A provocative article title, I know, but it could just as well read “Please don’t use American English when writing copy for international audiences…” or “Please don’t use Australian English when writing copy for international audiences…” or “Please don’t use [insert regional variety of English here] when writing copy for international audiences…”
The story behind the title
A few weeks ago, one of my clients asked me asked to present their content writing and online marketing strategy to a team visiting from their Swedish subsidiary. It was an informal meeting – late in the afternoon, hot, their attention-spans were short – and I promised a short overview of each aspect of the strategy. I may have promised chocolate at the end as a bribe to encourage attention, although I can’t be certain!
We whizzed through the website and noted a few changes. We discussed social media channels and how they were planning to use channels differently to the global office. Then we spoke about the content that the company had written in the past for their online channels and our somewhat ambitious new direction for content creation in the future.
“Any questions?” I asked, expecting none because the presentation had been to the point and straightforward.
“If the head office is going to be re-doing the website content, please don’t use a UK copywriter. Most of the time, we have no idea what they mean.” This was a statement from the managing director.
The rest of the team perked up and began to contribute, explaining problems that they had had for years with English wording that we used not only on the website and brochures but in marketing our biggest annual trade fair and in our prominent corporate branding. I stopped the presentation, and sat with them, asking for examples of phrases and words that caused problems, and it soon became clear that wording that worked beautifully in English and well in German often didn’t translate well in the Swedish market.
Culture, perspective and meaning
The issue was not that the wording was impossible to translate – we could find words to replace the English words. Instead, the concepts that we were communicating in English (and German) simply weren’t recognised by Swedes because they weren’t part of their culture or common experience. The result was that that Swedish office had a problem conveying the concepts that the company wanted to share, regardless of whether they used English or Swedish to communicate.
Native English speakers use complicated language
The problem with marketing content written in English was somewhat similar. The Swedes could understand individual words, but phrasal verbs (for example, “He turned her down” or “I picked up the language”) were difficult to understand. The content was conversational but British-conversational, often filled with idioms and innuendo that only “those in the know” could understand. Sentences were long and sometimes complex. And when a simple word would have been suitable, a sophisticated word had been chosen (for example, “we endeavour to…” instead of “we try to”).
As a native English speaker from South Africa who has lived and worked in the UK, US and Australia as well as in several European countries, almost always working as part of an international team, I wasn’t surprised to hear their comments. Non-native English speakers regularly tell me that they find other non-native speakers easier to understand than native speakers.
A “native speaker to non-native speaker” challenge in any language
To be fair, this is not a problem with the English language. It’s a problem with how native speakers of a language communicate versus how non-native speakers of a language communication. Many non-native German speakers tell me that they prefer to speak to other non-native German speakers in German for the same reason – people speak slower, pay more attention, make fewer assumptions about meaning, and are all-too-aware (and forgiving) of common mistakes made by learners of German.
Back to English: still the global lingua franca (or common language) for international business, science, technology and more
Like it or not, English is still the global lingua franca. According to some estimates, almost 80% of English speakers in the world are non-native English speakers. That means that if you’re trying to reach an international audience using English, you need to be careful about who you choose to write your content. Whoever you choose needs to avoid a rigid regional or national form of English and instead needs to write in what I call “global English”, a neutral form of English that is clear, simple and concise, and easy to understand for native and non-native English speakers alike.
Fortunately for my Swedish colleagues, I use global English exclusively when writing content for business clients. Thanks to my background in intercultural training, I also know the importance of checking meaning and cultural perspectives when creating marketing and branding material in English that will be used by non-native speaking salespeople.
During our conversation, we brainstormed words in English that resonated with the Swedish team and that made “sense” from a Swedish perspective. From there, we were able to find a way to incorporate these words into the corporate language without damaging the corporate brand. In the end, the Swedes were happy and confident that they were in a better position to sell their products thanks to the revised language. Now they’re looking forward to revised website content that they can understand! But that’s another story for another time.
The short summary
If you want to create content for international audiences that will interest, engage and resonate with non-native English speakers and native English speakers alike, it’s a good idea to use a neutral or global form of English that everyone is able to understand.
If you like what you’ve read, let’s connect on LinkedIn. If you think a conversation about content and communicating with international audiences might be useful, please feel free to get in touch directly.