Condemned By Every Syllable They Utter

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“Look at Them, Prisoners of the Gutter, Condemned By Every Syllable They Utter”. Recently, on yet another judging panel at a startup conference pitch competition, I had to think of this classic line from one of most enjoyable movies of all time; the 1964 My Fair Lady adaptation of Shaw’s “Pygmalion”.

On stage was a smart founder of an ambitious early company, with a wonderful team, a cool product, and some impressive revenue validation. Yet English was not her strongest point. As it often happens at such events, there was some extensive pitch training in advance of the competition itself, and you could feel the vicarious shame of the jury, who was getting the main point of the founder’s story, seeping in small bits and pieces through her attempt to do a standard pitch according to the superficial pitch-training guidelines.

I don’t know about other folks who often get to judge startup pitches, but I’ve been developing this sense of vicarious shame about great stories horribly told on stage for a while now. And while the shame is by proxy for me, it’s an outright shame for the companies and founders who don’t get the recognition they deserve.

The problem is English. Speaking it passably is a must in the modern world, yet somehow many non-native speakers get caught up in crossing the chasm between being generally understood in everyday small talk or simple functions like ordering a coffee, and on the other side of the chasm, the ability to deliver a highly articulated and eloquent call to action.

It’s a classical 80-20 thing. With 20% effort you become 80% at ease with spoken English. But great communication requires the 80% effort for the last 20% of proficiency. And while that is likely apparent, accepted, and generally understood in corporate and public-administration circles, the often-infantile startup bandwagon culture may not always impose that realization.

Language proficiency consists of several aspects. Written vs. spoken, as well as grammatical/well-read vs. colloquial and culturally referential.

In UK/US business culture, the dominant culture when the innovation/startup community is concerned, it is now widely agreed upon that accents don’t matter, but correct English writing does. You can have any accent, but your English should be perfect in writing. I’m often told my accent changes depending where I spent most time recently; apparently I pick up local pronunciation too easily. Thank heaven that’s not a problem and just something to have a good joke about.

But when I write, I make sure I re-read my e-mails and documents at least twice before I send them, even though I’ve been writing in English more than in any other language for 25 years.

And then there is language usage. Even if grammatically impeccable, your business English should be adapted to the latest professional slang. Also, the best way to appear smart is to timely insert a morally immaculate yet highly relevant cultural reference in your communication. Or if you’re a pro, a good joke. But that requires major eloquence and is generally to be avoided.

The sad truth is that many great stories get lost in translation to business English. Similarly, those whose English is native and literate, have an unfair advantage while presenting a story of inferior quality. Language usage is a fascinatingly cultural phenomenon. Being native in Russian and near-native in Dutch and Bulgarian, I can often tell those countries’ origin in a founder’s pitch, even when there is no accent whatsoever and all the words are in the right order. For instance, people from ex-Soviet Union usually downplay their biggest achievements. And Dutch folks love to literally translate jokes; I’ve often recognized the presenter as being Dutch without any obvious accent because of the attempted humor.

The good news is that focusing on perfecting written and oral English skills is likely one of the most rewarding investments a non-native company founder can make. Delivery and communication is both one of the most lacking parts in non-native company stories, as well as the part that is the easiest to fix with practice. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Practice regular English conversation with a native speaker. Better yet, with a North American who’s also involved in startups. In nearly every city I’ve been to recently in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, there are Americans, Canadians, or British who relocated locally to build technology. There are also Peace Corps groups in every capital city, and they always love making friends with local entrepreneurs.
  2. When you have an upcoming presentation, practice. The entire elevator pitch idea comes from the US, where it’s business custom to “pitch” a relevant contact on 5 seconds notice with a concise introduction, in order to secure a meeting to explain everything in detail. In Europe and other parts of the world, the tradition is to spend a number of encounters talking about general topics, before getting to business in a dedicated meeting. This often leaves founders believing that the entire pitching phenomenon is some kind of weird ritual, but in reality it’s the easiest way to leave a great impression. It just takes a lot of practice.
  3. Immerse yourself in startup and technology conversations. One of the easiest ways to do this is to regularly read the tech press, and engage in online conversations. In my early startup days, I had very little access to US/British industry contacts in my daily routine, running a startup company in Amsterdam. But every evening before falling asleep I would read all the latest stories on TechCrunch (and later Quora) and engage with opinion makers on Twitter, and now I believe that was where I learned most of my early critical industry insights and jargon.

Don’t go around Soho square, dropping H’s everywhere, as another line from My Fair Lady goes. As a non-English native founder, one of the fastest ways to stand out is to improve your language and presentation skills. Use it to make sure your story gets the recognition that it deserves.

Posted By Max Gurvits, Director CEE/CIS/MENA at CBA.

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