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When Your Audience Is International

With some business audiences, it's easy to know exactly what to say and how to say it. We do it almost without thinking, following the usual rules. But with a global audience of non-native English speakers, the usual rules get tossed aside. We need to take a fresh look at communicating.

So it is with a question Henriette raised yesterday about the latest version of my monthly newsletter, Better Writing at Work, in which I wrote about verbs. I suggested using strong verbs rather than weak ones that need modifiers.

For example, I recommended "Darren flies through his tasks" rather than "Darren works extremely quickly on his tasks." I preferred "She masterminded a solution" to "She very creatively came up with a solution."

Henriette questioned that approach for her audience. She wrote, "I often deliberately choose the lightweight verbs over the heavyweight ones in order to make it easier to understand for non-native speakers/readers."  

Yes, Henriette, I agree.  For your readers around the globe, you are wise to choose familiar verbs and add very and extremely to strengthen them.

It's the rule that trumps them all. (Or, for our international audiences, it's the most important rule):

Know your audience.

Syntax Training

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “When Your Audience Is International”

  • I taught Business English in China for six years, including writing emails. I recommended my students write short sentences and short paragraphs. That way it’s easier to to be understood and easier to write grammatically. I would say this rule should apply also to westerners writing to non-native English speakers.

  • We just updated a rule in our writing styleguide. Originally it suggested using simple language to avoid causing confusion to our international audience. We changed that to choosing the word with the least amount of alternate meanings.

    As an example, I had an experience in Brazil on a boat where I asked a crew member who spoke very good English, “What kind of fish is that?” He was very confused. I finally figured out it was over the word “kind”, which he thought of as “to be nice.” So I tried “type” and “sort” – simple words but with several meanings. It wasn’t until I used the word “variety” that he understood what I was asking.

    So sometimes choosing a lightweight word may make the situation worse.

  • Anne, your point is so important! On this blog I have written about how I must use “seminars”–not “classes”–when I address an international audience. The most precise word is the best one.

    Thanks for the valuable reminder.


  • Phrasal verbs like “to come up with” (which seem “easy” to native English speakers) are often misunderstood by non-native speakers of English. So the “lightweight” (or the ones we think are lightweight, anyway) are often the ones that are the most confusing to international audiences. It’s worth taking a little time to learn what *your* readers’ likely stumbling blocks are (not necessarily the same for the French and the Chinese, for instance).

  • Thanks for your example and suggestion, Sara.

    Jargon can be difficult to understand too. Yesterday someone wrote to me about customer-facing messaging. What will global readers think of that expression?


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