At ClearPoint we work every day with leaders who lead in a language other than their native tongue.
They all have different stories. Right now, one client is from the Netherlands working in France and the U.S. for a French multinational. Another is from China working in the U.S. for a Japanese multinational. Another is from Mexico working in the U.S. for a major metropolitan transit authority. And so on.
But while our clients’ stories are endlessly varied, there is a common thread. English, today’s international language of business, is the non-native language in which they must lead.
If your life story resembles those of these ClearPoint clients, maybe you’ve asked yourself: How do I lead in English when English is not my native tongue?
Our answer? Just the same as you would if it were.
The trick? Don’t let the way you speak English—and this blog is mainly about speaking—get between you and your listeners.
Here are five rules that can help.
Rule #1: Motivate yourself—on an ongoing basis—to commit the sounds of English words to memory. It’s the only way. If you can’t distinguish this tree from that tree, you’ll get lost in the forest.
While English is a great language, it sure can be frustrating to learn—at any age. For one thing, its rules of pronunciation seem to have as many exceptions as applications. Take, as one example, the “ough” sound. It’s in “though,” “slough,” “through” and “trough.” All pronounced differently! How can it be?
With all this complexity, your ear will sometimes hear what your tongue cannot speak. That is, you will have an accent. Relax. It’s not the accent that matters. What matters is being understood by your listeners.
Remember, it’s all about processing signals. As a non-native English speaker you need tiny fractions of a second more to process the sounds you will make. And your listeners need tiny fractions of a second more to process the sounds you did make.
That makes Rule #2: Take your time. English is most readily understood when spoken at a measured pace. Don’t make your listeners catch up to you. The cognitive time and bandwidth they spend trying to understand what you said is time they aren’t focusing on what you meant.
Likewise, English relies on consonants for intelligibility. Which leads me to Rule #3: Strongly sound the consonants at the beginnings and ends of words. One result: Your listeners will hear where one word ends and another begins. Another: you will have provided them with a fraction more processing time. Believe me, their brains will appreciate it.
Now, you may not think of poetry when you think about leading in English, but you should. English is a heavily accented—rhythmic—language. And its primary rhythm is called iambic, meaning syllables often follow one another in a pattern like this: short/long, short/long (or unaccented/accented). Such rhythms help listeners’ brains organize the sounds they hear.
So, Rule #4: Read poetry in English—out loud—often. Everything from Shakespeare to Whitman to C.K. Williams. Listen to it on CDs. Even better: Commit passages you like to memory.
The final rule reflects an embarrassingly simple thought. If you want to speak English in a way that doesn’t hinder your leadership, you have to be aware of the way you speak. You have to intend to speak clearly and understandably.
That makes Rule #5: Practice, practice, practice. But not any kind of practice. Bold practice. Pop those “p’s” and snap those “t’s” like you never would in a meeting. Feel uncomfortable! Make your tongue do things it’s not used to. Listen in the car to a well-read book-on-tape and speak aloud—very loud—along with it. Memorize Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and declaim it in the shower.
From that practice will come the awareness and the confidence to bring a new way of speaking to your everyday life.