Shital Kakkar Mehra is one of the most experienced practitioners of corporate etiquette and international protocol in India today, having trained over three thousand executives, focusing on the specific requirements of the global Indian. Her articles have been published across business dailies and magazines. For the past 4 years, and has been invited as guest speaker to several business schools, including the Indian School of Business, IIM Bangalore and IIM Lucknow.
Here's an excerpt from the book 'Business Communication':
What's the fine art of communicating in business? Is it about putting forward your views aggressively? Using uzzwords to impress your business associates? Or, is it the ability to keep the conversation flowing while striking a fine balance between speaking and listening? At times, I have noticed that managers suffer from the teacher-student hangover, reminiscent of schooldays; managers assume the role of teachers, belting out instructions, completely forgetting that communication is a two-way street.
Business communication is the communication used to promote your products/services, your firm, even yourself before an outsider. Within the firm, it's used to provide information to employees, peers, seniors and juniors.
Communicating effectively in business:
- Builds rapport
- Attracts buy-ins from business partners/counterparts
- Gets your point across succinctly and achieves the desired results
Today, there are multiple communication tools available and it's important that managers learn to use the correct one.
Using the Business Etiquette right tool can help gain support and build rapport, while using the wrong one can have the contrary impact. In business, especially in moments of crises, it's critical to use both words and body language to communicate concern and empathy. The chapters in this book are divided into verbal communication, non-verbal communication and techno-etiquette to help you upgrade your ability to communicate effectively at work. Consider how Indians and Americans view contracts. In India, we like to place a lot of faith on a person's word, resulting in lack of strict legal contracts and documentation.
Also, we are happy to seal the deal with a one-page document if needed. In the US, it's customary to sign contracts before venturing into any business deal. Being a highly litigious society, they sign lengthy contracts, factoring in every eventuality and plugging every loophole. In international business, it's best to know the communication style of a country prior to negotiating business. As the writer Peter Drucker famously said: 'Be ready or be lost. If you don't think globally you deserve to be unemployed and you will be.'Clearly, human actions, speech patterns and gestures in
international business settings are subject to wide interpretation, often making misunderstandings likely and cooperation impossible.
The ability to conduct conversation in business is critical for your success, regardless of your job profile or the industry you belong to. Your choice of words, your voice, use of grammar and accent, all create impact. Good conversationalists know how to present themselves in a positive light, thereby influencing decisionmaking.
'Sorry, I don't understand . . .' If you hear this frequently at work, take a step back and evaluate your communication skills. Do you speak too fast or too softly? Is your style too dictatorial and authoritative? Also, it's not just what you say but how you say it that counts. In today's business world, the ability to communicate effectively is a leadership skill for which companies are willing to pay a hefty premium.
The Power of Words
The poet Rudyard Kipling once said: 'Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. 'After the initial few seconds of a face-to-face meeting, the visual (that is, how you look) takes a backseat and your verbal ability (that is, what you say or the words you use) takes precedence. Words are the most powerful communication tool we have that generate feelings and images and build expectations, both negative and positive. A common trait among leaders, in both the business and political worlds, is their ability to maximize their 'personal brand' by using the right words. Also, regardless of their industry/age/gender, leaders know how to communicate ideas clearly and effectively.
People want to learn 'power' words, which they can use to impress their bosses, clients and peers. When asked, 'What are power words?', they define them as words that add force to their statements. While this sounds impressive, in reality, good language skills are a rarity. Emails with poorly constructed sentences, glaring grammatical errors and excessive use of abbreviations/emoticons are commonplace. In meetings, people often tend to use wrong words or mispronounce them without knowing any better. In spite of the technological advances of the last decade, good language skills still require creative thinking and an advanced vocabulary, two things which have not yet been
replaced by technology.
To improve your ability to use words effectively, focus on the following:
- Content: If you are lacking in knowledge, you lack the raw material needed to communicate effectively. Power words are not a substitute for shoddy research, bad planning or poor information resources. Build up your knowledge bank by broadening your horizons and reading about a variety of subjects.
- Enlarge your vocabulary: Improve your vocabulary by reading and aggressively finding out meanings of new words you encounter in your everyday life. I am a big fan of online dictionaries. I have noticed that people frequently mistake one word for another, in both written and verbal conversation, a trait technically known as malapropism. For example, using 'advice' instead of 'advise' (advice is a noun, meaning 'guidance or recommendation', while advise is a verb meaning 'informing someone about a fact or situation').
- Adjust your vocabulary: Adjust your vocabulary to suit your listeners. Subordinates can be too scared to admit that they are unable to understand a word/phrase spoken by their superior, thus, sometimes, failing to complete the expected task.
- Improve your grammar: While words help convey thoughts and ideas, it's grammar which provides the structure. Poor grammatical skills reflect poorly on your language skills and may convey a completely different meaning. The best way to improve grammar is to invest in a reference grammar book. I would recommend English Grammar and Composition by Wren and Martin, an iconic book which has helped people improve their grammar across generations. If you feel you are unable to improve with self-study, invest in a tutor-a small investment of time and money compared to a lifetime of dividends.
- Cut out the jargon: While jargon and buzzwords sound trendy, people, especially seniors, may not understand them. Instead, use simple language and focus on communicating in an articulate way. Ultimately, the idea behind business communication is to not impress but to get the point across!
- Learn to replace: An easy trick is to reread your article/ speech/presentation and replace a complex or elaborate
phrase with a simpler one, making the content crisper.
- Use action words: Words which show action build word images; for example, words like 'accomplished', 'achieved', 'awarded', 'completed', 'delegated', 'generated', 'launched', 'negotiated', 'bought', 'budgeted', 'represented' and 'trained' can create a powerful image in a resume. On the other hand, words like 'seems', 'perhaps', 'apparently' and
'usually' make you appear unsure and unprofessional.
- Don't overload: Words and phrases like 'bandwidth', 'honestly', 'actually', 'basically', 'at the end of the day', 'core competency', 'leap frog' and 'mission-critical' are the most frequently used buzzwords in India. 'Honestly', they communicate nothing! Use specific and precise descriptions in simple English rather than complicated words that force people into mental gymnastics.
- Use junior school English: Use shorter and simpler sentences in cross-border communication as the purpose of business communication is to ensure that your message is understood by all. Avoid the use of smileys, local words or foreign phrases.
- Avoid slang: Slang is catching on in India, courtesy the American influence. While it adds the much-needed zing in casual conversation, it's best kept out in formal business discussions and interviews. I would rate 'Please' and 'Thank you' as the most powerful business words. Use them liberally in your business interactions and you will see enthusiasm levels soaring upwards.
The Power of the Voice
Mahatma Gandhi's voice was gripping, Indira Gandhi's conveyed authority while Rajiv Gandhi's had a soothing quality. Shut your eyes and think of a rich baritone. Are you thinking of Amitabh Bachchan or Frank Sinatra? Think of a feminine and melodious voice. Whom are you visualizing now? Perhaps Lata Mangeshkar? Now, think of a husky voice or a scary voice. Voice creates impact.
In business, a well-modulated voice:
- Inspires trust
- Synchronizes your body language with your words
- Creates balance and impact
- Generates listener's interest by expressing emotions (sadness, happiness, nervousness or fear)
While most people believe that elaborate vocabulary is essential to communicate well, scientific research shows that voice quality (pitch, tone, volume and inflection) creates an equally powerful impact.
- Diction: Clear diction makes it easy to understand the words. President Obama's clear diction and rich voice lends to his charm.
- Accent: Although in today's world of business being accentneutral isn't a must-have, a heavy regional accent can make it difficult to get your point across. When interacting with people from a different country, don't put on an accent or imitate theirs, as you will run the risk of appearing 'fake'.
- Pitch: High-pitched voices are rated as shrill while lowpitched voices are rated as poised. Notice how seasoned politicians and business leaders speak in a deep, lowpitched voice.
- Pronunciation: Good pronunciation reflects good schooling and attention to detail. When in doubt, check the dictionary.
- Tone: A monotonous voice is considered the biggest turnoff during a presentation. Vary the tone to express feelings
and moods, thus adding drama and generating interest. The Voice in Public Speaking When speaking to large groups or while making presentations, put in some extra effort to improve your voice quality. The two leadership skills which are 'must-haves' in the world of business are the ability to speak in front of people and the ability to communicate a thought in an articulate way, both in written and oral communication.
- Diagnosis: Record your voice, play it back and then rate it as an unbiased third party. Do you sound enthusiastic and energetic? Are you monotonous and boring? If you find yourself boring, think how dull others must find you!
- Vocal exercises: Classical singing, talking from the back of your throat, breathing from the chest, taking an acting course or reading children's stories-all help to improve the voice.
- Body language: Chin up accompanied with a good posture creates a powerful visual and helps you project your voice
- Practice makes perfect: Grab opportunities for public speaking to improve your voice.
- Take care: Drink a glass of warm water instead of a cup of hot tea/coffee or a chilled cola before a presentation-it helps the voice remain even.
Humour at WorkWhen it comes to humour, remember the following:
- There is no 'one-size fits all' category of jokes-all jokes are not funny in all situations.
- In today's litigious times, 'politically incorrect' jokes (racist and sexist) are inappropriate.
- Inclusive humour forces audience participation while situational humour (for example, jokes on the current meltdown in the US or corruption in India) creates an instant connect with the audience.
- Work out the lowest common denominator when using humour with a diverse audience. A joke on yourself or self-deprecating humour works best in such situations as it makes you appear real.
- In Indian workplaces, humour is in short supply. We prefer humour in our Bollywood movies, laughter shows on television or jokes circulated via email. We would rather hear or read a joke in private than tell one at work.
While humour is dry and self-deprecating in the UK, in USA it's used to lighten the work stress, yet is not to be confused with lack of seriousness towards work commitments.
Tip 1: As the boss, don't link humour to your current position. As a peer, don't express your negative feelings (jealousy or hostility) towards a colleague via a joke, thereby damaging relationships forever.
Tip 2: In international business, many senior executives have burnt their fingers with the untimely use of humour. While Americans like to infuse humour in business, to their horror Asians take their jokes literally!
In India, the most common conversation pitfalls I have observed as a trainer are:
Speaking Too Loudly
India is a bustling nation of over a billion people. We live and work with loudspeakers blaring, noisy processions in the streets and people honking indiscriminately. As a result, we tend to speak louder, both at work and at home, just to be heard over the background din. Unfortunately, when we travel overseas for business or are in a quieter setting in our own country, we are unable to adjust the volume of our conversations and continue to speak loudly.
Amar Sinhji, head of Human Resources, Tata Capital, says: 'The one key soft skill we Indians need to dramatically upgrade is to speak softly in international business settings. While in India speaking loudly is considered normal, internationally it's jarring to the senses, besides being rude and aggressive.'
- Speaking loudly is a cultural phenomenon. For example, Asians and Americans speak louder than west and north Europeans. Interestingly, the Chinese speak louder than Indians, especially in restaurants and while chatting on their mobile phones!
- Speaking loudly is dependent on location: We speak in hushed tones when seated in a formal dining/conference room but automatically speak louder while seated in a bustling bistro/cafeteria.
Tip 1: Too loud is jarring and too soft conveys lack of confidence; so speak at a comfortable medium volume.
Tip 2: In an international setting, pay attention to your surroundings and adjust your volume to match those around you.
Speaking Too Fast
People speak faster when they are excited or nervous. In reality, speaking slowly makes it easier for people to listen and for the speaker to get his/her point across. In India, English has emerged as the lingua franca, the language used for communicating with our fellow Indians. It's the popular medium of instruction at schools and colleges and is the universal business language in our country.
A German once highlighted this interesting point. He said, 'Indians speak English very fast. Is it because you are very good at English and don't waste time converting it to your local language, something we have to do all the time?'
Tips to speak slowly
- Make a commitment: To speak slowly, clearly and to enunciate properly.
- Honour speed breakers: View commas and full stops as speed breakers, the same way you would do while driving.
Take a mini pause at a comma and come to a full stop at the full stop!
- Summarize: Take short breaks and use them to summarize, ensuring your listeners are in tune with you.
- Pace: Pace yourself to project confidence. If you speak too fast, you may appear anxious or nervous, and if you speak too slowly, you may appear boring and monotonous.
- Body language: In face-to-face meetings, take advantage of the visual by watching body language signals from your audience. If they are looking lost, reduce the pace to bring back interest in the conversation.
Book: Business Etiquette: A Guide for the Indian Professional; Authur: Shital Kakkar Mehra; Price: Rs 250; 344 pages