10 Lessons that Struggling to Communicate Abroad Taught Me About Business Communication

Sometimes you have a need that seems so simple, but you just can’t get out the right words to communicate it to the person you’re speaking to.

This isn’t an unknown feeling when you’re living in your native country, surrounded by people who speak your own language. But, it becomes an everyday occurrence when you’re in a foreign country that has just a smattering of people who speak the same language, and even fewer who are truly fluent.

Words I think I know are sometimes pronounced so abominably as to be unrecognizable to my audience, and attempts to describe what I mean when I don’t know the correct word are only occasionally successful. For a writer accustomed to using language with ease, struggling to communicate well abroad is a humbling and valuable learning experience.

Many of the challenges I’ve faced are extreme versions of communication challenges common in marketing and the business world in general. Here are a few key lessons.

1) There’s always more than one way to say something.

This is one of the first tricks you fall back on when struggling to communicate in a foreign language. When I get to the point in a sentence where I don’t know the word for what I want to say next, I talk around it. A ball becomes “a circular thing you use in a game,” an ATM becomes “a machine you use for change when all you have is a card.” It’s not elegant, but it gets the job done.

Flaubert reportedly re-wrote everything he put on paper extensively and repeatedly while working on Madame Bovary. He knew the best way to get at le seul mot juste was to try out as many different ways to say the same thing as possible.

When writing a business email or a piece of marketing copy, you’re not aiming for the level of literary masterpiece Flaubert was going for; but, you can still manage to produce a better, clearer piece of writing by taking a little extra time to think about alternate ways to communicate what you’re saying.

2) A little preparation goes a long way.

I went out one day recently with the primary goal of finding somewhere I could print out a boarding pass. As many technological terms in Italian are taken directly from the English (computer, for example, is “computer”), I assumed I’d have an easy time finding where I could print something.

Wrong. I had a completely unsuccessful conversation with a man at a local information office who thought I was asking where to go to buy a computer. Only with the help of his English-speaking colleague did I learn both the correct word for “to print” (stampare) and the closest spot where I could go to do so.

Had I taken 30 seconds to look up the word before I went out, I’d have been able to easily and clearly ask for what I needed.

The words you use, as an industry insider, aren’t always the same ones your target audience is likely to use and understand for the same concepts. Anyone who has thrown the title “copywriter” around to people working in different fields is used to having to give the added explanation “that’s copywrite, not copyright.” Knowing the right words to use with the right audience will save a lot of potential confusion down the line.

3) An interested audience will work to understand.

If you’ve already gained the interest of the person or people you’re communicating with, they’ll be happy to meet you halfway in understanding you and being understood. Communication works much better when there’s a buy-in on both sides.

The conversations I’ve had with the people hosting me, those interested in a friendly conversation, or, oh, Italian men who like the ladies, tend to go smoothly as they’re willing to put in the effort to follow what I’m saying, and help me understand what they have to say.

Someone who already has a good relationship with you or your company, or is coming to you based off of the enthusiastic recommendation of a trusted friend, will have a higher tolerance for any communication difficulties because they already like you.

On the other hand…

4) An uninterested audience will begrudge you for not making communication easier on them.

People at shops and train stations are often annoyed at the girl speaking broken Italian because having to communicate with me makes their jobs harder.

Someone not already convinced communication with you is worth the effort, or who has some reason to be unhappy with your company, is going to be much less patient with anything you say that’s hard to understand.

Imagine waiting for tech support on hold for 30 minutes, and then talking to someone who uses tech jargon you can’t follow. Your impulse won’t be to calmly ask them to put that in simpler terms, you’ll probably want to do some yelling.

For anyone that hasn’t already been won over to you or your company, it’s worth making an extra effort to communicate clearly and use a tone that can only be construed as helpful.

5) Context is crucial.

The difference between trying to have a conversation somewhere crowded with loud music playing or in a quiet park or restaurant is considerable. Just as who you’re talking to changes the way to approach a conversation, so does where you are, the subject matter being discussed, and the relationship you have with the audience.

In marketing, this point has less to do with being able to hear the words being spoken and more to do with thinking carefully about how people are coming to the information you’re putting before them. The words you use on the website’s product page will be seen by prospects at a different point in the process, looking for a different sort of information, than the words in your blog posts, emails, or that you share on social media.

The experience of the information you provide in these various formats differs and what you say, and how you say it, should reflect the knowledge of those differences.

6) One-on-one conversations work better than trying to participate in a group.

Hanging out with a group of Italians who are all more comfortable speaking with each other and for each other (e.g. quickly and naturally, with some slang here and there) means I’m less likely to actively participate, and more likely to quietly (try to) follow and learn from those speaking.

There are a lot of benefits to group communication. You have the opportunity to meet more people, learn from the questions and ideas of a variety of minds, and appreciate the difference in expertise and perspective presented.

Nonetheless, a more personalized, focused interaction one-on-one is often much more productive than a communique meant for a large audience.

7) The more you do it, the easier it gets.

Isn’t this just true of everything in life? My first week back in Italy, I thought I’d lost all of the ability I’d gained in my year here 6 years ago. But, the second week I realized my questions and conversations came a little easier, and by the third felt pretty close to where I’d been at the end of my year abroad.

Each conversation boosts my ability and confidence a bit more.

With writing and speaking, it’s inevitable that you’ll get better the more of it you do, especially if you’re mixing research into your practice. The words start to come more easily and confidently, you find yourself getting faster, and you get better at picking up techniques and wording that work.

8) Never hesitate to ask more questions.

The most egregious communication errors occur when people get complacent and assume they’re understanding each other just fine. I might feel awkward asking more questions of an annoyed ticket seller, but if I’m not 100% confident that I know which train to get on and where to get off for my connection, I’m much better off irritating a stranger than getting stuck in some small town in Sicily without knowing where to go next.

With clients, customers, vendors, colleagues, and, let’s face it, friends, family and significant others, you are much less likely to find yourself in conflict if you’re particular about clarifying terms and getting as much information upfront as possible.

You don’t want to learn that your customer thought your product had a capability it doesn’t after they’ve purchased it and are pissed. Or, that your client had a 20-page white paper in mind, rather than the 6-page one you sent in, and now wants you to do over triple the work for the same rate.

If someone gets irked at you for wanting more information and clarification from them, that’s their problem. You want to make sure you know what you’re doing and how to do it right, or what’s the point?

9) Being understood is more important than being clever.

I remember having a conversation with a fellow student in my abroad program years ago about the realization that it’s very difficult to communicate a distinct personality in a new language. Cracking jokes, or communicating personal quirks, just doesn’t have a place when you’re struggling to communicate at a basic level.

Humor and wit in marketing can often work fantastically and give your brand more personality. But, they should be lower on the priority list than communicating who you are and what you do effectively.

If you’ve got a good handle on that part, and someone in your organization is pretty adept in the humor department (there’s nothing worse than trying for wit and failing), then building up that personality around and within the basics can work fine. Just focus on clarity first.

10) You can’t always predict which concepts will be difficult to explain, and which will be simple.

With the Romance languages, many of the more formal and academic terms are very similar across the languages. But, the everyday common-usage terms are distinct. When the Roman Empire was imposing its language on all the territories it conquered, people deigned to use it for some business, scholarship, and writing; but when it came to talking amongst themselves and facing everyday tasks, they held on to their original languages more.

Thus, it’s actually easier to have an academic conversation with someone about great literature or history than to chat casually about the weather, food, or how your day went.

In life, we’re often not all that great at predicting what’s easy for others to understand, and what’s more challenging. Thinking back to the earlier tech support example, the guy on the other end of the line doesn’t know how adept you are with technology. Maybe you’re something of an expert and would be offended if he didn’t speak to you at your level, or maybe you’re the kind of person who really does need to hear that question that frustrates so many: “have you tried restarting?”

We have to be prepared to shift how we talk about our expertise based on the needs of the person we’re communicating with. Sometimes the concepts we think are a piece of cake may actually be those that make our audience want to bang their heads against the wall.

Want to be a Better Writer and Thinker? Learn Another Language


Learning another language is hard. For native English speakers living in a world full of people making an effort to learn English, it can seem like a waste of effort. Counterintuitively, the comfortable position of speaking the world’s dominant language puts English speakers at a disadvantage too few realize. Because we don’t bother trying to learn new languages, we lose the fringe benefits that come with the process.

A recent post on the Radiolab blog takes a look at just what some of those fringe benefits are.

Dr. Ellen Bialystock studies the cognitive effects of learning a second language, specifically during childhood. Her findings:

 Look, I will never say that bilingual kids are smarter…What we can say is that some of the cognitive processes that are part of intelligence are more developed in bilinguals.

On the neurological side of things, there’s actual, literal growth in the part of the brain devoted to vocabulary.

In practical, applicable terms:

  • Learning new, different ways to say things opens up the mind to different ways of thinking. It might not change what thoughts you’re able to have (as was formerly thought), but it does give you different ways of approaching and expressing those thoughts. For those in the business of communicating effectively, it lets you practice and play with methods of wording and structure you may not have considered before.
  • A friend of mine who was raised bilingual once told me she argued with an elementary school teacher who insisted there was one right answer to a question: in her world, every question had at least two viable, correct answers. Bilingualism makes it possible to better process ideas that don’t fit easily together, a valuable thinking tool in a complicated world.
  • Bialystock’s studies show the bilingual are better at tuning out distractions, an increasingly handy skill in the internet age.
  • Her research also suggests bilingualism could help with memory in old age — diminishing the effects of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Most people who have studied a second language at the most basic level are quick to comment that it forces you to learn the grammar of your own language better. In order to learn different tenses and parts of speech, you must gain a refresher in how to talk about grammar, something many of us have forgotten by adulthood, if we ever learned it well at all.

Bialystock’s research mostly focuses on bilingual children, and most of us missed the boat on learning another language as a child, when it’s much easier to gain fluency. Many of the neurological benefits do require fluency to begin taking effect, a state that’s extremely challenging to get to as an adult.

While only so many adults are capable and willing to take on the challenge of linguistic immersion often required to gain fluency, there’s still plenty to be gained by learning what you can. Learning another language tends to go along with learning about another culture as well. Even without reaching fluency, you’ll gain new words, new ideas about grammar, and a greater understanding of the ways other people think and live. It’s hard not to see how that will make you both a stronger writer, and a better thinker.

6 Tips for Effective Communication

Businesses, relationships, and most other things in life that involve more than one person are all dependent on effective communication. Any amount of time spent in a foreign country with a different national language than your own will quickly teach you how much more difficult just about every aspect of life is when basic communication becomes a struggle.

Even in a context where everyone speaks the same language, miscommunication is a serious concern. Many businesspeople have dealt with an email that included an embarrassing typo or a badly worded message that caused confusion and inefficiency. Avoid such failures with these basic tips to ensure effective communication.

1. For written communication: always proofread!

Have you ever gotten an email that just didn’t make sense because words seemed to be missing or were egregiously misspelled? It happens, but it’s so easy to avoid. Proofread everything you write before you send it. In addition to catching basic typos and any sentences that don’t make sense, you’re more likely to catch spots in your writing that lack clarity or could use better wording.

2. Method matters

There are varying benefits to using phone, online chat, and e-mail. A phone call allows for conversations in real time, where multiple people can bounce ideas off each other or make a quick decision in order to meet a deadline. Email correspondence has the benefit of keeping an easily searchable record, enabling attachments and link sharing, and letting the respondent review the email and get back to you on their own time. Chat offers some of the benefits of both: it’s in real time, but also makes it easy to keep a record, for example. To determine which communication method is best for your needs, think about what you need to communicate and the type of response you want.

3. Stay Aware of Your Tone

Try reading emails out loud before sending, sometimes the tone in your head isn’t the one the respondent will hear when they read it. You don’t want to come off as angry or scolding when you don’t mean to be. Be careful that the language you choose isn’t loaded and likely to be misconstrued. Be aware of context, an email to your client should probably have a different tone than one sent to your sister.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask Questions

Arrogance and assumptions are the cause of too many errors. Don’t pretend you know what someone’s saying if you don’t, and don’t assume you do if you’re not sure. Few people are offended or bothered by being asked for clarification, and the type of person who does get bothered by it will almost certainly be more upset with you if the failure to ask leads to an inferior result. More clarity is always better.

5. Know Your Audience

Keep in mind the level of likely knowledge the person you’re communicating with will have. Correspondence with someone who has been working in your industry for years will probably seem prohibitively complex and have too much jargon for someone outside of the industry to grasp. Tailor your writing style accordingly, aim to make all your correspondence as informative and easy for the reader to understand as possible.

6. Read

One of the best tricks to get better at writing and speaking is to read often. You gain a better grasp of language and the most effective ways to use it. The more words and ideas you pick up from skilled writers, the more their techniques will slip into the way you communicate.

10 Questions Copywriters Should Always Ask Before Starting a Project

Being a good copywriter goes beyond the ability to write well. To produce writing that businesses will happily pay for, a copywriter needs to be able to communicate effectively with the client before starting an assignment.

Not all clients know from the moment they commission work exactly what they’re looking for.  When a copywriter comes into the initial planning stage equipped with the right questions, in addition to communicating an impressive level of professionalism, it can also the client gain a better understanding of what they want. If you take the right approach the first time, it can save you the time and trouble of multiple re-writes later.

The 10 questions provided below might need to be slightly tweaked or made more specific according to the type of writing project, but they offer a good starting point for subjects you should be sure to cover in an early meeting with a client or prospect.

1. Who’s your target audience for this piece?

Is it aimed at current clients, prospective clients, PR people, journalists, internal employees, some combination thereof or another group altogether? Are there any particular demographics you’ll be writing for in terms of age, gender, class, etc.?  Your writing style and the information conveyed should vary according to who will likely be reading it.

2. What is the response you’re hoping for?

Should the piece be aimed at driving the reader to a desired action, or is it meant to be primarily informative? What does the company consider the best metric for the success of the piece: how many people view it, how many websites link to it, how many people download it, how many sign up for more information, purchase a product, something else?

3. What is the primary goal you hope to accomplish?

For some writing assignments the main goal will be SEO, meaning the aim is to write something other websites will link to in order to increase the website’s search engine ranking.  For other assignments the goal will be gaining contact information for future marketing, otherwise encouraging the reader to take a direct action, or be more focused on general branding and gaining greater attention for the business in the industry.

Of course, many of the possible goals have some overlap, but it’s crucial that you gain a sense of what the company most wants your writing to accomplish to be considered successful.

4. What are your plans for distribution?

The method of distribution correlates to the likely audience and goals of the piece. A blog post should be treated differently than a whitepaper, a physical mailing or a handout meant to be distributed at a conference.

5. Do you have any stylistic preferences?

Different types of companies prefer to put off different vibes. A tech company made up of employees mostly in their 20’s and 30’s will likely prefer a more casual style of writing than a large Fortune 500 company. Likewise, the writing style of a blog post is generally pretty different than that of a press release. Get a feel for the client’s preferences in advance.

6. What materials can you provide me about your company and products so that I approach this assignment well informed?

If the writing is meant to promote a particular product the company provides, you’ll want to gain a thorough understanding of the product and what problems it solves before working to promote it. Ask for access to any videos, scheduled webinars, current client testimonials, cases studies and any other previous marketing materials the company has available.

As an added bonus, their response to this request may let you know of any current lacks in the promotional materials they have, offering a hint of future opportunities your current project could lead to if you impress the company.

Also ask for information about competitors, knowing what similar companies are doing can provide additional ideas as you’re working.

7.  How often would you like me to check in?

Does the client want the opportunity to offer feedback while you’re in the process of working on the project, or would they prefer to wait until the copy’s virtually complete before reviewing it? Do they want weekly status updates, to feel confident you’re working on it, or are they happy as long as it’s in front of them by the deadline?

This is also a good opportunity in the conversation to clarify how many re-writes you’re willing to do covered by the agreed upon price. You don’t want to end up working on something for months that you expected to have finished in a couple of weeks.

8. When do you need it completed by?

Have a clear deadline so you and the client have the same expectation for completion.  Of course, once it’s established, stick to it!

9. What kind of budget do you have in mind for this?

For most of us (definitely for me!), talking about money’s likely to be the least comfortable part of this meeting. Sometimes, a company may be willing to offer up more for a project than you would think to ask for, so getting a sense of what they have in mind from a budgetary perspective can be valuable

10. What kind of length were you hoping for?

This is another fairly basic question to ensure you and the client are on the same page and also helps you formulate a sense of how long the project is likely to take.

 

Communication is the most important part of most business interactions. By asking the right questions before pursuing a copywriting project, you can approach the material more prepared and have a greater chance of producing results that match the expectations of the client.