English Verb Tenses – The Basic Four

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This is the first of many posts on Basic Business English.

Container Terminal - photo courtesy Wikipedia

How do we make sure that the right goods end up in the right place? – photo courtesy Wikipedia

A huge amount of international business goes on in English, and most of you don’t have English as your first language. The result can be confusion and misunderstandings. I also understand that most of you who use English as a common language in business don’t have the time or energy to keep on studying. So, to help you out, I am going to teach you to write clear, basic English that your non-native reader will thank you for.

In this post I am going to focus on verbs. How many verb forms are there in English? Estimates vary between 12 and 41! It depends on how you look at them. But you can manage with just four. I’ll show you how. You only need:

  • one for now
  • one for the past
  • one for the future
  • one for generalities

1. Talking about what is happening now
(using the present continuous)

I am attaching a photo of the damaged part.
We are checking the progress of your order.
The repair engineer is driving to your factory right now.
I am writing the report.

2. Talking about what happened in the past
(using the past simple tense)

We launched three new products last month.
Sales increased by 15% during the first quarter.
We dispatched a replacement part by courier this morning.
I met the client yesterday and he seemed very interested.

3. Talking about what will happen in the future
(using will + present simple)

We will launch three new products next month.
The new ad campaign will increase sales.
We will check the faulty part and will send a replacement by courier.
The new system will increase productivity by at least 20%.

4. Talking about things that happen often.
(using the present simple)

We launch three new products every month.
We review the effectiveness of our ad campaigns every week.
We check faulty parts and send replacements within 24 hours.
We continually improve productivity.

Of course, if you are comfortable using other verb forms also, then go ahead, but you don’t actually need them. You can get by very well with just these four – and not sound like Tarzan!

Money talk – invoice or bill – what’s the difference?

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500 euro notes

This is actually a really easy one, as bills and invoices are the same thing. The difference only lies in usage. My Internet service provider sends me a ‘monthly telephony invoice’ (that’s what they call it). However, I would naturally call it a ‘phone bill’. If companies really want to sound friendly and on the same level as their customers, they should use their customers’ language. I mentioned in an earlier post that my bank has this kind of philosophy and, instead of having ‘debit’ and ‘credit’ columns in their statements, they have ‘money out’ and ‘money in’ columns. So, if you want to get close to your customers, speak their language!

Presentation Tips 6 – What is the benefit?

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"Right guys! I have this idea. We need to go to the moon." You can bet that this idea needed some selling. The benefit was getting there before the Russians and staying on top. So what was the problem?

“Right guys! I have this idea. We need to go to the moon.”
You can bet that this idea needed some selling. The benefit was getting there before the Russians and staying on top. So what was the problem?

This is the critically important point that needs to be emphasised as part of your introduction.
How does your product, idea or proposal benefit the listeners?

Everybody who stands up in front of an audience to speak is really selling something – be it a product, an idea, a process – even just information. When I give a presentation about, for example, using emails more effectively, to an auditorium full of busy business people, many of whom perhaps were invited to attend (rather than signing up by choice), I’d better not waste their time.

Right up front I need to clarify what the problem is and how this problem is making their lives more difficult. I need to get them to relate to the problem and to realise that they are, in fact, suffering because of it. I then need to swiftly point out that I have a solution, and this solution is going to improve their lives. This involves me actually believing in what I am saying. It involves me actually getting excited about what I am saying. It is going to involve using strong positive adjectives and superlatives. I have to grab my audience’s attention by telling them what a huge benefit my ideas will be to them. Otherwise, they have no good reason to listen, or care.

This is a short extract from my ebook “How to Create and Deliver a Great Presentation“.

A few corporate tips

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Happy staff are the lifeblood of a company

Happy staff are the lifeblood of a company

1. Mission and vision – social responsibility – environmental issues – team spirit – lead instead of manage. Every company website seems to sing the same song, but the shop-floor reality can often be very different. Corporate culture doesn’t start from the company website – the company website should reflect the company, not just provide inspiration.

2. This includes creating and maintaining a company-wide “Well done!” culture where employees are regularly praised for good work, and where inevitable mistakes are calmly accepted as part of the learning process. If everyone simply puts their heads down and looks busy when the boss comes in, there is something wrong. 

3. Everyone should know exactly what they are supposed to be doing, and how to evaluate for themselves how well they are doing it. Responsibility and empowerment lead to the feeling of satisfaction from a job well done. Rewards for hard work, such as bonuses, should be received in the next pay packet, not at Christmas.

4. If you want to improve processes, first ask the people on the shop floor for their ideas, they’ll probably have some pretty good ones. After all, they are the ones who are actually doing the work eight hours a day. They understand the challenges and, given the chance, will know how to fix them.

5. Treat your staff as you would like them to treat your customers.


Are your staff instructions setting the right tone?

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This is just a quick post to get you thinking. Messages from management and staff, be they notices or emails, are an important communication channel that can bring you closer to your staff and create a team spirit. However, if they are written badly, they can put distance between colleagues of different levels. The days of ‘top-down, us and them’ management are pretty much over, but do your messages reflect this?

You probably speak to those you supervise in a friendly, we’re-all-on-the-same-team kind of way, with a friendly hand on the shoulder and a personal, “Can you help me out and do this for me?” Notices and other messages should be the same, using the same, equal-level words. One particular message brought this whole subject to my mind the other day. It was to do with front-line, customer service dress codes and although it was trying to be friendly, the choice of words created distance.

The notice read: “Please make sure that shirts and trousers are cleaned and neatly pressed.” The writer has fallen into the trap of using the ‘official’ language of notices – he or she would not say this to a friend. This may seem like a small thing, but look at the message itself. Even the supervisors themselves do not have their clothes cleaned and pressed, they wash and iron them like the rest of us. Only the very top people get their laundry ‘done’. Are you one of these top people? Or are you actually a member of the team?

Presentation Tips 5 – Say it thrice

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This is a very important rule as regards giving presentations. By the way, ‘thrice’ means ‘three times’, as ‘twice’ means ‘two times’ – I hoped the word would catch your eye and your interest. However, it is rather an old word, not much used in modern English. Whoever you are giving your presentation to, you will need to repeat important points and, if possible, use different words each time, so any misunderstood word can be replaced by a more familiar one. This is what you must do also if you really need to use technical or other uncommon words. Again, it is back to remembering your audience. Anyway, the main message of your presentation, and any other important points too, need to be repeated.

The presentation itself should be in three parts: introduction, body and summary or conclusion. This ‘rule of three’ works on smaller levels too, so in your introduction the main message should be introduced, expanded on a little and then summarised. In this way, the audience will:

1. Be able to locate the main message.
2. Catch up, if they weren’t paying attention.
3. Remember the message.

All important points should be treated in the same way. A presentation is not like a book, where you can flick back a couple pages when you realise that your mind had wandered off into the forest for a bit. Don’t expect your audience to be totally focused on you all the time. I’ll bet that you have had the same problem when listening to someone else giving a presentation.

We have a lot on our minds these days, and it is rare that we are totally focussed on anything for long. The mind drifts off, you check your watch, then you think about the next appointment and what you should have prepared for it, then you remember the gas bill that needs paying … oh yes, and what did the speaker just say? It sounded important. Don’t have a ‘they should be listening’ attitude – have an ‘I’ll get them to understand if it kills me’ one.

As a presenter, you need to keep a close eye on your audience. Watch out for the glassy eyes of the chap who’s lost his concentration for a moment. Get his attention back and summarise for everyone what you just said. You are giving the presentation, and it is entirely up to you whether the audience gets the message!

Watch out for fidgeting, this person may have lost interest – try and get it back.

Watch out for yawns, they can simply indicate tiredness, but they also show when someone didn’t understand something a short while back. Part of the brain is still back there, analysing and trying to grasp the point, while the rest is trying to focus on the words currently being spoken. It can be as simple as an unfamiliar word – go back and say it in another way.

Watch out for the folded arms of someone who may not agree with your point. You could even politely single them out and ask their opinion. This provides you with another tool to use to repeat your message.

So, remember the rule of three and say it thrice.

This short extract has been taken from my eBookHow to Create and Deliver a Great Presentation“.

Presentation Tips 4 – Stance and Body Language

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© Freds | Dreamstime Stock Photos In most of the western world this is a strong, positive signal, but in some countries you might just have lost your customer!

© Freds | Dreamstime Stock Photos
In most of the western world this is a strong, positive signal, but in some countries you might just have lost your customer!

Here we enter an area which can depend on your own personality. If you are naturally animated and use a lot of hand gestures, you have an advantage. If you are nervous and your hands are shaking, then holding your notes is not a good idea, as the papers will shake even more than your hands! In fact, what to do with your hands is a common problem and many speakers grip the podium or microphone stand, or plunge their hands into their pockets, in order to keep things under control.

However, the hands can be used most effectively to emphasise points, like counting off important list items on one hand with the index finger of the other.

NOTE: Be very careful with hand gestures if you are presenting abroad, or if there are foreign nationals in your audience. I lived for many years in Finland and was repeatedly surprised when my students indicated ‘two’ with a gesture that means ‘up yours’ in the UK, Australia and other Commonwealth countries. I was polite enough to point out to them that it would not be the best way to order a couple of beers in a British bar.

In Thailand, a good old thumbs up sign can be interpreted as a childish stuck-out tongue. In Iran and Afghanistan it means, again, something like ‘up yours’.

In Greece, a palm-outward stop gesture is an insult.

In Vietnam, crossing your fingers to indicate hope for a lucky result will be interpreted as an insult referring to female genitalia.

Raising your clenched fist in victory will be misunderstood in several countries.

Also, pointing your finger directly at people can seem quite aggressive, and I would avoid it anywhere.

There are very many of these cultural idiosyncrasies, so it is well worth researching the country you are either visiting, or that you are receiving guests from. For example (and this is relevant to greeting your presentation attendees), it is a common habit for westerners to receive a business card with just one hand, glance at it briefly and then stuff it unceremoniously into their top pocket. The Chinese do things differently. The card is offered with both hands, with the text facing the recipient. It should be received in the same way, with both hands. It is then polite to actually read the card and make some comment about its owner, like, “Ah, I see you are the department manager, this is a very good position.” The card can now be placed on the table in front of you, as if it has significant value.

There are far too many countries and cultures in the world to expand on this further; in fact, it would provide material for quite a large book. Luckily, there are many good-quality business-oriented sites on the Internet where you can find such information.

However, it is estimated that between 70% to 90% of communication is non-verbal, so using your hands, facial expressions and whole body to help get your message across is an important skill to practice. Having your hands in your pockets can suit the stand-up comedian with a dry sense of humour, but is ill suited to a sales presentation. Standing with your arms folded suggests an attitude closed to audience participation.

This is an extract from my book “How to Create and Deliver a Great Presentation”. More details can be found HERE.

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