Using English in Meetings
An email arrives in your inbox, inviting you to attend a meeting tomorrow – or even today. You know that the meeting will be held in English.
Does that idea worry you? If so, you’re not alone. Here are some typical comments from people in this situation:
· I’m afraid I won’t understand the other participants.
· I’m afraid the other participants won’t understand me.
· If someone asks me a question, will I be able to answer it?
· Most of my colleagues / clients speak English better than me.
· I’m the only non-native speaker in the meeting.
· I can talk about my own job / area of expertise, but general topics are difficult.
· If I make mistakes, hesitate a lot or don’t know the correct idioms, it will make a bad impression.
· If I don’t seem confident in my English, other people may think I’m not confident in my ideas or my expertise.
Almost everyone feels nervous about using a foreign language at work. The good news is that there are a lot of things you can do to make it easier. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about some of them.
We’ll look at this in two ways:
1) preparing quickly for one meeting, and
2) practising for meetings in general.
1) I have a meeting tomorrow and it will be in English
So, you have a meeting tomorrow – or even today - and you know it will be in English. What can you do to prepare? Here are some ideas (of course, it depends how much time you have):
- Identify the issues – exactly what the problems are. For instance, if you’re giving a presentation, do you have the vocabulary you need? Or is the main problem understanding others?
- Get all the information you can. Look at the agenda and find out as much as you can about the topics that will be discussed. Check the meaning of any new vocabulary and, if you have time, try to read something in English that is relevant to the agenda (such as company documents in English) or hear a recording of a past meeting on similar topics.
- Can anyone help? A colleague who speaks good English, or the meeting host, may be able to give you a summary of points that will help you to follow what’s happening more closely.
- If you have to give a presentation or talk, practise it as much as you can. If you have time for an English class before the meeting, ask your teacher to practise with you!
- Is it possible to record the meeting or to be sent a recording of it? It will be really useful to listen to it later.
- Prepare some key language. You may not have time to check all the language you want, but if you know certain key phrases you will feel much more confident. It’s a good idea to make a note of any that are new to you.
Some words you should know:
Agenda list of things to be discussed in the meeting
Item a topic for discussion (on the agenda)
Chair/host the meeting organiser
Participant/attendee person taking part in the meeting
Visuals graphs, pictures, slides etc for information
Stand-in/substitute someone taking the place of a person who is absent
AOB any other business (extra items not on the agenda)
Minutes a written or other record of what was discussed in the meeting
Typical phrases you may hear or use:
Shall we start?
Does everyone have the agenda?
Can you all hear me?
I’m afraid I don’t agree.
Let’s move on to the next item.
Thank you for your time.
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.
Can I check that I’ve understood everything?
Are you saying ….
So, if I’ve understood correctly, your idea is … (and repeat the idea in your own words).
A note on visual information
One way to make your talk or presentation easier to understand is to be very clear about what you are showing – what you want your audience to look at. It may sound obvious, but I have seen some presentations where the presenter didn’t really use the graphs or other visuals, so that it wasn’t always clear what their purpose was. You can clarify with phrases like:
- Can I draw your attention to (this slide/graph/column …)?
- Can everybody see this slide/these figures?
- If we look at (this chart), we can see …
- Let’s move on to the next (slide/graph/column) …
Some general tips
- What about mistakes? Well, the advice about mistakes is very simple: don’t worry! Of course you’ll make mistakes: everyone does. Your fellow participants probably won’t even notice - it’s a meeting, not an English test! Of course, it’s important that as you start to speak more fluently, you also learn to structure correct sentences – but the time for that is in English classes or when you’re studying alone.
- A word about vocabulary – there are a lot of idioms used in business, and different industries and sectors often have their own special words and phrases. With idioms, the best rule is: only use them if you feel really confident that you are using them correctly. A wrong idiom can sometimes cause confusion. ‘Keep it simple’ is the best rule.
- Many people try to speak as fast as possible because 1) they don’t want to waste other people’s time and 2) they think this will make them seem more ‘fluent’ – especially if you feel the other participants are more fluent than you. This is NOT a good idea! It’s much better to speak slowly and make sure that everyone is following you.
- Finally: what advice would you give to someone who has to take part in a meeting tomorrow in your language? Would you tell them ‘Don’t worry – it will be fine’? Probably yes!
2) I want to improve my English for all meetings
Now let’s think about what you can do, over time, to make it easier to use English in meetings, and to help you feel that you can understand and contribute fully.
Let’s start by thinking about all the situations where you will need English:
- Online or face to face (please note that I’m writing this during the coronavirus pandemic!)
- Presenting, chairing, asking questions, taking minutes?
- Negotiating, solving problems, giving an overview, training, brainstorming …?
- Large, small or medium? How many participants?
- Formal meetings scheduled in advance, or quick, informal ones arranged at the last minute?
- With people you know well, or people you haven’t met before the meeting starts?
Maybe you can think of a few more?
The more exact you can be about the situations you’ll be working in, the more you can do to prepare for them all.
In Part 1 we looked at tips for preparing one meeting, and of course these are still important. But over time, there is so much more you can do. And for every situation, the most important thing is: PRACTICE.
At the beginning of this blog post, you may remember there are some examples of typical worries that people have about using a foreign language in meetings. Most of these can be simplified to two main points: understanding and speaking. Of these two, the bigger problem is usually understanding, so we’ll start with that.
Understanding other participants in meetings
In Part 1 we looked at how you can help yourself understand the meeting topics, by looking at the agenda, reading relevant texts and so on. However, very often the problem isn’t what people are saying, but how they say it! Two typical issues are:
· People speak too fast
· You have difficulty with somebody’s accent.
Yes, if you really don’t understand, sometimes you may have to ask for help (maybe using the ‘checking understanding’ phrases in Part 1). But your long-term goal is to be confident that you can understand native speakers– and with practice, you can do this.
Anything at all – company training videos, minutes or recordings of past meetings or conferences – that is relevant to your job will help you to get started.
Then you can move on to examples outside your own job. One tip is to Google search terms such as ‘English meeting video’ – you should find several examples and you can change the search terms to find chairing a meeting, opening or closing a meeting, and so on. You can do the same for ‘presentation in English’ of course, or anything else that will be helpful. If you need help, there may be a transcript (shown below on the left) or you can use subtitles as shown below on the right:
The next step is to practise listening to fast, native speaker English on different topics. Start small: a short audio or video clip is an effective way to help you ‘tune in’. Here’s an exercise you can try: listen to a short programme such as two-minute news on BBC or CNN – like the BBC World Business News. There are subtitles to give you the general topic of each item. See if you can identify the main topic(s) in each item – use the video to help you, and repeat as often as you need.
For a further challenge, try a short video presentation on a business topic – 3-minute TED talks work very well. Remove the subtitles as shown above. Play the video as often as you need to until you can give the main points in your own words. If you still can’t follow it, turn on the subtitles and practise listening and reading at the same time – this will help you get used to the ways words link together in English. If you try a short exercise like this every day for a week or two (it should only take a few minutes each time) you will find that fast, spoken English becomes easier to follow.
You can find an example here:
You can also search for examples of different accents and play them – like this example of US, UK and Australian English.
It may sound strange, but one of the best ways to help you understand in meetings is not to listen to meetings! Yes, of course, it’s a great idea to both read and listen to anything connected to your job in English – but to feel really confident that you’ll understand, you need to practise listening to the type of English you need, not just the topics that will be discussed. In other words, any fast, native-speaker English will help you – so why not enjoy a good TV series and improve your English at the same time?
So, to sum up: to help you understand English in meetings, listen to as much work-related material as you can, then practise listening to fast speakers and native speakers on different topics.
Speaking in meetings
Now let’s look at improving your ability to speak in meetings. As always, practice is key.
If you are giving a presentation, practise it. A very good idea is to record yourself giving the presentation. Then play it back. Make a note of anything that you can improve, and then try again. If possible, share the recording with a native speaker or English teacher, and ask them for feedback.
You can do the same exercise even if you aren’t giving a presentation. Record yourself asking questions, explaining something or giving your opinion on a topic – ideally, practise this with a colleague or teacher. Look at a meeting agenda which is relevant to your job and practise speaking about the items on it.
Role play different parts of a meeting or issues that can come up. Are you confident about doing these things in English?
· Opening a meeting / welcoming participants
· Talking about a technical issue
· Politely disagreeing
· Reaching an agreement
· Closing a meeting
These are just a few examples – you can find many more, with examples of useful language, here.
Practise talking about your job, your company and the projects you are working on, in as much detail as you can. Check the English vocabulary that you will need, but don’t just write it down – use it in conversation.
As with understanding, it’s important not just to prepare for the topics you will discuss but to practise expressing your ideas on a wide range of subjects. Ideally, you should be ready to talk about anything at all!
So, start with an easy warm-up: talk for a minute on something you know well – your home, family or hobbies are fine, or examples like these:
· Something in the local/national/world news today
· An item of technology that you love or hate, and how it works
· How to drive a car – the first lesson
· The view from your room or office.
Then try to stretch yourself a bit more using random topics that you haven’t prepared or thought about – you can find a few examples here:
Give as much detail as you can and try to describe everything as exactly as possible. See how long you can keep going on the same subject without repeating yourself!
You can also try giving short presentations – even explaining a few holiday photos is good practice to start with, as it will make you more confident about using English to share visual information.
In the end, the best way to become more fluent is to keep stretching yourself to talk about ideas and things that are outside your comfort zone - and even if you never talk about these topics in meetings, you will find that general fluency makes you much, much more confident about expressing yourself.
A final thought
As so many companies are international now, it’s normal to have meetings where some of the participants are speaking a foreign language. A big question for managers, CEOs etc is: how do we get all our employees to participate equally in meetings? For the meeting host, the problem isn’t: ‘Is X’s English good enough?’ but ‘How can I make sure that X can contribute to and understand the meeting?’ To see the question of using English in meetings from this point of view, please have a look at this article - it may make you feel better!
Last of all, good luck in your next English-language meeting!