Death by powerpoint

26 Apr

I recently taught a series of lessons on presenting. As is normal with such themes, the group then went away and prepared their own presentations which they delivered the following week – all barring one learner; alas we ran out of time and so of course he was offered the opportunity to do it in the next lesson. The following week I was surprised to see two new people (interns who were new to the company) enter the room – they had already been tested but weren’t scheduled to join the group until the following week. No matter, I thought, the more the merrier. I duly began the lesson and after the warm-up announced that as Tim (not his real name) hadn’t had the chance to present last week, we would begin with his presentation. Tim then stood up and presented a real live project that he is currently working on to the group (powerpoint and all). There were only two problems; his presentation lasted for over an hour, and was of no interest to any of the people listening whatsoever! 

Perhaps I should clarify here that Tim was talking about setting up in an internal IT system for ordering software and hardware and the audience consisted of the two interns, a woman responsible for communication in the same department and a guy responsible for data protection. Throughout the presentation Tim kept stopping and asking for questions – there were none. What’s more, by the end he had stopped looking around the room and trying to engage the audience and was instead looking straight at the only person still paying attention – me.

After the lesson was over I reflected on what had gone wrong, especially as the previous week the presentations had gone down very well – lots of questions and post-presentation discussion. In the end I came up with a list of points that I will use in future in order to prevent this happening again.  See what you think of my list and if you have any suggestions of your own then feel free to share them with me.


          Limit the time the learners are allowed to present for and stick to it.

          If you know the theme of the presentation, prepare questions in advance for the other learners to ask. Alternatively, ask the presenter to state at the beginning of the lesson what their theme will be and then give the others in the group a few minutes to think of potential questions. This also gives the people presenting a moment to prepare themselves.

          If the topic seems very specialized try to broaden the theme so others can comment on it e.g. when talking about an internal IT system for ordering, you could ask about learners’ experiences with and feelings about systems such as Amazon or ebay, to enable comparisons to be drawn.

          Get learners to comment on presentations based on their own job perspective e.g. I could have asked the communication woman how she would have communicated this idea across the company or asked the data protection guy about possible security issues.

          Before listening to the presentation, allocate tasks to the individual learners e.g. one listens for grammar mistakes, another focuses on how transitions between slides are handled, another looks at the layout and language of the slides, another looks at the body language of the presenter.




What we can learn from ten pin bowling…

26 Nov

We are now heading into winter, nevertheless we’ve had a great summer of sport and fun, and, in keeping with this, I thought I’d share an experience that covers both teaching and sport. I should add that I’m bit of an addict for this sport so please bear with me and forgive my indulgence in this topic.

I was recently invited to attend a ‘closed group workshop’ made up of experienced qualified trainers and trainees currently doing the CELTA course. The aim of this workshop/forum was to discuss ideas for business English training lessons. The brief for the session said it was going to focus on Looking at best practice and the anatomy of a good lesson-(in terms of pedagogy). Although I found the invitation flattering, something did not seem right, although I could not put my finger on it. Then I went ten pin bowling and all the answers seemed to fall into place.

You see, in ten pin bowling there is such a thing as the perfect game – it’s when you knock down all the pins 12 times in a row and score 300 points. Some of the folks who play this game are serious about competing and winning, so much so that many years ago some of them decided to find out if it was possible to bowl a ball that always got in a strike (all ten pins falling down), thus making a perfect game possible every time. They created computer models and measured and investigated all the angles. After rigorous testing they claimed they had indeed discovered the holy grail of ten pin bowling – the surefire strike ball. Flushed with success they set out to test their theory using a machine to deliver the ball using the precise weight, speed and angle guaranteed to get that strike. After bowling 100 balls guess how many strikes they had? 100? No, 90? No. In fact they only had 70. Do you know why? It’s called pin deflection. Pin deflection is what frustrates you during a game of bowling. It’s that random element that means that no matter how well your ball strikes the head pin (that’s the one at the front folks), there’s no way you can control how that pin will react, what part of it will hit the pin behind and how the next pin after that will react and so on. What does this have to do with English language teaching?  Simple the science is the same; no matter how well you know (or think you know) the people in your lessons, you can never be 100% sure how they’ll react when you hit them with that opening gambit (a metaphorical bowling ball if you like). Your preparation may be spot on and your approach well thought-out but the lesson just doesn’t go how you envisaged.  


Just to give you one example: The other day I went (well) prepared to teach a lesson based on risk management. However, when we arrived we were forced to wait for a few minutes before our room became free. By the time we got into our seats, both participants were heavily engaged in a discussion (in English) about the educational system in their country and how effective the current system was compared to previous ones. They were both ‘into’ the topic, they both searched for ways to present their arguments and to convince the other party that they were right. Occasionally they looked to me for help in finding a word or to seek a comparison between their system and the UK one. 45 minutes later we finally arrived at a point where the discussion had reached its natural end. Both parties seem satisfied that they had made their case, and more so, that they had done it all in English. Fortunately for me, a sub-point about the potential dangers inherent in the systems they had proposed led nicely onto my planned topic of managing risk in business. At the end of 90 minutes both pronounced themselves very satisfied with the lesson. My point here is not to show what a wonderful trainer I am, but rather to point out that any discussion regarding what makes up a perfect or even good lesson is at best a theoretical exercise. Even more so when we neglect to include the one stakeholder group who really matter in the classroom – those who are learning. I don’t say you shouldn’t plan; I don’t do dogma very well myself and still find after 12 years in the business that I scribble a brief session outline before most lessons, but what is risky is to be forever fixed with an idea (especially one you heard in a training workshop) that you continue to stick to regardless of the environment you are working in.

We need to remember that when we teach or train it must be in a way that enables the people in front of us to learn in a way that best suits their immediate environment rather than in accordance with a pre-defined plan. So next time your lessons stray a little off the intended path, don’t panic, instead observe. See what direction the lessons take and how the learners react to this – are they happy or resistant? Then depending on what you see, adjust your lesson and continue to enable learning. After all that what we’re there for.

English trainer or business English trainer?

1 Apr

“To be prepared is half the victory.” So goes the quote from Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. In any job this is true, in the world of teachers and trainers of business English even more so. Today, thanks to the internet, the resources available to us are almost infinite. There are new sites, blogs and forums springing up on a daily basis all crammed full of information about how to deliver better and more effective lessons. This is a wonderful development; not only are trainers given access to more ideas and inspiration but many are inspired themselves to pass on their own experiences and clever teaching ideas. All of which is testament to the hard work and effort many people in our profession put in. However, at the risk of upsetting a large amount of these people, I would say this is NOT enough. Why? Well quite simply it’s this: we are not just English trainers we are business English trainers. Here I would like to acknowledge that there are indeed many people out there learning English for study or hobby purposes; nevertheless, the majority of those learning are doing so due to the demands of their job. It may seem obvious that when training these people we should focus on the business aspect, but it is not always so. In the last week alone I have come across two such examples. In one case a trainer, when asked about running sessions on the theme of presentations, suggested that first all the students should get in a circle and begin discussing the topic of pets, the second came in a discussion with a trainer who was going to teach in an advertising agency. “Give them adverts and ask them to say what is good or bad about them” I suggested “Oh, I couldn’t possibly tell them anything about advertising” came the reply. Clearly this trainer had misunderstood what I’d said, but the comment perfectly encapsulates the problem. How come many trainers who work hard and diligently when preparing grammar or functional language lessons make no attempt to prepare themselves businesswise when going to teach in a company? Often it is with a comment similar to the one above, the trainer feels incapable of bringing anything of use to the discussion, reasoning that “I don’t negotiate/present/create adverts in my job, so how can I provide these people with anything more than just language?”. The answer of course is preparation. If we set out to teach a group of HR managers, we can of course spend time beforehand researching the industry, we can look for key words related to this job (phrase matching followed by gap-fill/discussion re context the words are or can be used in), we can read articles to gain an understanding about current trends (look at the company website for a start), we can read business skills books that are designed for native speakers (they provide ideas that are more useful and authentic than what you’ll find in most business English books) we can think about bigger picture questions (e.g. is the unemployment rate in this town/country high/low, are they working in a company that needs high or low-skilled workers?). There are podcasts and videos we can listen to and watch where ‘industry experts’ give their opinions. These opinions can be brought into the lesson in the form of discussion questions. There are also millions of sites giving famous quotes relating to different industries or business skills. Reformulating these into questions or provocative statements provides students with the chance to debate and discuss real topics that are relevant to them and their industry or company. But most of all we can listen and learn and trust. Listen to the comments and insights that our students make during these discussions, write them down and learn them to build up our own bank of knowledge on a particular theme or industry. It may be that we are limited in our experience of specific business situations, but when you can directly quote from a person who you know deals with that theme on a regular basis the words carry more weight and we are more confident in what we are saying. Finally, we should trust ourselves to be able to do this. We spend a lot of our time in companies surrounded by business people listening to their ideas, opinions and comments, on a wide variety of themes. If we pay attention, we can get to know many things about how companies operate and what is going on in the industry in which they are based. In the business world we would call this person a consultant and pay him/her a lot of money for their advice. We should be prepared to do the same for our students too. Certainly, I have always found this to be a more rewarding approach and who knows, we might even make more money!

We are what we teach

14 Mar

When we set out to teach a lesson our approach to the whole process can tell us a lot about who we are. Maybe a cautious planner who wants to have every eventuality covered or perhaps a freer spirit who needs only a rough plan before going into action. But it is the mind set that we carry into the classroom  on the day of the lesson that can ultimately decide whether we are successful or not in our stated aims. Sometimes even a casual comment at the beginning can be enough to destroy the whole process. I remember telling a group one evening at the start of a lesson how tired I was and how long my day had been – big mistake! Instead of support and a comforting word I instantly saw all my students sag before my eyes, as they nodded in agreement their energy levels visibly  dropped. And so it is when we go into the classroom with the expectation that things will be hard, that certain people will find things difficult  that then is what we get. Many years ago a fellow trainer told me about an American  he had worked with in Mexico. Before every lesson this guy used to psyche himself up by saying over and over “I’m going to give the best God damn lesson of my life!” A little dramatic perhaps, certainly if you’re British and understatement is part of your cultural being. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that his lessons were always good and that his pre-lesson programming was indeed effective. It may of course be a big step for you to begin doing the same before your own lessons however, it does seem to be worthwhile remembering that a positive mental approach will deliver results in the classroom. Pick up any book on presenting and you’ll find a section or chapter on the importance of visualising yourself delivering confidently and successfully – so why should it be any different for us as trainers, we are after all presenting, aren’t we?

How flexible is vocabulary in a language?

8 Feb

The other day I had an interesting discussion with a student about the use of the word ‘escalate’. She had written an email asking the recipient ‘to escalate the issue’. When I asked her what she meant she explained she was seeking the resolution of the problem. I replied that to escalate as a verb means to makes things worse not better. Her answer was that escalate was a standard word in her sphere of employment (IT) and in fact the guy she had written to was called the escalation manager!

So what can you do? Escalate in the dictionary is usually defined as making things worse, but also as making things higher. In this instance she wanted the issue to have a higher priority, in my opinion she was asking to have a fight with the other guy!

But I know, because I have seen it. That there is a library of computer language that is widely used and respected around the world and they use escalate to mean, take something to the next level as part of a fixed process of managing problems. So it seems we are both right. The difficulty of course comes in when you start to email people not working in the world of IT and ask them to escalate things. Then the real fun starts.

But it’s worth noting at the end of the day just how often words or phrases are used out of context and often willfully so. I recently heard about a consultancy firm that insisted on making it’s clients adopt their own specific company language when they were working together. Thats fine for the firm and a great way to make your mark on the company your working with. But whatabout when people in that company communicate with other people in different companies, maybe with their in-house language, how do we decide who’s language gets used?

My favourite phrase at the moment, apart from escalate of course, is on-boarding. This is a term that has come to prominence in recent years to mean hiring people. In my opinion it’s just too close to water-boarding, and we all know how much trouble you can get into for doing that.

So what about you out there. what are your own example of language flexibility or language madness. Share with me what you know, what makes you laugh or want to tear your hair out.

Overgeneralising in needs analysis

3 Feb

The other week I was preparing a lesson for a long-standing-group who had recently started a new block of lessons at the company where my school teaches. I pulled out the notes I’d made re the groups’ wishes and began reading them. After going through them once, I paused, a little confused and then read them again. No, there was no mistake. The list I had complied was sorely lacking, not in terms of subject areas you understand, I knew they wanted to focus on grammar -tenses, speaking – improve fluency and writing. The question was what  writing? This in particular was the problem, I’d written down word for word what the student had said “I want to write better:” But in my haste to move on to the real lesson, I’d neglected to find out exactly what that meant. so there I was, faced with a request that could mean anything.

My solution this time wasn’t so bad I think. For the next lesson I made up a list of general questions asking the students what they had to write about in their jobs, the mediums they used and the things they found difficult when doing so. In the end, I had a whole lesson of informative discussion and I now have a very clear overview of who needs what. Coupled with that I requested several examples of their written work to enable me to better understand where their strengths and weaknesses lie.  In the end not a bad result, but I can’t help feeling that I could have had an even more productive lesson if I’d just taken a little more time and care when collecting the information in the first place.

The moral of the story? Clearly a little more digging at the beginning will save you time in the long-run.

I’d be interested to hear what ways others have of collecting needs analysis info and how to handle generalised requests to ascertain exactly what it is that the students want to have.

Until next time…