Teaching English to business professionals online – with Mike O’Malley
I’ve written a great deal of long-form content for English Coach Online over the past two and a half years or so. So I thought that it’d be a good idea to shake things up a bit by interviewing ELT professionals from around the world. I recently spoke with Mike O’Malley - a teacher of English for over 10 years who specialises in teaching English to business professionals online.
Mike’s been working with business professionals for the last six years. In 2019, he began developing his own Business English material. In 2021, Mike established Elevator English. This is an English learning start-up dedicated to connecting English learners with professional tutors, providing practical English skills and supporting those who are looking to take their business English and communications skills to the next level.
Mike came across as a very pragmatic and canny language teacher in this interview. It was an absolute pleasure listening to what he had to say about the world of business English teaching and his plans for the future.
1. Before we get down to the ins and outs of teaching English to business professionals online, can you tell my readers a little bit about your background?
I completed my CELTA in 2009 and moved to Asia after that. I taught in Taiwan for quite a while, which I really enjoyed. After doing some travelling, I taught on and off in London.
Teaching English in Hungary and moving to teaching online
Perhaps my biggest transition occurred when I moved to Hungary. This decision came about because I had an interest in teaching English to business professionals. So, I spent a few years living in Budapest.
With Covid and the lockdowns implemented by the Hungarian government, the school I was working for, like most schools I think, slipped into panic mode. So, I was drafted in as the “digital project expert”. I had to move our entire curriculum and everything we had created over the previous few years online. This experience was extremely transformative for me. Initially, I was quite sceptical of teaching online. I didn’t really see any potential benefits to it and I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to replicate what I’d been doing in the classroom. Fortunately, I was only jumping to conclusions …
Adapting to teaching online
As I began to adapt material to teach online, I found that there’s a lot of potential in this mode of teaching as you can be more practical in terms of how you apply things and the content you cover.
Once I’d spent a good year adapting material, and realised that I did actually enjoy teaching online, I left Hungary and went fully freelance. I now teach English privately, with an emphasis on developing students' business English and communication skills.
2. Some two and a half years ago, I wrote about how my belief systems as an English language teacher have evolved since I took the CELTA course in 2006. This post doesn’t solely refer to my shifting attitude towards teaching methodologies. I also put myself in the English language learner’s shoes and put forward what I believe are the best ways to achieve fluency in English. How have your beliefs as a teacher changed over the years, and how do you believe English language students should go about achieving communicative competence?
As previously mentioned, I became CELTA-qualified in 2009. CELTA was incredible in terms of being put in a classroom with adults. You do get thrown in at the deep end but there’s always lots of guidance. I was very fortunate because I had some excellent tutors. They really helped to springboard my career and helped me to become a really serious English teacher.
Initially, I went straight into teaching children. It’s the standard in Asia. As the only western teacher in the school, I was treated as an “entertainer” - the one who had to impress parents and keep the money cycle going. Teaching kids is rewarding, but I didn’t enjoy the “teaching to the test” element of it.
After some time, it dawned on me that I had the knowledge and skills to help adults move forward in their lives. This is what drew me to teaching English to business professionals online.
Activities that are full of competition and challenge
When I taught children, a lot of it was about games and keeping their attention for 30 to 60 minutes. Interestingly, I realised that when I started teaching adults in Budapest, many of whom were very serious characters, they too could respond to games if the activities were developed and introduced in a certain way. Namely, it’s important to add some element of competition or challenge.
Teaching students around Budapest, I found that their negotiation skills were very poor. Subject A might say “I want this”, while subject B would respond along the lines of “I want this”. Naturally, this led to an impasse. So, I developed a kind of negotiation bingo game which is heavy on soft skills.
Essentially, students have a bingo card and they have to negotiate over random items to keep things very fluid. No contracts, no accounts. Very simple matters. For instance, there are shapes - stars and squares - a briefcase and a sports car. Students have to negotiate over these items to secure them to write them off their bingo cards. If a student wants the star, they’ll have to exchange an item in return. For example, they might have to compromise on the sports car.
It’s truly amazing to see CEOs, business managers and directors argue over a star. You really see the language come to life with exclamations such as “We couldn’t possibly give you this!”
When a negotiation breaks down, it’s possible to discuss with students why it failed. Negotiations usually stall because students just tell each other what they want rather than compromising.
Exploit the concept of a game
All in all, games don’t need to be trivialised. It’s not all about giving points for using the right word or throwing sticky balls around the classroom. Take the concept of a game and reward students for using target language. It doesn’t matter who your students are and what their backgrounds are. Everybody likes to be praised and rewarded.
When I’ve got more technical capability, I’d like to gamify materials and activities further still for Elevator English.
Pragmatism, educational theory and language teaching methodologies
I’m a pragmatist. If I can see a benefit to how language can be used in the real world - language that can have a pragmatic effect for a student - then I think that’s the route to go down.
As a pragmatist, I also realise that there’s only so much I can do as a teacher. For example, clients working in the legal field occasionally approach me. I’m not a lawyer. These people have their PhDs and are obviously more qualified than me. Something I can do is assist them in communicating their ideas clearly. From a pragmatic standpoint, I can only give advice on, for instance, writing contracts from a linguistic point of view.
Throughout the business world, there’s a significant focus on communicating clearly. This is particularly the case with contract law. So, again, I can’t expect to magically transform myself into a lawyer. However, I can use the tools I possess as a teacher to extract key information from students. If they can explain their situation to me in English, they can also do the same to a client. That’s a much more practical skill. In terms of how we do that, be it via the use of audio-visual aids or scrutiny of the legalese, I can identify their requirements based on what they present to me, and then fill in any communication gaps.
If a student needs to hone their presentation skills and persuade potential investors to invest in an idea, I have to draw on another school of thinking.
Overall, I have limits to what I can provide as a teacher. There are a number of different channels and schools of thought regarding the best form of teaching. Why not just be pragmatic by drawing on all these channels and methodologies? Eclecticism in language teaching, right?
3. Your website Elevator English is just getting off the ground. Can you share some of the visions for the future of this Business English community?
As you know, with English Coach Online, you have to have a digital presence if you’re teaching online.
Initially, my idea behind Elevator English was really a bit of a showcase to try and acquire more students from other places around the world.
Long term, I would like to transform the site into more than an online CV. I think there’s a gap in the market because students are looking for meaningful content and genuine examples of speech, such as this interview we’re having right now. A lot can be gained from students listening to native speakers, or very proficient speakers, communicating in English. The icing on the cake would be to test students on their comprehension skills.
As for the Elevator English website, it is only just getting off the ground. I’m developing the website myself. There’s a very steep learning curve to getting an online presence. Overall, I’m testing things out - seeing what works and what doesn’t.
4. Would it be fair to say that you spend just as much time developing business professionals’ soft skills, in other words interpersonal skills, as you do hard skills, such as writing emails?
There’s a huge misconception about business English and communication and teaching English to business professionals online.
A lot of students go into this thinking they only need the business English vocabulary and that’s what’ll get them through. It just doesn’t work that way. I’ve worked extensively in lots of different fields. For example, the IT field is fascinating. I meet students who are technically excellent at what they do, and their knowledge of English and vocabulary range are fantastic. However, what they’re lacking is the ability to communicate all of that to other people. They simply fall down when it comes to expressing their own views.
Hard skills are important. Students need to know how to write emails and so on. However, we teachers need to prepare students for the unknown and that’s why teaching soft skills should take centre stage. For instance, take the average meeting leader who has to walk into a meeting with their well-prepared agenda and list of key points. However, as soon as another person gives feedback and the conversation perhaps gets derailed or a new perspective crops up that they hadn’t previously considered, the meeting leader may have a hard time handling all of that.
All in all, teaching English to business professionals online, to an extent, revolves around changing the mindsets of students. When they’re thrown into a situation, they need to have the confidence to know that they don’t need some kind of set mechanism to deal with the unpredictable flow of a business meeting or negotiation and so on. They need to feel confident that they can comfortably deal with the ambiguity of English and they can respond to any unexpected views and arguments.
5. I sometimes get contacted by foreign clients who need to prepare for job interviews in English. Occasionally, such a request might reach me only three days before an interview. What steps would you take to prepare a client for a job interview under such a circumstance?
Yes, this has happened quite a few times in my career. I used to run meetups in Budapest with business professionals who’d come in looking to improve their English. Occasionally, people would ask me to improve their interview technique. I’d then ask them “When’s the interview?” and they’d often reply “tomorrow”.
Personally, I’d insist on giving intensive lessons if a student’s interview was coming up very soon. Sitting down with them, running through everything. Just practising. Practising, practising, practising.
Many students preparing for interviews might be tempted to just repeat set phrases or parrot something that they’ve heard as the “perfect response”. By doing this, they’re missing out because they not might not give honest answers and it’ll come across to the interviewer that they don’t have confidence in what they’re saying. Interviewees often assume that an interview will go exactly as planned and interviewers will ask these generic questions. My experience with interviews is that students need to take control of the conversation in terms of being able to talk about themselves freely, and by showing that they know the demands of the role. The tone of the interview needs to turn conversational as soon as possible. If this happens, the interviewer won’t be able to ask awkward question after awkward question.
English language students need to be forward-thinkers
If students realise that English will be part of their future career, they should develop their skills and build their confidence in advance rather than adding more layers of stress on top of what is already a stressful situation, i.e. a job interview.
Many students contact me because they’re thinking of a career change. As a teacher, this allows me to say, well, we don’t need to practise job interviews now. We don’t need to be preparing for interviews every week for the next three months. It wouldn’t make any sense. I tell them that we should build on their foundation, build on their confidence in English.
We can look at different grammar points long before they have any interviews. Then students realise that when it comes to practising the interview technique, it’s seamless. If they’ve got a good handle on, for example, the present perfect, gerunds, talking about experience and shifting the conversation by changing the topic or choosing the topic, these students have the skills to handle a job interview.
6. Does teaching English to business professionals online involve much grammar instruction, or is it more of a lexical-heavy pursuit?
Arguably, there are grammar patterns in English that are best left consigned to the grammar guides. Some grammar points make you wonder sometimes - does anyone actually speak like this?
Take the third conditional, for example. Frankly, we don’t use it very often. However, something I’ve found useful is considering when would I, as a native speaker, use such a construction. It’s vital to demonstrate to students how, and under what circumstances, the third conditional can be applied in the real world. This only serves to make a grammar point meaningful to students.
A lesson plan connected with contingency planning and the third conditional
I have a lesson connected with contingency planning where my students have to make decisions on an unravelling crisis. Essentially, they have to deal with an ongoing series of choices and the situation just gets worse and worse. It’s a rather loaded situation because there’s no positive outcome!
Afterwards, students are held accountable for their actions and they have to justify and give a report on why they made the choices they did. Naturally, as they weigh up the pros and cons of each choice, conditionals become important, especially the third conditional:
If we hadn’t done this, then this would have happened …
Hopefully, students won’t have to use such grammar every day to justify making terrible decisions in times of crisis. However, presenting the grammar in such a way makes sense. It clicks. It’s important to adjust the grammar to a crisis that’s relevant to their field.
Lexis and jargon used by business professionals
There’s definitely a misconception about business English - in that it’s just about the technical jargon and words. Don’t get me wrong - there is a huge scale of vocabulary for each specific field, and it is constantly evolving in itself. This is particularly true in the IT field.
I had a student recently. He’s a product owner and he often has to give presentations to stakeholders and to his team. His field is extremely jargon-heavy. For him, it’s a concern because he sits in meetings and doesn’t feel confident in weighing in on what’s being discussed.
This is when it’s vital to present vocabulary in context. Students, such as this product owner, know their field and industry. So, given the situation, I’d ask them - what do you think this word means? Nine times out of ten they come up with the solution.
Many businesspeople use a lot of jargon and buzzwords merely to impress colleagues and laymen. This can be especially intimidating for students who put their poor comprehension skills down to their language ability rather than the industry itself or how business is practised.
A mixture of grammar and lexis then?
Coming back to your question, both grammar and lexis are involved. It all depends on how the teacher presents language and how meaningful they can make it.
Everything revolves around the practical application of language. Grammar, in particular, needs to be thought about practically. What is the student looking for in a real life situation? Be it for an interview, a meeting, or a presentation - grammar can have real, practical results. Presenting grammar on a worksheet with a million examples means very little if the teacher doesn’t provide a circumstance or a situation that’s relevant to the students. Without these meaningful contexts, students won’t be able to formulate a grammar pattern in their mind and apply it in subsequent interactions.
7. Apart from developing Elevator English, do you have any other grand dreams for the future in the sphere of teaching English?
After looking at English Coach Online, I see how important it is to network and get noticed on social media.
I greatly enjoy teaching English to business professionals online, be it one-to-one and groups. However, I have to diversify. I’ve questioned whether I want to be doing this in 10 or 20 years’ time.
I’d like Elevator English to grow organically and see what it is people really want. Maybe I can bring some other skills to the online space, apart from teaching. Establishing an online business English community is one of my main ambitions.
Essentially, I’d like to diversify my portfolio. One of the biggest perks of being a business English teacher is that you meet business professionals on a day-to-day business. It’s the easiest way to get your foot in the door of almost any other industry.
Indeed, just the other day I was talking to an accountant. Not from a teaching English perspective. I just needed an accountant. As the conversation developed, I said I was an English teacher and the accountant then revealed that many accountants in his firm have to improve their English.
This case with the accountant proves that there’s so much overlap in business English. English for accounting is just one of many strands. I can also take copyrighting work and content writing.