As far as their stressfulness for non-native speakers goes, there’s not much that beats conference calls. Unfamiliar accents, incredibly rapid speakers, mumbling, unknown vocabulary – these factors can make any meeting a challenge. If on top of that you can’t see the other participants, things become much more difficult. There are no facial expressions or gestures to help you understand the spoken words. Confusion may be written all over your face, but the others can’t see that and so carry on with the discussion regardless. You don’t have the chance to catch the chair’s eye to indicate that you have something to say. And then there’s the often poor sound quality and the general confusion that arises from people speaking at the same time as each other.
So if you’ve just received an invitation to a conference call in a couple of days, your first reaction may be to panic, to beat yourself up for not sticking to your plan for improving your English or to wonder if you can come up with a convincing reason not to take part.
Don’t. All is not lost – there are some things you can do even just a few days before the call to boost your confidence and improve your performance significantly.
Familiarize yourself with the vocabulary
Yes, of course it’s good to have a long-term strategy for building up your vocabulary. But right now you need to widen your vocab in a very targeted way by learning the specific terms you’re likely to need in the call. Unsure what they’ll be?
This is where the agenda comes in. Take a close look at it to see which topics are to be covered. For each topic in turn, ask yourself whether you’re familiar with the key vocabulary for the subject. Test yourself by trying to talk to yourself about it in English. Or if you prefer to write things down, brainstorm typical vocabulary connected with the topic. In both cases notice where you lack vocabulary and look it up. Be sure to listen to the pronunciation as well so that you can say the words correctly and recognize them immediately when you hear them.
By taking the time to familiarize yourself with the vocabulary in this way you’ve already taken a big step forward. In addition, I suggest using the vocabulary you’ve collected to make yourself a cheat sheet. After all, one of the great advantages of conference calls is that you’re often alone in your office and no-one can see what you have on your desk in front of you. Use a larger font, so that you can read the words easily and a quick glance will be enough if you’re suddenly stuck for a word.
After the call you can feed the expressions into your vocabulary learning system and practise them until they become part of your active vocabulary.
Tune in your ears
Another useful thing you can do to prepare for the call is to listen to as much English as possible. Watch a film, series or a few TED talks, listen to BBC radio or podcasts and really immerse yourself in the language. You’ll soon notice that you don’t need to understand every single word to get the gist of what is being said. That takes the pressure off and should help you to relax during the call.
Perhaps you have difficulty understanding people from a certain country and you’ve seen on the agenda that – as luck would have it – there will be a participant from this country in the call. In this case, consider how you can focus your listening practice on that accent. Search for TED talks by people from that country, for example.
If at all possible, reserve 10 minutes immediately before the call to tune your ears in to English. If you go straight from a meeting held in German, for example, to the English conference call it can be difficult to switch to the foreign language. My German is fluent, but I often find that when I watch a film set in Bavaria I need a good 10 – 15 minutes before my ears become attuned to the dialect. If that were the case in a conference call it might be almost over by then. So a few minutes spent listening to an English podcast or TED talk is time well spent.
Prepare to stay in control
In order to play a full role in the conference call, it’s essential that you keep track of what’s being said. As I mentioned above, you don’t need to understand every word. But if you recognize that you’re losing track of the discussion, you need to act fast. By asking for an explanation, confirmation or further details you can make sure you’ve understood. In a previous post I provided some useful phrases for ensuring clarity. Note down a few for quick reference during the call.
This might seem like a lot of time to invest for a 30-minute conference call. But don’t forget that you’re widening your vocabulary and improving your listening skills in general. You won’t need to make such a big effort forever. As time goes on, you should become more confident and relaxed and then you’ll feel comfortable with less preparation.
You don’t have to do it all on your own. In my 1-to-1 coaching for telephone and conference calls I’ll give you honest feedback on your current performance, suggestions for improvements and a whole range of useful tips and phrases.