This is the true story of how an otherwise cost-conscious company has wasted oodles of money because of poor international communication.
TEXT: STEVE FLINDERS | PHOTO © UNSPLASH
A German company is building a big industrial installation in North America. German engineers and technicians make frequent trips to the site to transfer expertise to their local counterparts. They have all done extensive language training, have learnt a lot of the specialised technical vocabulary in English, and have also learnt strategies for dealing with possible areas of cultural difference. Nearly all of them can understand a native speaker who delivers slowly and clearly in International English.
They also need to understand local safety rules, so an American safety expert travels to Germany to deliver his standard three-hour, 200-plus slide presentation to a group of about 50 Germans.
The American has delivered this talk many times. There is no interaction and the Germans sit passively and listen.
The American speaks fast and has a reasonably strong accent. He does not speak a foreign language himself so has little or no idea of the difficulties involved for non-native speakers in following a densely packed presentation with slides overloaded with text for a whole afternoon.
Initially he is asked if he could speak more slowly. He does for about 30 seconds and then reverts to his normal machine-gun style. The second request fares no better, so the Germans sit there, waiting for the end. The average level of comprehension of what has been said is about 20 per cent, which is not enough for any meaningful learning to have taken place.
I will leave you to work out the cost of flying someone across the Atlantic to waste 150 expensive man hours – and all the American needed to do was to speak 25 per cent more slowly. I was told later that he does not have time for that; the company has decided instead that the Germans need more language training.
Steve Flinders is a freelance trainer, writer and coach, based in Malta, who helps people develop their communication and leadership skills for working internationally: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo © Steve Flinders
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Scan Magazine Ltd.’