Monday, June 26, 2017


It’s sometimes hard to enter a discussion when others are speaking quickly and fluently, and with passion. As we discussed last time, taking a cue from basketball will help you jump into the game.

This is a problem for anyone who is uncertain of their English fluency, and a particular challenge for those whose cultures value silence between thoughts and discourage interrupting. That would include East and Southeast Asian people, as well as submissive personalities, women and younger people from hierarchical cultures.

So how do you practice the “moves” you’ll need for this variation of conversational basketball?
First, recognize that in American culture, interjecting your comments is not interrupting, but rather should be viewed as appropriate engagement with others.

Second, use gestures and other non-verbal skills to signal your desire to say something. Try several of these:
  • Fix your eyes (maybe raising your eyebrows too) on the current speaker and hold them there until you are acknowledged.
  • Open your hands, move them forward to draw attention.
  • Raise one index finger slightly (but do not “point” the finger too strongly).
  • Lean in toward the speaker and the group, either bending forward if seated, or shifting a foot forward and a shoulder discretely into the group if standing.

And finally, to jump into the conversation but still give yourself a moment to gather your words into a smooth form, lead off with such pat phrases as: Just to clarify for a moment…Sorry, I’d like to mention that…One second before we go on…If I may, there’s an important consideration here…Let me add one thing here, please…etc.

Such phrases should be short and introductory; otherwise, you actually might seem to be interrupting. Lead-in remarks are exactly that, entrees to the comments you want to make in detail. You need first to signal your intention to speak, and only then, when you are noticed (and “have the basketball”), can you add your meaningful content.

Monday, June 19, 2017


Last time we discussed how conversation between two people should resemble the game of ping pong. But when more people join in, you need to shift to basketball.

With both sports and conversation, you need to keep the ball moving. But unlike two-person ping pong, it must be shared by everyone in the group. One person leads off with a conversational point. He then “passes the ball” (shifts the talking) to another person, perhaps on his own team (who shares the same point of view). He then enhances the discussion and moves it on. Then the conversation may be interrupted by an opposing team member, who adds something new and turns the conversation in a different direction. He may then either pass it to a teammate or carry it further, always watching what everyone in the game is doing, in case they want to take a turn. However it goes, everyone feels involved. It’s not just two-way talk.
So in a workplace discussion involving Anton, Jack, Teresa and Sung: 
Anton (moving in direction A): It’s almost noon and I’m starving. Let’s go to lunch… 
Jack: (continuing)Good plan. How about a nice pepperoni pizza at that new place next door… 
Teresa: (changing direction to B)Nah, I can’t take all that cheese and calories… 
Sung: (reinforcing that direction)Me neither, and pepperoni? I’m a vegetarian, remember… 
Jack: (starting to reverse again toward A) Listen, they have really great salads, or just leave off the pepperoni… 
Sung: (joining in) Mmm, then I guess that’s okay with me… 
Teresa (nodding in agreement): Me too. Settled!  
Slam dunk! Game over…conversation finished…good outcome.
Presenting your own point of view but eventually reaching consensus is important in American business. Communication is an obvious way to show you’re a team player, willing to join in and connect.

Monday, June 12, 2017


Conversation, whether at work or socially, presents an opportunity to build friendships, reinforce a comfortable and confident self-image, and improve your standing professionally. But it has to be done in the right way.

Think “ping pong” when speaking to another person. There is no conversation –no “game”—unless the ball (the “conversational point”) keeps moving from one “player” to the other. If you’re afraid to hit the ball back --thinking you don’t know what to say-- the remedy is simple. Don’t drop the ball with a one-word answer. Keep the conversation flowing! Reply, and then either add more information or ask a question of your own.
--Hi I’m Jim. Don’t believe we’ve met.
--Toshi. Nice to meet you. No, I joined the company just this month.
--Everything going okay so far?
--Yes, although I’m sure it will take some adjustment. Have you been here long?
--Three years, two in Quality Control and one in Diagnostics.
--I’m in QC now and everybody’s been very helpful…
For those whose cultures value politeness and thoughtful silence (East and Southeast Asian cultures, for example) or where women and younger people are taught to defer to males and others in authority, you will need to step up and grab your chance to express yourself. You are not impolitely interrupting; you are engaging in the game!

Everyone should practice this to get it right with Americans. For people whose cultures stress competitiveness, hierarchy and bravado (such as Russian, German, and Israeli, to name just a few) or those with strong personalities who want to do all the talking, you must learn to “share” the conversation, consciously take turns, and practice listening before returning to your own voice too quickly.

Next time we’ll switch sports from table tennis to basketball to see how to talk among several people, not just one-on-one.

Monday, June 5, 2017


The honest truth is, no and yes.

No, if you started speaking English daily, predominantly and in an English-speaking country after about the age of 15. You may speak very fluently, but you will never sound completely like a native-speaker. The reason is, the tension with which you hold the muscles of your mouth; the way you curve the many areas of your tongue, move your lips, open your jaw, and even breathe have all been set and determined by your first language.

In other words, the muscles needed for your first language are strong from many years of training. Those you now need for English are different and have not been developed early enough to sufficiently to define you.

But yes, by some fairly simple efforts you can remove the distracting aspects of your speech in English, and cultivate a beautiful, clear way of speaking so that everyone will see you for the competent, impressive person that you are.

You can achieve this in three steps:
  1. Identify your distinct problem sounds and “musical” challenges, depending on your first language, and forget the rest. What is difficult for Chinese speakers may not be a problem for French speakers. And, what is hard for the French may be simple for the Chinese. So don’t waste time on the problems of others.
  2. Work first by strengthening the muscles needed for your problem elements, and then by studying and practicing repetitions of these exercises.
  3. Work for short periods (maybe 5 minutes) several times a day… NOT for long stretches when you get around to it.
Frankly, serious improvement may require more help than a Tip can provide. My best suggestion (no surprise) is to read and study COMMUNICATING YOUR COMPETENCE (see to the left of this text).

But, if you are convinced that you cannot or will never achieve any real improvement, my best advice is:

If you do nothing else to improve your speech...SLOW DOWN!