Want to succeed as an ESL teacher? 16 tips to increase motivation and engagement from your ESL students (A webinar presentation by Carl Cameron-Day)

Carl Cameron-Day, a very experienced (and affable) TEFL teacher, based in Northern Ireland, has hosted many webinars on EFL/ESL teaching topics (see Tefl.org). You can find them posted on YouTube and Facebook. Recently Carl discussed how motivating students to learn and to engage with your lessons (and each other) can present a challenge.

How to encourage motivation and engagement may be especially challenging when you teach “young learners” (YL) and when adult learners (AL) have such busy lives that attending class (and preparing homework) can be tough

Carl suggested numerous strategies for EFL/ESL teachers and tutors. Here are a sample:

  1. Adopt a friendly teaching personality, even on your worst days (e.g. when you’re sleep-deprived, sick, etc.): Only the most ungracious and tactless student can resist the power of a friendly teacher/facilitator. Aim to be magnanimous!

2. All education involves at least some degree of suffering on the part of the student. So, when students are struggling, reassure them that if they keep trying, what you’re teaching will soon make sense.

3. Learn your students’ names as quickly as possible. You may need to use signs initially or nametags but make the effort to match faces to names.

4. Treat students individually and not according to stereotypes you may have heard about their cultures. Ask why they’re taking your course, and what music, food, pop culture, etc. they like.

5. Show students that they’re improving, by doing group vocabulary or grammar
“progress tests,” about every four weeks. You can also encourage students to make portfolios out of their marked exercises and projects; the portfolios provide a record of their efforts, in which they can take pride.

6. Explain how to use English in the real world—for instance, what words would you use if you went on holiday to New York City or to London, UK?

7. Use topics for conversation practice that are appropriate to the age of your students: For instance, what have the Kardashians done lately?

8. Think about different learning styles among students and use coloured images, pictures, YouTube videos and a wide variety of teaching activities (e.g., games, music, TedTalks, etc.)

9.Think about the bad teachers you had in life and do the opposite: smile, laugh, use humour, including having a laugh at yourself. Avoid being too serious.

10. Learn how to praise students without sounding like a sycophant.

11. Move students around in the room (or breakout rooms, on Zoom), so that every 10 minutes or so they must often work with someone new.

12. When giving “bad news,” remember to use a “bad news sandwich.” Preface and conclude bad news with good news, so the criticism doesn’t sound too harsh.

13. Male students often like to compete, so you can assign them words to define and use in sentences—“the first one with correct answers gets to choose the music for the class break.” By competing against their peers, some students are motivated to learn better. 

14. If your students know the grammar rules but are not applying them when they speak, then choose an activity that requires accuracy. For instance, you can search for online grammar and vocabulary games, where only one answer can be correct.

15. Be confident as a teacher, even if you do not feel that way. Remember the education and training that you have. Send yourself positive thoughts about how prepared you are to teach new learners of English.

16. You can create a Facebook group for each class and encourage its students to meet and practice their English with each other, in that group.

And now it’s your turn:

To facilitators/teachers: What ESL teaching tips or strategies do you use in a classroom?  

To students: What activities do you enjoy most in class?

Why bother studying languages? Because language learning lasts a lifetime. . . in this month’s issue of ‘Tell Your Story Newsletter’

September 2022 Vol 4 Issue 9

Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN):
Specializing in Entrepreneurial and Linguistic Communication
Let me teach you to tell your story!

ARTICLE 1: Why bother studying languages? Because language learning lasts a lifetime
On “accent hallucination” and “accent bias,” from “Grammar Girl,” Mignon Fogarty

Welcome Mid-September 2021!

The prairie heatwave of August and early September has finally abated (and still pales next to the 40+ degrees my students in Europe have reported).
As we conclude the second full week of September, I can hear renewed road construction nearby,suspended in the late summer, but now intensified (perhaps because winter looms?).

Have you, like many Canadians, felt saddened by the sudden (but not unexpected) passing of Queen Elizabeth II? Her dignity, grace and unsurpassed 70 years of service, as the monarch of Great Britain
and Commonwealth nations, cannot be dismissed, even by those not interested in royal history. Most of us were not alive (or cannot remember) a time before she acceded the throne.

My sense of sadness at her passing has been mitigated by the queen’s sense of humour, while the world observed her Jubilee year. Have you seen (maybe more than once?) her “tea party” with Paddington Bear, at Buckingham Palace? (This clip was recommended to me last spring by friends in
the UK): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7UfiCa244XE
May Queen Elizabeth II rest-in-peace and inspire us to show the kind of dedication to our lives’ work that she did, to hers.
In Article One of this month’s issue of “Tell Your Story Newsletter,” as a teacher of (and writer in) the English language, I discuss a surprising truth of the longevity that language learning has, in our minds.
Many arguments are regularly made for the importance of studying sciences and mathematics (STEM fields), but seldom has anyone discussed the time defying power of learning new languages.

And in “Storytellers’ Corner,” I discuss the worrisome development of “accent hallucination” and bias, as described by American “GrammarGirl,” Mignon Fogarty. Equally important are steps we can take to stop them.

Despite the exhaustion many of us find during these world-weary, pandemic days, I wish for you that this autumn will allow you both to plan and accomplish your professional endeavours; and that you will take heart in some of the joys of life that have arisen from our recent summer season.

And may each of us find gratitude for the blessings that we sometimes fail to notice, but which continue to grace our lives.

Storytelling Communications

Article One: Why bother studying languages? Because language learning lasts a lifetime
In a recent article in “The Conversation” enewsletter, author Monika Schmid discussed the lasting nature of language studies, as shown in recent research conducted in the United Kingdom.

This year, students in the UK took 25,000 A-levels and 315,000 GCSEs (“General Certificate of Secondary Education”) in a modern foreign language. (GCSEs are needed for colleges and employers in the UK. Passing five GCSE exams at the grades of C or higher is considered roughly to equal a North American, “high school” diploma).

These statistics indicate that the extent to which languages are studied as subject matter for GCSEs has fallen by more than 40% (and A-levels by about 25%), over the past 20 years.

Schmid notes that between 2014 and 2019, there was a 19% reduction in students taking GCSEs in modern languages. Why does this matter?

This development concerns educators because, contrary to some popular belief, language learning is a very useful pursuit. Studies have shown that being able to read and write in a language other than
English allows students to perform higher on standardized examinations and also to earn more at work, especially in Europe, the US and Canada.

Of particular interest to Schmid and her readers is her recent research that shows that “language knowledge will last you a lifetime.” The capability you develop in a foreign language lasts longer than many of us might think and is “astonishingly stable over long periods of time.”

The first sign of such results was reported, nearly 40 years ago by American psychologist Harry P. Bahrick, who found that 600 Americans retained high school Spanish studies up to 50 years after their original classes: while he found “a small amount of loss between the third and sixth year after
learning had ceased, knowledge appeared stable for decades afterwards.”

For instance, 25 years after they stopped studying other languages, learners were found to have preserved about 70% of their vocabulary, despite not having used the language in the intervening time.

By contrast, unless learners became math students in college or university, within three or four years, their memory of high school mathematics, calculus and geometry-trigonometry, were all virtually forgotten.

In the UK, nearly 500 test participants who had studied French GCSEs or A-level courses, up to 50 years previously, but who had not used or studied the language since, performed “at the same level as those who only took the exam a few months ago, and as those who did, on occasion, use French”

This surprises many (including me), because of the common belief that one must “use it or lose it” when it comes to our education. But Schmid says that the reason such memory is possible is due to the “way we acquire, remember and use language.”

More specifically, while the vocabulary of a new language is learned by memorization, similar to the facts and rules of algebra and science, which are vulnerable to forgetting, grammar functions are learned in a way that Schmid says is like “riding a bicycle.”

Studying grammar involves using the part of our brain that is good at remembering sequences and patterns through frequent repetition, so that linguistic grammar becomes “more like a reflex,” and a kind of knowledge that “resists forgetting” (Schmid).

For example, I remember first learning the “causative faire” and the conditional mood in grade nine French. Today, I still remember how it works, although more than 30 years have lapsed since that instruction.
Furthermore, the brain does not compartmentalize “English” grammar and usage apart from “French” or any other language. Instead, the brain can develop a very complex, responsive net that we draw on, when we use a word or phrase.

When we draw on that linguistic net in our brains, researchers have found that one area that lights up with energy then transmits to other areas that are connected to it. (For e.g., words that sound similar, words that mean similar things, and are often used together, are all energized.)

Studying a foreign language causes a learner to build a net that partly overlaps the one we already built in our native language. Then, every time you use the word “apple” in English, the term “pomme” in French “receive[s] a small amount of stimulation every time you use the English version.” That stimulation “prevents the [second] language from eroding entirely” (Schmid).

While this does not mean we will start conversing in a second, third or other foreign language, years after our high school/GCSE education ended, it does make it possible for us to return to the language without having to “painstakingly re-learn the grammar [we] were taught” in the past” (Schmid).

Schmid adds a particularly wonderful insight about the value of studying foreign languages: when we experience minor emergencies in life, “like lost luggage or a broken-down car,” language learners find we can excavate words from the language of that country, with just a bit of prompting or help
from its native speakers, whom we encounter.

Schmid’s article in “The Conversation” enewsletter explains that the depth of mental engagement that comes from learning a language reveals that non-Native language studies should be better appreciated and promoted, as a part of education systems, globally, and certainly our own.

And now it’s your turn: Have you seriously studied foreign languages at any time in your life? Have you tried to remember that knowledge, later, when interacting with native speakers?
Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you!

STORYTELLERS’ CORNER: Words, stories, riddles and more on writing and editing . . .
On “accent hallucination” and “accent bias,” reported by “Grammar Girl,” Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty (America’s “Grammar Girl”) recently shared some findings on issues raised by accented English, from the research of Professor Valerie Fridlund (Department of Linguistics, U of Nevada, Reno, NV).

Fogarty began by saying that research shows that people tend to prefer those who sound like we do. This leads to what linguists call “accent bias” (AB).

AB occurs when someone feels negatively about another’s (different) accent and develops resistance or prejudice toward it. Fogarty goes on to report that AB can make it harder for those with minority accents to succeed in
school or at work. Those with different accents also may not find legal recourse for such discrimination.

Even the belief that people (who may be perceived as non-native speakers) have an accent, rather than the accent itself, can create a barrier to comprehension and acceptance. So some speakers are discriminated against or suffer accent bias, without even having an accent!

The increased processing time (a small amount more of cognitive functioning) that we need to understand a non-Native speaker of English, or even the anticipation that we will hear an accent, can lead to problems in comprehension.

That might be challenging enough for a non-Native speaker. But the phenomenon that someone who looks different will have an accent can lead to “accent hallucination.” Here, a native speaker is heard to have a foreign accent, when they actually don’t (e.g. such as a speaker who is a second-generation

Fridland’s research shows that online, oral comprehension among university students of a lecturer believed to be an international graduate student Teaching Assistant (TA) can be reduced, even if students are simply shown a photo of the TA as a non-Native speaker. Here there is a perception
(“hallucination”) of accent, not an actual one.

Just being shown a minority person’s photo made it harder for students to accurately transcribe what a Native Speaker TA was saying! “Accent hallucination,” indeed!

The bias is believed to pertain to the listener’s resistance to making extra cognitive effort to decipher another’s accent, which diverts attention from their transcribing process. Processing efforts may play a role in how comprehensible speakers are found to be, whether or not
they actually speak with accents.

Hearing something unexpected, like a foreign accent, can have other, detrimental consequences, such as finding a non-Native speaker of English to be less trustworthy or believable (credibility).

In the face of racist implications from linguistic misperception, Fogarty reports that “fortunately, we are fast and flexible learners” of others’ accents and speaking styles. She shares these insights:

(1) Recognizing listeners’ bias parks some responsibility on the listener’s efforts and not only the speaker’s. (I can remember learning to adjust to understand a South African professor, 25 years ago,
whose accent was new to me.)
(2) We can reduce listener’s bias (and delay in comprehension) by (i) increasing our exposure to non-Native speech and (ii) by receiving more information about what to expect before we hear a non-Native speaker

For instance, prior exposure to or training on speech with a foreign accent reduces the cognitive processing we as listeners must do and can decrease negative value associations (e.g. the belief that accented speakers are less credible than “non-accented” ones). In truth, all speakers of every
language are accented, according to some background, such as Western Canadian, as I found when living in the UK. Some Londoners found my English hard to comprehend.

But tolerance can be found when listeners are willing to make additional effort and not if they are unwilling or refuse out of racism. Giving listeners the information that they’re about to hear a foreign accent prior to exposure can help them adapt more quickly. This is likely because less of a mismatch arises between listeners’ expectations and what they actually hear (which pertains to at least some of the results of “accent hallucination” studies).

Likewise, when subjects in linguistic processing studies were told, before hearing and rating non-Native speakers, that the process could affect the believability of the speakers, listeners no longer judged those with mild accents to be untrustworthy.

(3) Broader exposure to other, non-Native linguistic communities also improved listeners’ processing. Encouraging listeners to have a “growth mindset” whereby they will improve in their ability to understand and transcribe non-Native accents by increased exposure, helped to decrease resistance and accent bias.

Fridland’s findings on “accent hallucination” and “accent bias” can improve communication between Native and non-Native speakers globally, thereby reducing racism.

As Fogarty concludes, it is our responsibility to “prim[e] a positive mindset” and to give listeners more contextual information about who they are listening to, when we teach, introduce, or translate speakers with foreign accents, so as to reduce negative outcomes for both listeners and speakers,

Do you have a concept, idea, or problem involving any aspect of writing or communications?
Please share it with me; I’d be delighted to use it in an upcoming issue.






A very deep “thank you” this month to Dr. Ravi Basi and the team of wonderful nurses and care aides, at City Hospital’s Observation Ward (of the Emergency Room).

These talented individuals provided sensitive and compassionate, patient-centred care for an elderly relative who is enduring poor health.
To receive such quality care in the chaotic context of an Emergency Room and amid a high number of Covid patients makes me deeply grateful. I do not take this for granted, and a written “thank you” is certainly forthcoming!

It can be challenging to secure quality senior care in hospitals, especially in crisis times for the health care industry. So thanks are doubly due, when care is excellent and deftly handled.

Many “thank yous” to all involved.
Equally important thanks to Parish Nurse, Laura Van Loon (RN), for helping my family navigate the choppy waters of hospital care in Covid times.
Laura is a discerning, wise, and powerful advocate for many–truly an “unsung hero” of physical, mental and spiritual health in our community.

Thank you deeply, Laura.
Special thanks also this month to the very gifted business coach and facilitator, Deanna Litz, of “Powerful Nature Coaching and Consulting.” Deanna has coached me through the digiSMART program, as I seek local clients for my language teaching services.

A huge thank you and SHOUT OUT to Monica Kreuger (Chief Visionary Officer), Brent Kreuger (VP) and the Team at the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship (PSE), whose company, Global Infobrokers, is a finalist for Saskatoon’s SABEX Award for “Business of the Year, 2022!”

CVO Monica Kreuger, who is a long-time member and also has directed both local and provincial Chambers of Commerce, VP Brent Kreuger, Administrator Elaine Mantyka, Facilitator and Coach, Deanna Litz, Bookkeeper Marie Weinkauf, Coordinator Silvana Cracogna, and Director of Chinese Operations, Grace Wang, along with a host of part-time facilitators, have undertaken colossal work on program development, and refinement throughout recent, Covid years.

Programming innovation and excellence are among the reasons the PSE has been finalized for this much-deserved award! To many of us alumni and facilitators, the PSE is already the business of this year and many more (both past and future)!

Congratulations to the Praxis Team and “Bonne chance” in the competition!

And while we’re on the topic of entrepreneurial training, here is a renewed call to readers with entrepreneurial instincts: If you (or someone you know) is entrepreneurially minded or even  simply has “an idea for a business,” the digiSMART and startSmart programs (developed and
offered by the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship) will help you make it a reality.

Besides core training on entrepreneurial concepts and processes,
the PSE also offers deep instruction on complementary topics, including content marketing and communications.
Furthermore, a network of support continues long after Praxis programming ends.

The PSE is a forging ground for fruitful relationships with talented leaders, entrepreneurs and alumni, under the visionary leadership of Monica and Brent Kreuger, and their deeply talented and experienced team.

To learn more, contact program administrator Elaine Mantyka today at: (306) 664-0500, or email elainem@globalinfobrokers.ca
(Disclosure: I facilitate on blogging to entrepreneurs in digiSMART, on a quarterly basis, as part of my suite of teaching services.)
Thank you to Clarity Coaching and Development CEO, Jolene Watson, for generously accommodating a recent scheduling snafu. Thank you, Jolene, and I look forward to a future conversation on Facebook marketing!



A tip of the hat to the fine staff of the Saskatoon assisted living building, The Franklin Retirement Residence, where my family is living.
Particular thanks to the generous and very gracious Vinod, Steve, Dee, Mason, Charmaine and several others who assist senior residents with kindness.
I am grateful to them all.

There are always new businesses and entrepreneurial programs to promote.
Please write me to share your success stories!
I’m excited for what’s ahead in our entrepreneurial community.
But for now, this is a wrap for mid-September!

Between 2011 and December 2018, Elizabeth Shih Communications chronicled the stories of B2B marketing and communications on the Prairies and across the country.

Effective January 1, 2019, I rebranded as “Storytelling Communications.” I now help newcomers to Canada land better jobs and economic immigrants to secure contracts by improving their English skills; I help SMEs close more sales by communicating better; and I write the legacy stories of major

Interested in learning more? Please contact me through my CASL-compliant
website (www.elizabethshih.com). After I receive your message, I’ll be pleased to discuss projects with you!

Please visit my website for more information (www.storytellingcommunications.ca)

Those who can, both do and teach

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach” (George Bernard Shaw)

“Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them how to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime” (Lao Tzu)

I’ve been troubled for years by the false division between teaching and doing, expressed by a character in George Bernard Shaw’s 1905 play, Man and Superman.  More than 100 years later, the denigrating, first epigraph (above) still gets flung at teachers of all vocational backgrounds, including me.  Shaw’s character argues that teaching is a role taken up by people who fail in the “doing” of their field of vocation.  But is that always and only true?

As an English as a Second Language teacher (ESL), I teach immigrant newcomers and entrepreneurs to our country the language skills they need to succeed; this is “doing.” I am teaching them a language of international education, commerce and industry.  I earlier succeeded at content writing and editing and I continue to engage in those activities;  however, I have found that my local market better understands and appreciates the legitimacy of teaching. And when I teach, I serve my community in a shorter cycle of time than I can when I write and edit documents for businesses, non-profits and entrepreneurs. Sometimes the latter take months or longer to be digested. 

In a recent posting on medium.com, blogger “Strontium” argues that “most of our greatest doers have been great teachers,” such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Stephen Hawking and Noam Chomsky (to name a few). In modern times, these teachers and their followers show us that teaching is “the premiere avenue to funding, equipment, and access . . . . [to] the cutting edge of most disciplines.” So it is a false binary to position “teaching” against “doing” (i.e. research, experimentation, publication, etc.). They are more interconnected processes than that.

But many good teachers are not famous like these folk. As I found when returning to facilitating a class on blogging for the digiSMART program of the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship on August 31st, a deep understanding of the subject matter and not any high ranking or certification is necessary in a teacher who wants to cultivate (or “facilitate”) learning in students.

For instance, Customs and Excise expert and Praxis alumnus, Barry Frain, asked off-the-cuff why it’s necessary to end a blog posting with a Call-to-Action (CTA). Having lived and breathed blogging and article writing for the past 11 years (and so having some understanding of the process), I could immediately refer him to the reality that readers tend to read (especially online) documents passively. For that reason, bloggers can address their readers in the second person, and may engage their attention consciously, by urging them to take action (CTA).  Action by prospects is needed if a blogger’s posting is to gain any traction.

The “action” (of the CTA) might be simply to make the reader think more about the content of the posting, to make a change in the way they conduct their business communication, or, after consideration, to contact the blogger to purchase their product or service.

But teaching well can still involve close study and certification that are a form of “doing” or engaging in one’s field. For instance, I am certified in ESL from Tefl.Org  (Scotland), and in literacy language teaching from the Canadian Centre of Language Benchmarks (CCLB). In a few months’ time, I’ll complete a third certification, in the niche of Business English as a Second Language. A teacher’s learning and ongoing training/studying is never done; when education occurs well, there is no barrier between teaching and doing.

Teachers have tended to be undervalued in the Western Hemisphere, due to funding cuts and the focus of our broken system on what Strontium calls “workers, and not thinkers.” Teachers have simultaneously tended to be underpaid and overworked. And the teaching profession has sometimes been taken up by practitioners who don’t have the stamina or interest to stay connected as  “doers” in their specific fields.

While I’m not at all interested in asserting another false binary, such as between Western versus Eastern philosophies, when grappling with (or hearing) the denigrating epigraph from Shaw’s play, we might consider the proverb of Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu.

Tzu says that the purpose of teaching a learner is to instill in them the will and capability to solve problems on their own: “Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them how to fish and they’ll eat for a lifetime.”

When a teacher or facilitator rightly and capably does that work of instilling capacity, of making the learner learn independence (which should be the goal of any study), in my view the false separation Shaw refers to, between teaching and doing, dissolves.

And now it’s your turn: Do you as a learner or a teacher find Shaw’s statement true or false? How do you define good teaching, if not as a process of instilling independent capacity? Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you. 


ESL learners and teachers: Do you think you know the English language? Ten eccentricities of our West Germanic tongue

English language learners, teachers, bloggers and other wordsmiths, do you think you know the English language well? English is spoken as a first language by over 400 million people. And it’s a second or third language to over a billion people, which amounts to one-seventh of the world’s population (Tefl.org, 2022). Many people internationally have already learned English or are currently doing so.

But should we assume that many users are experts? English as a language has an interesting and “quirky” history, the blogging team at Tefl.org writes, in its fortnightly blog:  English is “sometimes frustrating, often confusing, but never boring.” The language is West Germanic and derives a lot of influence from Latin (using the Latin alphabet), French and Old Norse.

While it might appear that English has been standardized in common use, Tefl writers say that there are actually many variations, dialects and accents that cause English to vary between places where it’s used (spoken and written). Tefl recently shared 10 fun facts that many native speakers do not know about the language and which I adapt for today’s blog posting:

  1. English has words with contradictory meanings, called “contronyms.” For instance, you can have a “variety” as a particular type of something, and also, distinctly, as a “great number of something.” So there are many “varieties” of the Haskap Berry, while a “variety” of different fruit are studied at the University of Saskatchewan’s Fruit Breeding Program.

Similarly, we can “dust” a tabletop (to remove something from it) or “dust” (i.e. add) a layer of icing sugar to a dessert. Both are very different activities.

Newcomers need to rely on context to guide them on which way a specific word is being used. This takes much practice.

2. Shakespeare, as a poet and playwright, is credited for adding more than 1000 words to the English language! He created words like “swagger,” “uncomfortable” and “bandit,” as well as phrases like “break the ice,” and many more (as undergraduate readers of his oeuvre often discover for the first time).

3. English has “ambigrams,” words that look the same from various positions on the page and looked at from different angles. For instance, the word “swims” reads as “swims” even if you turn the page upside down! So too with “big,” and, depending on the handwriting involved, “awesome” and “blessing” may look the same, either way up!

4. Our alphabet used to be longer. Over history, letters like “ash” (æ) and “ethel” (œ) have been dropped, although they are still used in Scandinavian languages. Currently, our alphabet has 26 letters, but it once had more than 29 letters.

5. In 1066, the Norman Conquest of England permanently changed our language. The Normans added new words and phrases to English, from the old French. Many words with French origins (e.g. “niche”) are common to English (writing and speaking), including “parliament” and “banquet.” Many of the words we use to communicate about food, and the game of cricket, actually derive from Norman French.

6. We have some very long words in English. Tefl reports that some may think the longest word in the language is “antidisestablishmentarianism.” But in fact, it is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.” Even seasoned learners might do a double-take at that! The world is the name of a lung condition that comes from inhaling sand or ash! Try that at your next, post-Covid dinner party!

7. The most commonly used noun in English is “time,” which outranks other, heavily used words like “person,” “year,” “way” and “day” (who round out the top five).

8. Some words that appear simple have very complex meanings. For instance, the word “set” has an entry in the Oxford English dictionary (OED) that is 40,000 words long and has over 430 definitions! As Tefl’s writer writes,” you can set a table for a set time, you can complete a set of something” and so on.

9. Other words have surprising origins. British English refers to people lining up in “queues,” which sounds French to some users. But it comes from the tail of a beast in medieval art, so that a queue (what Canadians call a “line” or “line up”) resembles the tail of such a creature, in “either single-file” or “snaking around bends.” 

10. Do you know what is the most commonly used letter in the English language? It’s the vowel “E!” “E” can be used as many as five times in a word, such as in “beekeeper,” “effervescence” and “teleconference.” Try combining those words in a single sentence!

These quirky eccentricities about English make it easier to see why non-native English speakers can sometimes get confused. And there are variations of English, including American, Canadian and Australian English. But it has become popular internationally and is often named as the “language of business worldwide.”

New words and phrases are added to the OED yearly, whereby pop culture has a strong influence on new words, idioms and terminology.

Sharing some of these truths can help learners to recognize that English is not only complex but also fascinating; its character cannot be contained within even our best dictionaries or grammar guides!

And now it’s your turn: Did you know some of these eccentricities of the English language? Please share your word wonders in English:  I’d be delighted to use them in an upcoming posting.  

Find interviewing tough? Veteran British journalist Simon Hattenstone shares how to elicit (and share) stories

Ask any writer (whether journalist, copywriter, content writer or other) how they experience interviewing, and, if they’re honest, many will express deep ambivalence or even distaste for the process. Whether an issue with  approaching an interviewee, conducting an in-person or online meeting, or trying to anticipate how a story will unfold,  interviewing is usually anything but easy—for me, included.

Over the years, I’ve sought out explications and advice for the process, such as in books like Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists (by Mike Wallace and Beth Knobel,  2010). But it (and they) barely broach the subject. anxiety and interview

Members of my writers’ group have bemoaned everything from the anxiety as to whether recording devices will work (in pre-Covid interviews) to the agony of transcribing the recordings themselves, as they try to fill the gaps in the messy notes they’ve scrawled during the intensive time of the interview. Even when the interview is over,  writers can’t celebrate, as much work remains to be done.

So imagine the excitement last January, when I received an email promoting an interviewing “masterclass” by Simon Hattenstone, a 30-year veteran features writer for arguably the world’s best English language newspaper, The Guardian.

With more than 1,235 articles archived on The Guardian’s website and having interviewed everyone from rapper Snoop Dogg to Boris Johnson, Sir Desmond Tutu, Greta Thunberg, footballer Marcus Rashford and many in-between, Hattenstone can elicit good stories of folk from any conceivable walk of life. While he has written about many celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, he has found the most meaningful work in speaking with the friends of homeless people who have died on Britain’s streets.

Subscribing to the “masterclass” was a “win-win” opportunity: while listening to Hattenstone’s insights, I could indirectly support a newspaper that has consciously remained free to readers across the globe. Profits made from  such online classes that feature experts from all fields of inquiry enable the newspaper to stay accessible. Newspapers have large expense sheets, beyond what advertising brings in. 

These “masterclasses” are wildly successful online events: Hattenstone drew some 700 listeners to the call, which included a breakout-room application and an extensive Q&A that followed. In all, the class lasted some two hours and could easily have run longer.

Hattenstone was gritty, funny and insightful. Using often salty, down-to-earth language (‘wanker,” “rubbish, ” and some other, less polite, terms ), he shared genuine tips and insights garnered by his 30 years in the business. Here are some of the best:

Interviewers, he said, need to be aware of their “intuition,” to be interested—even “nosy”—about others, and most of all,  to be able to “communicate.” We are not supposed to work out philosophical arguments, as “huge brains” (academics) might try to do. We should not try to “make friends,” with our interviewees, as well, but instead to combine respect, background knowledge (preparation) and empathy with the ability to compose a narrative.

Interviewing is hard, Hattenstone says, because writers must impose a structure, a story, over the fragments of an interviewee’s life, that do not reach us in story format.

He comments that interviewers can learn old and new things, touch people, inform and entertain them, while also making the lives of our interviewees better—by being understanding and respectful of them. We also inform the reading public who consume the stories.

Interviewing—to find out new things that haven’t already been said—”is not a casual job,” Hattenstone says, and “it’s not about making friends, at all!”

He referred to different approaches to interviewing, including these:

  1.  We can be interrogators, focused on potentially hard-hitting questions, especially if we know the subject is being dishonest or corrupt;
  2.  We can be performers, who aim to “get something out of the interview” by heavily managing our exchange with the interviewee;
  3.  We can be sharers—by offering something relevant about ourselves to establish a feeling of safety and empathy. But in such cases the interviewer should share only briefly, so as not to intrude too much on the interview;
  4.  Hattenstone advises that “interviewing is like speed-dating, you can be hard, fair, make light fun of someone, but . . .  don’t shit on them or be unfair.”
  5. If we encounter a problematic story (e.g. an interviewee with a history of abuse, etc.), it’s “not the end of the world to keep quiet about them,” he says. “Your trust may allow you to tell their story later.” Often, several-stage interviews can reveal a more complex story over time, as Hattenstone found with the American student, Amanda Knox, who was convicted in Italy of the death of her roommate, Meredith Kercher (making international news in 2007).

As interviewers, we can ask good questions by looking at “news in brief” (NIBs) of any newspaper to find interesting interviewees and topics. Hattenstone says that looking for past media “cuts” (pieces) via Google is another great way to find subjects, as interviewees often speak less guardedly earlier in their careers. We can refer to these earlier clips, as he did when interviewing Dame Helen Mirren. Social media, he says, makes it much easier to trace interviewees’ earlier thinking.

We can find responsive subjects by finding “bored” actors waiting in dressing rooms for their plays to start in London’s West-End (and equivalents, elsewhere).

Hattenstone says that there are many ways an interviewer can “screw up” an interview: we may fail to research sufficiently a subject (He recommends that interviewers prepare roughly  30 questions and relevant material, knowing you’ll get only to one-third or fewer of them). The interviewer may fail to make sure their recording device still works (having two recording devices handy is wise, unless you know shorthand well). And interviewers shouldn’t worry about “looking cool” when nervousness is a sign of respect for the interviewee and for the process.

Recording an interview is essential, even though it can raise nerves for both parties, because the interviewer needs time to observe our interviewees, while they speak. If we obsessively trying to write down what they say, we’ll miss out on a lot, Hattenstone says.

When preparing, he suggests asking a good friend or colleague who knows our subject matter and can give us some background to work with. Such a friend should be “cheeky” and can encourage you to ask equally “cheeky” questions that haven’t been previously asked or answered. Overall, Hattenstone says: “research, research and research” your interviewees’ lives.

We can look for a particular issue to plumb, such as a crime they committed and/or a scandal that ensued.

Use some close-ended questions to establish the information, especially for politicians and people in public service (e.g. “Did you believe in X?”)

When writing for the news, ask “what they did”: when writing for features, ask “Why it mattered,” the story around the story.

Hattenstone says the most important questions are “What do you mean and how?”

He says never to worry about looking uncool or knowledgeable on a topic. It doesn’t matter if you read your own questions, or  pause, saying, “I’m sorry. I’ve forgotten myself. I just need a moment.” Simply put, allow for some painful silences. What comes from them are often the best moments of any interview.

If your interviewee  bursts into tears, just “let them go through it and allow their silence. Don’t try to comfort them,” he says.

If our interviewee’s field of knowledge is not transparent, it’s fine to say “I’m sorry, but I just don’t get it. Tell it to me in baby language.”

If we meet a resistant subject and things “go badly,” ask “Why do you dislike interviews,” “Are you OK,” and “Do you want to talk about something else?”

If an interviewee asks to keep something off-the-record, don’t betray that trust by telling it. But we can try to persuade them to let us include it in the interview.

Don’t stick to a script too closely, as often the most interesting insight will rise from digressions, Hattenstone adds.

Be a good listener and be aware that we may have to do a cross-examination. “If you tell a slanted story,” Hattenstone says, “you’ll get hammered.” For example, he would ask an alleged criminal “If you’re not guilty, why did you confess to something you didn’t do? People think you’re involved . . . .”

He says that the “easiest way to get a story is to ask someone about something else.” Try to get any resistant interviewee to complain about politicians or to say something negative about current events.

But don’t try to settle a dispute (as an arbitrator would), he adds.

It can be helpful just to let our interviewees talk. Sometimes the only way to bring yourself in, especially if you’re interviewing famous people, is to highlight with incredulity something that they’ve said. Like, “What do you mean?” or “How so?” Or “Seriously?”

Hattenstone emphasizes that we should observe our interviewees closely: if we don’t tend to notice things such as the way they’re dressed, how their hair is cut, how they interact with the waiter at your table, etc., we’ll lose valuable information for our stories. If they have a scar or noticeable feature, ask them about it, because some of their life story will inhere in it.

Ask them what the most important story is, in their life? If the interviewee distracts us from observing them, ask them to describe something themselves, such as the clothes they’re wearing that day. This process will allow us to observe them observing themselves. Then observe as we ask our interviewees to describe their work and what they’re contributing to their fields.

ALWAYS check your facts, Hattenstone also urged. We may have to call or consult someone to verify facts. If we find a quotation is inaccurate, no matter how quotable it may be, he urges, leave it out! If we know that we’ve being deliberately lied to,  point that out as part of the article.

Anecdotes do not make good print journalism: if our interviewees tend to use them, he says, “hurry them along, especially if you’ve heard the stories before and if they take a lot of time to share.”

When it comes to pitching articles, Hattenstone says, we should keep our emails short and use bullet points.  We should include roughly five links to relevant online sources. Similarly, he says, we should ask questions only the interviewee can answer and say as part of our questioning: “Only you can answer this . . .” Then leave the pitch for one to two weeks before following up:  Hattenstone says a good commissioning editor will take the time to consider a strong pitch, however busy they may be.

He also advised to “be thick-skinned in journalism, generally, and especially when pitching story ideas.” What seems like a brilliant idea or story concept to you may not seem so to a newspaper editor.

Even with the unfavourable exchange on the Canadian dollar and despite some technical glitches, The Guardians “masterclass” on interviewing, facilitated by Simon Hattenstone, was filled with valuable insights.  Have the above highlights inspired you to adjust your interviewing practices? Do the above comments make interviewing seem a more reasonable process?

Please write in; I’d be delighted to hear from you.

Meantime, sign up for invitations to other masterclasses on The Guardian newspaper, to learn more from some of the world’s best thinkers and doers.