“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”
It’s a famous English saying, and it’s a key principle for doing business. But making the right impression is challenging when you’re not working in your mother tongue.
Here are 4 business English tips for Italian and French speakers – to help you avoid common mistakes and make that all-important good impression.
1. Be concise and direct
This is a cultural difference with doing business in English compared with Italian or French. In English, you have more impact when you get straight to the point. A simple question should have a simple answer, not a long monologue in reply.
Example: A standard small-talk question at the beginning of a Monday client meeting or call is:
“How was your weekend?”
✔ Direct answer – “Fine thanks – we enjoyed the sunshine. How was yours?”
X Monologue answer – “It was my son’s birthday, so we were lucky to have such nice weather. On Saturday, we had a party for him in the garden, with a Spiderman cake my wife baked. On Sunday, we all took a walk along the river for a picnic.”
2. Lead with the most important information
This is part of being concise and direct but focuses on what to be concise and direct about. And that’s the key takeaway. Don’t focus on the history – focus on the outcome.
Ask yourself: “What do I want my listener to remember?” And start with those points.
Example: Discussing a due diligence exercise.
✔ Outcome focus – “Here are the 3 key points that came out of the due diligence…”
X History focus – “We started the due diligence by looking at the regulatory issues…”
3. Get your tone right
Take emails as an example. Not striking the right tone – because the salutation, introductory paragraph and conclusion aren’t quite right – has a major impact on the impression you make.
Tone is another cultural and linguistic difference between English and French/Italian, and can be tricky to get right. Ask yourself: “Is spending 30+ minutes working on the tone of a single email the best use of my time?” Especially if, in the end, you’re still not 100% confident in what you’ve written?
We recommend 2 approaches to nailing the right tone, so you make the right impression:
- Have email and document templates in English – With salutations and sign-offs for different tones and people, so you can choose the right one for a given situation
- Get a mother-tongue speaker to write or review key correspondence – Especially at the beginning of a relationship, when that first impression is vital
4. Avoid jargon, abbreviations and idioms unless you’re confident in the translation
Jargon, abbreviations and idioms generally don’t translate directly, so you’re better off talking around the concept than using the wrong terminology.
For instance, saying “Year by Year” is a common mistake when comparing financial periods, because it’s a direct translation from Italian. But in English, the phrase is “Year on Year.” Clichés and idioms can make you seem old-fashioned (“In a nutshell” is a frequent example). These small details can make a big difference in the impression you make.
To avoid these pitfalls, consider having a native speaker write for you (or translate something you’ve written in your mother tongue). There are 2 benefits to this:
- Save time – because writing in your non-native language is time consuming, especially when you have to keep looking up jargon translations
- Be more effective – because you can be 100% confident you’ve nailed the nuance around the language
Get free advice on how you and your teams can make a better impression in English:
Some aspects of making a good impression involve addressing cultural differences between English and Italian/French communication – like being more direct when speaking and writing to people.
Other aspects involve getting targeted, mother-tongue support where it saves time and money (because your time is valuable).
Zoe Flaherty, Founding Director of The Language Grid