"An idea does not pass from one language to another without change."
– Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life

You may often hear the advice, “write like you talk.” That’s good guidance. It can make your writing more conversational and easy to follow. But not for everyone.

If you’re writing for an international audience, some of the phrasing and word choices you typically use in conversation can lead to confusion and misunderstanding.

For example, I recently used the phrase “second to none” in a corporate brochure intended for a worldwide audience, which met with the comment, “Say this in plain English, please.” Surprisingly (for me, at least), the reader had interpreted that phrase to mean “average” or “just OK.” (To clarify: in the US, the expression means the best, first place, highest ranking, etc.)  I wrote it instinctively — like I talk. But what was plain English to me, wasn’t to my audience.

So, for international communication and marketing, don’t write like you talk.
Write like they hear.

It’s challenging to train yourself to reread everything you write to look for phrases and word choices that won’t work for an international audience.  After all, your own language is ingrained in you.  But it can be done. And it doesn’t have to leave your text stilted and boring.

Some simple tips for writing for an international audience:

» Read through some online idiom dictionaries to remind yourself of what isn’t always plain English to non-native speakers.

» Use a thesaurus, but not like many people do:  looking for fancier words to sound smarter (which rarely works, but that’s another topic). Look for simpler, clearer ways to say things.

» Reread anything you’ve intended to be funny. Is it still funny outside of your own culture or region?

» Ask a non-native speaker to read your work before you publish.

» Be smart. Only change what you really need to for clarity. Preserve your unique writing style to retain the energy and personality in your text — especially in letters and blogs.

What phrases or words do you think are the worst culprits for international miscommunication?

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European marketers and business owners: are you interested in B2B (business-to-business) opportunities in the United States? I'm guessing that places like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago spring to mind, right? Of course, these are huge metropolitan areas filled with every kind of business you can imagine. Yet, allow me to direct your attention to the southwest for a moment. Texas, to be more precise. What springs to mind now? Cowboys, longhorn cattle, and rodeos? Oh, but there's so much more.

This year's ranking by CNBC crowns Texas as the top state in the USA for business in 2010, citing Texas' strong economy as an important factor. In fact, the study describes the Texas economy as "the 15th largest in the world, according to government figures; larger, for example, than all the Scandinavian nations combined."

Now, Texas is my home state and I'm certainly "Texas Proud" about a lot of things the Lone Star State has to offer. But when it comes to business opportunities, I'm not unduly biased. The evidence is clear.

Here are just a few of the characteristics that make Texas a top place to consider for B2B marketing and other business opportunities in the USA:

Since 2008, Texas has been home to the most Fortune 500 company headquarters in the United States. (Tied this year with California — each has 57.)

Texas is centrally located, making communication and travel across the USA's four time zones very convenient. Texas is home to two of the world's busiest international airports: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), with DFW ranking 3rd in the world for operations.

Cost of Living:
Business and living costs in Texas are relatively low. For example, you can buy a 4,000+ ft² (370+ m²) home in a Dallas suburb for less than $400,000 (300,000 Euro), while a comparable home near Los Angeles, California could cost millions of dollars.

Technology & Innovation:
Texas has a strong presence in technology research and education. My own alma mater, Baylor University, ranked among Tech's 29 Most Powerful Colleges this year along with the University of Texas. Also, Austin (the state capital) hosts the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conferences and Festivals in March, which include a world-renowned Interactive Festival highlighting emerging media and creative technology.

Population/Workforce & Land:
Texas is 268,820 mi² (696,241 km²) — larger than any country in Western Europe. As of 2009, the state has an estimated population of 24.7 million — 2nd largest in the USA. Yet, in population density, Texas ranks 26th. (I.e., It's a big state with lots of room.)

Texas has a lot to offer — from friendly people and fantastic food to outdoor adventures and a sparkling social scene. You'll find sandy beaches in the south, pine forests in the east, prairies and rolling hills in the middle, and deserts, mountains, and canyons in the west. And, of course, big cities like Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and San Antonio offer everything you could want in dining, entertainment, arts, culture, music, education, high tech facilities, and more.

More Fun Texas Facts

► Interested in learning about effective B2B marketing, communication, content marketing, corporate communication, and copywriting for Texas and the rest of the USA? Please leave a comment or contact me with specific questions and/or topics.

Related Posts:

How to Avoid the Stereotype Trap in International Marketing & Communication

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It was HOT in Sweden this week. And being from Texas, I don't use that word lightly. Now, before all my friends in Texas start hollerin' at me for complaining about Nordic temperatures: yes, of course, I realize it's not as hot here as it is in Texas. However, there's a big difference in how we experience warmer temperatures in Sweden.

After our bodies have acclimated to 8+ months of cold weather, it's a shock when the temperature suddenly rises. And here's the catch: we can't escape the heat. There is no indoor air conditioning here. There hasn't been much of a breeze, either. The sun is up until midnight, and our upstairs bedrooms act like little greenhouses — storing all the heat they can. And the office? Yikes! The computer monitors add to the heat, making concentration nearly impossible.

At 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (26-32 C), I've been more miserable than I was on most triple-digit days (40+ C) in Texas. Is it any wonder most Scandinavians take long summer vacations and spend countless hours at the beach? Growing up in Houston, I thought my family in Scandinavia didn't know what "real heat" was. How could they complain? Now, I understand.

Here's the point of my heat wave rant:

When marketing your products, services, or ideas, remember: your perspective is not their perspective — and their perspective is more important.

That seems basic, right? We know it's vital to connect with our audience, and we know many factors influence audience perspective: cultural norms, peer influences, available local resources, history, climate, languages and dialects, standard technology and equipment, etc.

Yet, it's still easy to fall into the trap of assuming some things are the same for everyone. Because of our own natural perceptions and life experiences, there are factors we wouldn't even think to consider. Things that seem innate, universal. After all, wouldn't many of us assume 80 degrees (26 C) feels the same for everyone?

The danger is if, when we become aware of differences, we ignore them or judge them.

People living in different parts of the world may experience and perceive your business, services, products, and website in some unexpected ways. Their problems, "pain points," likes and dislikes in these areas are real and serious. If their support is important to you, address their experiences properly.

P.S., To my family and friends in Scandinavia: thanks for not saying, "I told you so."

Happy summer! I'll be at the beach with my laptop if anyone needs me.

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cookies3_istock_000012992760xsmallRecently, I was talking with a friend of mine from London about what we were planning for the upcoming weekend. I mentioned we were hoping to have a big family breakfast with scrambled eggs and homemade biscuits.

That’s when she looked at me with a strange expression on her face.  “Biscuits?” she asked. “For breakfast?” 

You see, in the UK and most of Europe, the English word biscuit refers to what Americans would call a cookie or cracker, which is usually sweet, hard or crispy, and often has a cream filling, icing/frosting, chocolate chips, etc. 

biscuits1_istock_000013341813xsmallIn the USA, biscuits are small, round leavened breads – slightly crispy and golden brown on the outside, fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth soft on the inside.  They’re not sweetened and are typically a breakfast food, often eaten with scrambled or fried eggs, sausage, bacon, ham, cheese, or butter and jam/jelly.  In the south, buttermilk biscuits and white “country” gravy are popular. Is it the healthiest breakfast? Not at all. But oh, so yummy.

Why am I writing about biscuits? Simply to remind you that regional differences in word-choice and phrasing can have a dramatic impact on your business success internationally.

My friend was disgusted when I mentioned having biscuits and eggs for breakfast. We were both speaking English, but our minds had conjured very different images and emotions from just that one word. It was startling, confusing, disconnecting, and it threw off the whole conversation.

We laughed about it, of course. And it was educational. But when you’re writing to customers or business partners online, in brochures, or via email, you don’t get to know immediately if they’ve misunderstood something. You won’t know if they’re thinking or feeling something completely different from what you’d hoped.

In your international marketing and communication, you want to connect clearly, easily, and naturally.

Before you mail your next sales letter, print a new brochure, or click send on your latest email blast, give it a “biscuit test.”  If anything is unclear (based on feedback from native regional English experts), consider creating separate communications for each target region.  It may take some extra effort, but the returns will be worth it.

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Yesterday's blog covered the ways weak international business writing can destroy your brand. Now, here's a look at what can make your international communication weak along with ideas for how to strengthen it.

Weak Foundation

Strong international communication starts with a strong foundation. You can't effectively translate and/or adapt information for specific international markets if the original materials aren't written well.

People will question a company's competency — whether international or domestic — if its business communication is difficult to read and riddled with mistakes. This list from my series about how to create more effective business websites includes some important tips for making your business writing easier to read and more effective.

Bad Translation

As we've seen, bad translations can kill your message. That's obvious. So, what makes a bad translation?

► Incorrect spelling, grammar, or word choice

► Wrong style, phrasing, gist, or overall meaning

If you get help from a native-speaking professional writer, this shouldn't be a problem for you.* Yet, I continue to see bad translation examples from otherwise capable businesses. Usually, it's easy to spot the reason: outsourcing to cheap non-native speakers or skipping the human altogether and opting for fast, free translation software.

[The sound you hear is me climbing onto my soapbox.] Let me say this loud and clear: translation software is not accurate enough for your important business communication.

Do I think translation programs aren't useful? Of course not. I use Google Translate when I need quick help with languages. It's a quick, easy, free translation tool. But I have yet to find translation software that can capture the nuances of emotion and appeal in real human speech patterns. (I'll assume I can skip the lecture on why a non-native speaker can't help you.)

* Be sure to find a writer that fits your audience, taking into account the differences in regional dialects and spelling. For example, British English won't work for an American audience and vice versa.

Wrong Perspective

So, if your translation is flawless, your business communication is effective, right? Not necessarily. In fact, probably not. Technically, your translation may be accurate. You may have used all the right grammar, spelling, style, phrasing, etc. But there's a vital element missing: adapting the message to the audience's perspective.

What matters to people in your own country, may not be important to others. Likewise, people in your target audience may have certain viewpoints, concerns, problems, or character traits that you don't give a second thought.

Take the time to understand what matters to your audience. Customize your data, examples, case studies, and anecdotes with locally familiar and applicable ones. Just be sure you're getting the right perspective. Avoid falling into the stereotype trap.

Improper or Awkward Formatting

As you know, design, formatting, packaging, and writing all work together to give an impression of your brand. Your words won't have a chance if people are distracted by your format or, even worse, offended by something.

► Make it as easy as possible for your audience to read, handle, distribute, respond to, and store your communications.

For example, in Sweden the standard business paper size is A4, which is slightly longer than what's used most often in the United States. If you're going to send a proposal to prospective clients or important documents to your business partners, consider their frustration if they can't fit the documents in their normal file drawers, binders, envelopes, or presentation folders. (The U.S. also uses a different standard hole-punch so it's best to avoid pre-punched holes.)

► Use the professionalism, courtesy, and formalities your audience prefers.

It's important to consider differences in formality and manners of address. Some countries use an informal first-name salutation for business letters and other communications, while other cultures find that disrespectful. For example, when making first contact in formal business letters to the USA, you should use Mr., Mrs., or Ms., with the recipient's last name and possibly other titles (such as M.D. or Ph.D.).

What would you add to this list? Any other important differences in business writing around the world?

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