English is, to quote The Economist, the language of global business. You may feel you already have many of the secrets of better business writing at your fingertips, but writing for a global audience can require a new set of rules. Here are five top tips for communication skills that travel well.
1. Make sure your grammar is accurate
Like most foreign-language training, ESOL (English for speakers of other languages) teaching focuses quite heavily on grammar. In fact, it’s not unusual to find that ESOL students have a better grasp of grammar than many UK graduates. So if your writing is ungrammatical, it will be especially baffling or misleading for your readers. They may read grammatical mistakes as deliberate (and confusing) choices, and they will lack the familiarity with common language patterns to work out what you actually meant.
2. Use short sentences
The longer the sentence, the more likely it is that your reader will lose the gist of it. Long sentences tend to have more complex structures and dependent clauses, which can make the main point hard to work out. They will also look intimidating to non-native speakers. If you have long sentences, try splitting them up so that each is no more than 20 words.
3. Limit abstract nouns
An abstract noun is a word that refers to an event, state, quality, concept or feeling: essentially it’s a thing that doesn’t exist physically, eg meeting, consideration, anger, freedom, research, problem and so on. You won’t be able to get rid of them completely, but try not to have too many in each sentence.
The outcome of the meeting was an agreement to commission research into the subject of Spanish culture to allow for predictions of potential problems.
During the meeting, we agreed to research Spanish culture so we can predict any possible problems.
By turning many of the abstract nouns into verbs (eg ‘predictions’ to ‘predict’) and rewording to eliminate others, you get a more manageable, and much shorter, sentence.
4. Be careful with modal (or ‘helping’) verbs
The main helping or modal verbs are ‘shall’ and ‘should’, ‘will’ and ‘would’, ‘may’ and ‘might’, ‘can’ and ‘could’, and ‘must’. They show how the main verb is meant to be read, and are used very naturally by native speakers. Consider the difference between being told you ‘could’ finish your report by the end of the day (where the main verb is ‘finish’), or that you ‘must’ finish it by the end of the day.
However, they are not as clear-cut as they first seem, particularly for global readers. Look out for unclear sentiments. (The potential problem will be obvious to anyone who’s asked the question ‘Can you make me a cup of tea?’ and received the ever-hilarious answer, ‘Yes, I can’.)
For example, ‘You may leave at 4pm’ could mean ‘you are allowed to leave’ or ‘you might choose to leave’. If you find yourself writing ‘the proposal should be submitted on Tuesday morning’, think whether you mean you expect it to be delivered then, or that it absolutely must be.
5. Avoid negatives
Questions phrased in the negative, like ‘You don’t have the research results, do you?’ are harder to follow and could provoke the opposite response than was intended out of confusion. Be straightforward: ‘Do you have the research results?’.
Double negatives are also problematic. Whereas in English they equal a positive, in some languages (including Spanish) they merely emphasise the negative aspect. We read ‘not unlikely’ as ‘likely’; but a Spanish reader, for example, would probably understand it as ‘very unlikely’.
In some cultures, such as Japanese, the word ‘no’ is habitually avoided. Others don’t even have a translatable version of it. Yet others view negative language as insulting.
As with any writing, it’s vital to know your audience before you begin.