Lost in translation - communication across borders - Business Works
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Lost in translation - communication across borders

Jo-Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory T he international business world is a global village. Created by the influence of the internet, strengthened entrenched trade links, shared expertise and technological developments, travel and international communication have become central to good business.

However, as borders are crossed, expressions and meanings change. Business-like terms such as ‘blue sky thinking’, ‘outside the box’, ‘going forward’ and ‘touch base’, don’t translate well across borders and varying gestures and interpretations can cause confusion and communication breakdown.

Here, Jo Ellen Grzyb, qualified psychotherapist and co-founding director of Impact Factory, highlights the importance of communicating with impact, understanding the non-verbal aspects of communication and optimising common ground. She also warns of some common pitfalls of poor business communication and explains how those working in business can ensure they are being heard loud and clear.

Small World

The international business world has expanded and developed beyond all former recognition over recent decades and despite difficult economic times, cross-border relations have remained the basis for commercial growth through many sectors.

Technology has of course played a key role in this growth, as the internet enables video conferencing, instant e-mail communication and, more recently, cloud computing have provided a platform for real-time updating and sharing of business data.

However, it seems there is still no substitute for traditional face-to-face communication and a good old-fashioned handshake. So much of what we convey and receive in communication is non-verbal, which perhaps is best demonstrated by the struggling tourist madly gesticulating on holiday in order to try and be understood.

Loud and clear

Every person on this earth has a unique ideology, drawn from upbringing, history and culture, as well as education, thinking patterns and perceptions and each person verbalises and constructs sentences in a completely different way. In other words, we each frame communication from a unique set of criteria that no one else could possibly have; our ‘terms of reference’. The potential for miscommunication as a result is therefore very high, even higher if there are language barriers.

When communicating in business, particularly across international borders, it is important to read and use body language. Good eye contact, open gestures and a lack of distracting fidgeting motions all help, as do having a clear idea of the message and desired outcome.

And, of course, communication is not a one way process, so it’s vital that the signs of understanding are being read; eye contact, nodding, smiling and asking questions are good signs, whereas distractedly looking around the room and fidgeting are clearly very bad signs of boredom and disengagement. Encouraging questions throughout the communication or presentation is also vital, as it helps to establish understanding of the content and provides an opportunity for any tricky points to be covered again or explained further if they are being misunderstood. Never assume that you have been understood until you know you have.

Jargon, business-speak and heavily technical language should be avoided, as these can overcomplicate matters and detract from the overall message. Equally, overly complex visuals and presentation formats can distract form the core message and switch off the audience’s interest like a light bulb. ‘Death by PowerPoint’ is an oft-repeated phrase and a phenomenon which most people will have experienced at one time or another during their careers. Needless and seemingly endless PowerPoint slides add nothing to the presentation and messages being given, but simply repeat what is being said by the presenter, or vice versa. Too often in business, presenters follow a format they’ve seen before, repeating the same mistakes.

The secret to creating an impact when presenting or communicating, is to engage the audience by creating trust, which provides a human connection. This can be done by identifying common ground, a link or shared value. A good way to broach this is for the presenter to give some personal information about themselves, which can immediately create a connection and the opportunity to glean information about the audience too, such as interests and passions which can form the basis for a common point of reference.

Being aware of cultural differences is also crucial. For example, some cultures don’t shake hands, some are more literal in their descriptions than others who use copious metaphors. Gestures and greetings very between countries and, while a kiss on each cheek may be acceptable when meeting clients in parts of Europe and the UK, it would certainly not be acceptable in some other countries. The definition of a working lunch also varies from country to county too. In Germany it is unacceptable to continue talking shop whilst eating, all work talk must stop, whereas in the UK we find it perfectly acceptable to continue chatting over our sandwiches at the board table, to save time. Humour also varies between countries, so it is vital to be wary of the fact that what might be found hilarious by a UK audience may seriously offend others, or leave them puzzled as to its meaning.

These communication issues should also be considered when issuing or distributing written content too and not just in face to face communication. The old adage of 'keep it simple stupid' (KISS) comes into play here, especially when developing client newsletters and direct marketing materials. Albert Einstein once said, "If you can’t explain it to a six year old, then you don’t understand it yourself" and if you throw international communication into the mix too, complex or wordy materials will simply confuse the message.

Happily ever after

Everyone loves a good story and the best presentations and communication follow a narrative style. Clear, concise communication which highlights at the start what it will cover, detailing these points in a logical order which tells a story: eg. problem, challenge, solution, resolution and ends with a strong summary of the key points or messages, in a circular structure. Frames of reference should be built up, much like characters in a film, and through the common point of reference the audience will have emotional buy-in. A great presentation should shift an audience’s perspective.

It is my view that regardless of what nation we live in, our line of business or our personal ideology, good communication spans borders and touches people in a unique and memorable way and taking into consideration the factors above can make the difference between a real connection and a communication breakdown.

To contact Jo-Ellen or for more information, please visit: www.impactfactory.com

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