Category Archives: communication

bad email cartoon

Writing better email – 4 tips for clearer written communication

bad-email-addressesEmails. Of course they’re useful. But everyone hates them.

It’s largely because everyone gets more emails than they really want. And even they ones they want to or need to read can be hard work. Because it’s really easy to do email badly.

Get the tone wrong, or make it hard to make sense of because of slapdash spelling and syntax, and it’s easy to leave a poor impression on the recipient. And if your email puts them in a bad mood, are they likely to fully absorb what you’re trying to get across?

I’ve been working with a group of executives in London recently on how to write better email, so here are my 4 rules of thumbs for using email in a way that is accessible, clear and most importantly, less of a chore! Ultimately, we all want to write emails that are hard to hate…

1. Keep it brief

Avoid going into detail, or making complex points. Look at it statistically: the less you write, the less potential there is for making errors!

Even if your written English is flawless, this is a good habit to develop: if you ever see senior executives’ emails, they are often a couple of lines, maximum. They’re busy people, so they have to get straight to the point.

Assume the person reading the email is busy too – they’ll appreciate it if you keep it brief.

Perhaps instead of trying to explain complicated issues in several paragraphs, ask if the other person is available for a phone conversation?

As you get better and more confident expressing yourself in speech, try to wean yourself off using email for anything other than short, routine communications.

2. Having said ‘keep it brief’, be careful about ‘bullet-pointing’ your sentences

I’m not saying don’t use bullet points in the structure of an email: just be careful to avoid using bullet-point style when writing full sentences, especially to someone you don’t know well, or someone you have a more formal relationship with, like a new client.

You might use a bullet-point structure like this:

‘I agree with you about scheduling another meeting for Friday. There are a couple of issues that need exploring:

  • benefits of consolidation between SMC and SBA
  • likelihood of meeting targets given the new corporate structure
  • possibility of further restructurings after the merger takes place

If there’s anything else I think we need to discuss, I’ll let you know before the meeting.’

Bullet-points are basically just lists. They’re a form of note-taking. There’s a certain economy people use when writing lists or making notes: leaving out ‘non-essential’ words and using abbreviations. But sometimes people get into the habit of using this bullet-point style phrasing in conventional sentences:

‘Agree re Friday meeting, need to discuss issues inc. pros/cons consolidation SMC/SBA, chance of hitting targets given new structure, possible further restructuring post-merger. Anything to add, will share before meeting’.

Sure, the second version is brief and snappy, but it’s almost ’text-speak’ – it feels impersonal.

If that second version was addressed to you, how would you feel reading it? Like you were being spoken to respectfully, or like you were being snapped at by someone who’s far too busy to let you take up their valuable time?

By all means be brief, but try to write in complete sentences. Think about the tone you strike: email works best in a conversational tone, and in actual spoken conversation, you don’t miss out words, or abbreviate: no-one says ‘inc.’ when they mean ‘including’, or misses out words like ‘i’ and ’the’, saying ‘will monitor situation’ instead of ‘I’ll monitor the situation’.

3. Massage the reader

Getting the right tone in emails is important, especially when you’re asking for something or have a demand that needs to be met, or want to offer criticism or disagree with what has been said.

Most people have an instinctive sense of tone: the difference between an email to a well-known colleague and one to a client is well understood. Occasionally, and especially if English is not your first language, there are phrasings which are a little awkward or abrupt.

The Brits are a sensitive race: ‘being direct’ can often come across as being rude, especially in writing. So if you’re going to ask someone to do something, or stop what they’re doing and pay you some attention – and definitely if you’re going to criticise or contradict them – you need to massage them a little bit!

Try to put your request in terms of whether it’s possible: can they do this rather than will they do it.

And use the conditional tense, ‘could you…?’ or ‘would you be able to…’ rather than ‘can you..?’ or ‘Will you…?’

Would you be able to help me with this?’

is less abrupt than

‘Can you help me with this?’

or

‘Will you help me with this?’

Chasing up

if you’re reminding people about something they’re supposed to have done, always give them the benefit of the doubt; they might not have had time to do it. It’s subtler than asking straight out.

Instead of:

‘Did you do that research for Aviva?’

Try:

  • ‘Did you get my email about that research for Aviva? ’ 
  • ‘Did you get a chance to do that bit of research for Aviva?’
  • Or ‘Is there any news on that research you were doing for Aviva?’

Or use the passive tense. Instead of:

‘Have you finished that report?’

Try:

‘Did that report get done?

‘Has that report been done?’

4. Don’t rely on spellcheck – proofread carefully

Errors like:

‘Were is the meeting?’ (CORRECTION: ‘Where is the meeting?’)

will not get picked up by spellcheck or auto-correct, because the misspelling forms an actual word.

Look out for incorrect verb forms:

‘Have you send it?’

CORRECTION: ‘Have you sent it?’

And plurals:

‘There are other situation where this occurs’

CORRECTION: ‘there are other situations where this occurs’ 

Above all, it’s important to make time to proofread emails, especially ones with more detailed content. Think of it as saving time for the reader: the more unnecessary errors there are, the more time they will have to spend re-reading and making sure they’ve understood what you meant. Subconsciously they’ll be grateful to you for the extra time you’ve invested in writing clearly.

SOME USEFUL PHRASES

OPENING:

I hope you had a good break/holiday/weekend.

I hope all’s well with you.

Sorry for not replying sooner…

Apologies for the delay in replying…

ASKING FOR SOMETHING:

It would be great if you could…

If you get a chance, would you be able to…

SHOWING GRATITUDE

Any thoughts or guidance you could offer on this would be much appreciated.

Many thanks for your time and attention.

I really appreciate your help with this.

SIGNING OFF

Do let me know if you have any concerns or questions

If there’s anything you’d like to discuss, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

I hope you find these ideas useful. Click here to go back to my homepage or ‘Contact Me’ to find out more about how I can help you become a better communicator. Thanks for reading!

practice-makes-progress

Results that last: 5 tips for practising your speech skills

Finding time to practice regularly is my clients’ single biggest difficulty: it’s the main obstacle in the way of their progress. So when you’re a busy person, spending most of your time and energy on the day-to-day demands of your career, your family and (if you’re lucky) your social life, how do you make sure there’s some leftover to invest in your speech skills?
Here are five tips for anyone who wants to change the way they speak, to get an idea of what it willl actually take. If you’re a past or present client, some of these will be familiar: are you still managing to keep them up?

1. Don’t make it all work and no play

If you need to fine-tune sounds, be disciplined: practice your vowels and consonants regularly, repeating sounds until they become second nature. It’s repetitive, but it’s got to be done.
However, when you come to practice the other techniques we work on – intonation, pace, expression – you need to have a totally differently approach. Use your intuition. Try things out. Dare to do things with your voice you wouldn’t normally do. It should feel less like working out, and more like doing a zumba class or having a kickabout in the park.
Muck around with your voice, and you’ll soon get a feel for how you can use it to really communicate, it a way that is authentically you.

2. Practice little and often

This isn’t the sort of work you can get done by putting in the overtime (even if you had the time to do two or three hours in a day!) One sound a day, for five to ten minutes, is plenty: the most important thing is that you do it regularly, so that the new sounds, the new ideas about speaking, become as much a part of your everyday life as your current speech patterns.
Where and when to practice? Ok, that’s tricky, because unless you don’t mind annoying people, you can’t really run through your vowel sounds on a rush hour tube.
Try working your practice into your morning routine in the bathroom: you have a) a bit of privacy, and b) a mirror. Getting ready to shave or do your skincare routine is a great moment to massage and loosen your articulators – the jaw, the throat, the lips and tongue. No-one will hear you going over your sounds in the shower. Alternatively, some clients say they work best in the car on the way to work. Wherever you do it, make sure you do it most days – ideally, every day.

3. If you can’t speak, listen

If you are in situations where you can’t really practice out loud (like on public transport) use the time to listen: stick your headphones in and listen to the recordings we’ve made of your key sounds, or, if you’re working more on being clear and confident, download a Radio 4 podcast, an audiobook – anything featuring skilled communicators speaking with your target sound.
Don’t just listen to what they say, but how they say it – how they use emphasis, where and when they pause, whether their diction is clear. Or, if you’ve got no audio to plug into, do a bit of eavesdropping! Whatever the accent, you can listen to and analyse the speech patterns of your fellow passengers, your colleagues, whoever’s around. The better tuned your ears are to how others speak, the more clearly you’ll start to understand how to use your own voice, to speak consciously and deliberately to achieve your particular goals.

4. Train hard – then forget about it

When you’re practising, you need to be 100% focused on accurately making your target sound. Then when you go out to work, or you’re with your family and friends, don’t give it another thought.
Focus on what you’re talking about, what they’re talking about, not on whether you hit all the t’s perfectly in that last word. If you start trying to use new sounds in your everyday speech straightaway, you’ll feel weird and self-conscious: family or close friends may notice, and I bet they’ll tease you! Which – let’s be honest – means you’re less likely to persevere with it. Get on with your life, do your practice and gradually, organically, your habits will change and your day-to-day speech will improve without you have to force it.

5. Don’t expect instant results

Now, of course I’m one of the best speech and accent coaches in London, so after a few sessions with me you’re going to completely transform the way you speak and acquire huge confidence almost overnight. I would say that, right?
I’m not saying that (except the bit about being one of the best!) It’s not like getting a nosejob: you won’t go to bed ugly and wake up beautiful. It’s more like sensibly changing your diet; the weight doesn’t drop off immediately, but one day you notice that you can get into that skirt again. It will take at least a few weeks for you, your colleagues and your friends to start noticing any changes – trust me though, they will. But only if you practice!
For those who are short of time (if you’re only in London temporarily, for example) I do offer short courses: intensive 2-day programs where we cover very quickly what we’d usually take ten weeks to work on gradually. The same principles apply though – you will need to develop a practice routine to get lasting results. But you won’t be left to sink or swim: I’ll give you detailed recommendations about what and how to practice, so you see a lasting improvement. Contact me to find out more
Still from The Kings Speech with Colin Firth

Confident speaking and the ‘correct’ way to speak English

Which is more important, confident speaking or accurate speaking – getting the accent ‘right’?
I gave a talk on this topic earlier this month to an audience of Chinese and British-born Chinese (BBC) professionals in London.

‘if I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

When it comes to confident speaking, especially if English isn’t your first language, some people see accent as a shortcut: ‘If I just get the accent right I’ll be good at speaking’.

It doesn’t really work like that.
Correct pronunciation is important for making yourself understood, of course.
But the thing is, as long as the speaker is communicating effectively, most listeners can cope with a bit of an accent. What people find difficult to listen to is someone who doesn’t sound confident.

Someone who mumbles, or speaks too quickly, or hesitates a lot. And a flawless English accent won’t cure you of any of that.

And while we’re on the subject of ‘getting the accent right’… which accent?

What is the correct way to speak English anyway?

Confident speaking for non-native English speakers
Does it matter if non-native English speakers don’t master ‘the accent’?

There’s still an assumption that there is a ‘correct’ accent, a sort of official form of English. You know the sound I mean? It’s not exactly ‘posh’: it’s not the Queen’s English, but it tends to be spoken by middle- or upper-middle class people in the south of England. Linguists call in Received Pronuncation or RP. It’s the kind of accent you hear from most BBC newsreaders.
As for whether that’s the correct way to speak, it’s interesting to look at the question in the context of English as a world language.
Heather Hansen, a Singapore-based voice and speech coach, uses some cold hard figures to get a sense of perspective:·

Worldwide number of native English speakers:         400million

Number of non-native English speakers:                    1.4billion

English speakers in the UK:                                               57million

Native speakers of RP or standard English:                1 million

RP English is native to a tiny fraction of English speakers – even within England itself! Only a tiny, tiny fraction of the English spoken in the world at any given moment sounds like this – and yet all those other billions of English speakers across the globe, despite having the ‘wrong’ accent, manage to get by somehow!
When you look at it like this, it doesn’t make sense to think of RP, or BBC English, as ‘correct’ English.

As long as English is clear, consider it correct.

This was an especially relevant issue for a lot of the audience at this event: all fluent English speakers, if not bilingual, although most of them – whether Chinese-born or British-born –  that I met spoke with a Chinese or Asian-sounding accent. Some of them talked about wanting to ‘improve’ or ‘speak with a better accent’.
Should they strive to sound more English? Hmm. There are around 300 million people in China alone who are learning English – five times the population of the UK (thanks again, Heather). Maybe it’s us Brits who should be learning a Chinese accent!
Instead of a crash course in how to do an English accent (see a previous post if that’s what you’re after) I took them through the first steps of my Effective Speaking program – simple techniques for for confident speaking, including how to use vocal tone, rhythm, pace and pitch to make your speech easier to listen to.
These techniques inspire confidence because they’re practical: if you understand HOW to speak effectively, you feel more in control of how you communicate, and that confidence will spread to your listeners. They’ll be more inclined to listen to someone who sounds confident in what she’s saying, and do you know what’s interesting?
The more confidently you speak, the less we hear the accent. The less trouble we have understanding you.

So I would say to anyone wondering about whether they need to get the English accent ‘right’ – what do you want? Do you want to sound English? Or do you want to really communicate?
I can help you to do either. But however you choose to sound, make sure you speak with confidence.
Contact me to find out more. Thanks for reading!

Filler words: how to avoid ‘um’, ‘er’ and ‘buffer’ speech

“Um, like, Taylor Swift is like, um, so awesome…”

New research conducted by Edinburgh University has found that English speakers, especially younger ones and especially women (like, um, Taylor Swift) are tending use more ‘um’s in their conversation than ‘er’s (or ‘uh’s if they’re from North America), which tend to be used more by older, male speakers.

There are some interesting theories about why that might be, but I’m more interested in why we use filler words in general, and how we can avoid them. Because, um, I think they’re, er, best avoided, y’know?

Most people get annoyed, to some degree, by the overuse of filler words or ‘filled pauses': usually by other people doing it, but often when they do it themselves. I have lots of clients who want to deal with their habit of ‘um-ing’ and ‘er-ing’ constantly.

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift: big fan of ‘um’ and ‘like’

Often it’s the older generation who get grumpy about youngsters like Taylor Swift and their fondness for ‘like’.I spoke to a woman recently who wanted to find a way to stop her ten-year-old daughter saying ‘…though!’ at the end of every sentence, like Lauren the ‘am I bovvered’ girl from The Catherine Tate Show. She thought it was a sloppy habit and, worse, made her daughter sound unintelligent.

It’s because filler words are an unconscious attempt to keep the other person engaging in the conversation, even though you can’t think of what to say: ‘listen, there’s still noise coming out of my mouth, keep listening and it’ll soon turn into meaningful noise’.

Fillers are a substitute for genuine engagement: they’re the conversational equivalent of a webpage that keeps buffering every few seconds. Very difficult to stay focused, as a listener, when the speaker is constantly putting you on hold.

But come on – hardly anyone speaks in complete sentences. Even very quick-witted clever people need time and space to find the words to express themselves. The trick is to do that without the bursts of conversational white noise that put listeners off and make you seem lazy or dim in your speech.

So, how can we avoid using fillers and still give ourselves time to find the words?

It’s much better to use PAUSES and ENERGY to hold people’s attention while your formulate your thoughts.

Pauses are really useful, for the listener and for you the speaker. For you, it’s a brief moment to think what you want to say next, and for your listener, it’s enough time to take in what you’ve just said, before you move on. As long as you pause BETWEEN thoughts, not in the middle of them, it won’t break your flow.

But if you keep pausing, how do you stop people from losing interest – or cutting in, before you’ve finished what you want to say?

This is where ENERGY and INFLECTION come into it. If you can have confidence that the pauses will give you time to find the words, then what you do actually say can be full of vocal energy, rather than trailing off while you think of what coming next. And if you’re speaking to someone in person, you can still engage with them using your eyes and facial expression, even though you’re momentarily silent.

It’s when the energy drops, that people lose interest – not just because there is no noise issuing from your mouth!

And you can use a bright, rising INFLECTION to convey that you have more to add (not a questioning inflection – a blog on ‘upspeak’ and ‘question intonation’ is coming soon!).

The important thing is to use the WORDS, and the PAUSES between thoughts, to keep people engaged – then it won’t matter whether you’re ‘um-ing’, ‘er-ing’, or ‘whatever-ing’. And Edinburgh University will just have to find something else to spend their time studying…

Check out the info on my Effective Speaking coaching on the main website, or get in touch with me to find out how you can improve your speaking skills. Until next time!

 

barmitzvah celebrations

Mazel tov! Brushing up on your barmitzvah speech

I was in the north London suburbs recently with a group of lads preparing for their barmitzvahs next year.

My Hebrew’s a bit rusty, but luckily the religious element of the ritual, which involves learning to recite passages from the Torah, is supervised by a rabbi. I came in to help with the less formal, but equally daunting element: the barmitzvah speech.

Imagine a cross between an Oscar acceptance, where you thank everyone who helped get you where you are today, and a best man’s speech, where you to acknowledge the solemnity – and joy – of the day, while keeping the party guests rolling in the aisles with your perfectly-judged witty remarks. And you’ve just turned 13.

No pressure, then.

With younger clients, I always start with the basics: what is communication and why is it important? Most kids are used to being told to stand up straight and ‘speak up’, but we talked about what effect it has on your audience if your physical presence – posture, facial expression, eye contact – and your voice – loud enough to hear easily, not speaking too fast, and with expression and clarity – convey to all the people listening how much you value what you’re saying, and how much you value them.

And of course, it’s always easier to make your point to 12-year-old boys if you throw in the odd impersonation of characters from South Park. Bet you didn’t know my vocal talents stretched that far…

For kids of 10 and up, I can offer a tailored program of coaching that can help boost confidence, and draw on the natural interest in words and sounds that most of them already have, to overcome selfconsciousness and be assured articulate speakers. Email me at anthony@anthonyshuster.co.uk to discuss what we can do.