhatsApp to check the pronunciation, it’s convenient and personal. But there are of course online dictionaries that you can use. Feel free to check out the whole list of really useful resources for you to try out.
This is my go to English/English dictionary. Websters has some great vocabulary emails too. https://www.merriam-webster.com/
It also has games and quizzes so you can get lost in the fascination of words is you are a bit word nerdy like me
German into English or English into German, no problem. What I like about this one is that it tells you if it is financial, technological, legal etc
The ads are a bit annoying which is why I rarely use this when I am teaching or coaching
This open source wiki is mulitlingual and becoming a very reliable resource.
Scroll down for examples of the words used in context
Don’t let the cute hippo distract you from the great layout for words, you can really play and explore with words on this English/English site.
My favourite for pronunciation is Webster’s, because they have both English and American and it’s a pretty comprehensive dictionary.
But try them all out for size and see which one you feel comfortable working with because it’s all about making life simpler.
Use the tools that are intuitive for you. You’re more likely to reach out and use the one that works for you.
And remember that some dictionaries are better for engineering than others or better for technology, others are great for finance. So, you do have to experiment. Ask your colleagues what they’re using and just play around with them. You can even identify, say, I don’t know, 12 keywords from your industry and test them out. Make sure that there’s an audio option.
To get pronunciation right you need to start listening to more English.
Make it a habit.
It’s tempting, of course, to watch videos rather than listening simply because it’s easier and possibly more entertaining. However, if you are just listening, like you are now, then, first of all, you’re more inclined to make some notes. And as we all know, making notes boosts learning for many of us.
Choosing podcasts that you feel are enjoyable to listen to, something you learn something from.
Ideally, the podcast host should have a voice that you enjoy listening to, that you find engaging.
Don’t force yourself to listen to someone with a scratchy voice or a voice that annoys you because you just won’t tune in regularly. Listen to podcasts when you’re doing lifestyle stuff and make a commitment to yourself to listen to that show every single week.
“Blinkist” is great for short bursts of learning between 15 and 30 minutes. You have the choice to listen or read, but if you’re on the free version, you cannot do both, like my clients get to do. Remember to make a list of the words they say differently. Focus on logging useful phrases too, because structures are really powerful. Structures that you can use to change topics, share statistics or emphasise a point. This is more time consuming than just listening, but if you genuinely want to sound more professional, then ultimately the magic happens when you focus your attention. This is something I did to learn the languages that I’ve learned.
Get used to hearing how native speakers are saying those words correctly. It is this deep listening that will take you to the next level.
Remember that when you speak up at work, you want to come over with energy, eagerness and excitement. And it’s difficult to do that if you’re not really sure you’re saying the words right. The bottom line is: If you don’t feel 100% confident, if you are speaking but are second-guessing yourself, then doubt will creep into your voice. Our voices give us away. They are as difficult to control as our body language. So, for the sake of your confidence, allow yourself to get to the core of the pronunciation problems that are holding you back because there won’t be many.
A little game that you can play is to shift the pronunciation emphasis within the phrase. This makes you aware of your pronunciation and can pass the time well in traffic when you tend to see a lot of advertising on billboards, bumper stickers, etc.. You can translate it and shift or wait for an English phrase to pop up. Not everything translates, so that can be good for a giggle. But actually, this is something that can be a bit silly with a car full of family members. To demonstrate: You might see a logo on the back of a lorry saying something like “How good’s my driving?”, so then you can say: “How good’s my driving?”, “How good’s my driving?”, “How good’s my driving?”, “How good’s my driving?”. You see? And this is how you can bump the intonation through the sentence. This is what I call pronunciation bumpers.
So, what do you do if you find out that your English is difficult for some people to understand? You observe. You look and you listen. Communication is a two-way conversation, so use your eyes to watch and your ears to listen to what they are saying.
My German grammar isn’t perfect, and although I speak fairly fluently, there are plenty of mistakes. My German accent gives me away every time. I hate that, but it is what it is. Everyone knows that I’m British. I just have to live with that.
But what I do focus on is the eyebrows. This takes practice, but eyebrows tend to give people away. If they are confused or trying to work out what I’m really trying to say – something will happen with their eyebrows. Really look closely at people when you are speaking and make a note of what you are saying when their eyebrows start to wriggle and dance.
Feel free to help the person you are speaking to by repeating the sentence or word again and try speaking more slowly and clearly.
As non-native speakers, most of us speak way too fast.
So be brave about asking people for their support. People often feel flattered, actually. Ask your communication accountability partner to make notes of the words and phrases that you said incorrectly or in a way that they struggle to understand.
Later, the two of you can go through them and you have a better chance of making a better impression next time around.
In return, you communication accountability partner might struggle with something like being diplomatic or getting too upset about things. Perhaps they’re just a little bit boring. In which case you could help them come up with analogies and stories and pull people in for some of that delicious persuasion.
And as I get ready to launch my English Speaking Experts Club, this will be a fundamental part of the programme where you will be working with bodies like this on an ongoing basis.
Communication is so multifaceted that no doubt you will be able to help them and reciprocate. Why not get them to listen to this podcast and you can help each other from week to week. One Communication challenge at a time.
It’s also good to have a colleague in the meeting discreetly making notes on your behalf. Ask someone who is genuinely interested in their own personal development. They will appreciate how important it is to you. Just make sure that they feel appreciated. You can do something simple, like buying them lunch or a coffee from time to time. Colleagues are often keen to help if they see that their time is being appreciated and your tips are being taken onboard. It’s actually quite rewarding to see someone that you are mentoring making a better impression.
Unfortunately, pronunciation problems can really hold you back. And I got into communication coaching precisely for this reason. I could see people’s communication getting in the way of being seen and recognised as the expert. But the thing is this: You really are the expert. You just have to start communicating like the expert.
Actually, until the end of this week – that’s Friday the 13th. – you can still book at 2022 prices. That’s 20% off
Just use the code: Coco146. , but remember, it will expire on Friday, January 13th.
I will see some of you actually next week at the export coffee break on LinkedIn on the 17th of January. So, be sure to register via LinkedIn for some expert advice from Kathryn Read, who I interviewed last week in episode 145. We were talking all about export and some of the inter-cultural wizardry you need to make it happen.
Next Monday, I will have a fabulous new episode for you. Until then, if you want to become known as the English speaking expert, then go forth and complete the Communication Challenge. Make that list of words and make sure you know how to say them.
Have a great week and be the very best communicator that you can be!
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