"Read my lips: no new taxes." That was the bold but now infamous statement by former US president George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans in August 1988. Two years later, Bush raised taxes to balance the budget. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," former president Bill Clinton said of his contact with Monica Lewinsky. Well, we now know that Clinton's definition of sexual relations was more limited than that of most people.
Politicians are, of course, not the only ones who can get into difficulties with their statements, which can range from being just a little misleading to being distinctly "economical with the truth" (what most of us call "lying").
Ahead of the recent North American International Motor Show in Detroit, VW boss Matthias Müller got into trouble when he gave an interview in English to NPR. Müller said this of VW's communication with US regulators about the emissions scandal before it became public: "We didn't lie. We didn't understand the question first."
Some people have said Müller's English is not up to the necessary standard for communicating at the highest level about sensitive business topics. Listening to the interview and reading the transcript, it is clear that Müller's English is not perfect, but it is certainly not bad. His performance does, however, highlight some key lessons for German-speaking managers when using English internationally:
Ian McMaster ist Chefredakteur von Business Spotlight (www.business-spotlight.de), des alle zwei Monate erscheinenden Magazins für Wirtschaftsenglisch. Er ist Brite, lebt seit 1989 in München, ist ausgebildeter Lehrer für Wirtschaftsenglisch und Co-Autor des Buches "Effective International Business Communication" (Collins).
You don't need to speak perfectly, but you should aim to be perfectly clear. The goal of any communication - unless you are deliberately trying to confuse people - is that others understand both what you are saying and why you are saying it. This is a very ambitious goal, as it is almost impossible to communicate without being misunderstood. But it is a goal worth aiming at.
In many cases, minor grammatical mistakes are unimportant. For example, Müller said VW "reached targets with some software solutions which haven't been compatible to the American law". Strictly speaking, he should have said, "with some software solutions that weren't compatible with American law", but his meaning was clear despite the grammatical errors.
Sometimes, grammatical mistakes do change the meaning of what you are saying. Less clear was Müller's statement: "I am CEO in three months." This sounds as though he will take up the position of CEO in three months' time. It would have been clearer and more correct to say, "I have been CEO for three months."
An accent is not necessarily a barrier to communication. All native English-speakers have an accent of some sort. But as long as it is not very strong, this is not a problem. The same is true for non-native speakers. Matthias Müller clearly has a German accent when speaking English, just as I have an English accent when I speak German. But that in itself does not hinder communication. On the other hand, Müller does sound somewhat direct and abrupt, and could work on his intonation. If you are unsure whether your accent and intonation are getting in the way of communication, ask friends or colleagues for feedback.
Avoid complicated words and expressions unless you are sure that you have them right and your audience will understand them. Many speakers of English as a foreign language use sophisticated language as well as making basic grammar mistakes. For example, Müller said, "We'll do our utmost to do things right." Native speakers of English would understand "do our utmost" (unser Möglichstes tun), but many non-native speakers wouldn't recognize this expression. Think about your audience.
Key tips for native and non-native speakers
There are a number of other key tips that apply both to native and non-native speakers of English when communicating internationally:
Slow down. The biggest communication problems are caused by people who speak too quickly. Slow down and stay slow.
Keep your sentences short and simple. Like this one. The longer your sentences get, the greater is the chance that you will make mistakes and people will lose track of what it was that you were trying to say in the first place or they will simply stop listening to you
Be careful with idioms. Idiomatic language often causes confusion, particularly when it is culturally specific, such as sports idioms (a "ballpark figure" meaning an approximate figure). So, instead of saying, "I have a lot on my plate", which might sound as though you've just ordered a big meal, say "I have a lot to do". Also, never translate idioms directly.
Avoid unnecessary jargon. Each group of staff - for example, technical, sales or IT staff - has its own "in-group language" which they understand. But when you move out of this group, you need to make sure that other people understand you, too.
Avoid or explain abbreviations. There are few things worse than listening to someone who sounds as though they have just walked off the set of Star Wars: "We're going to scale down the R2D5 and move over to using the CPO7 in order to increase our ROI." Understand that? No, me neither.
Check regularly that the other person understands what you are saying. If they don't, rephrase your message - saying the same thing in a different way.
Summarize your conversations regularly. This is good practice, particularly in meetings or negotiations, in order to avoid misunderstanding.
Oh yes, and there's one more piece of advice, which takes us back to Matthias Müller's statement about VW: "We didn't lie." This sentence is in many ways a perfect example of how to communicate clearly internationally. It is short and simple. It is perfectly formed. There is no jargon. There are no abbreviations. And it was clearly understood by everyone who heard it.
There's just one problem. Most of the people who heard or read this sentence regard its content as untrue. So read my lips carefully now, because here's one final tip when using English internationally: don't lie.