Business English ETpedia is a new resource title in the ETpedia series. In this post the two authors of the book, John Hughes and Robert McLarty, share some ideas for helping students practise the language for making small talk and building contacts in social situations. You’ve probably met many students who have said to you: ‘I don’t need English for my job. I already know how to talk about that. I need help with making conversation and talking about general English.’ So what these students probably want is ‘Social English’ or English for small talk which is as much a part (if not more so) of doing business in English as is any specialist area such as finance, sales or logistics.

Many course books will introduce the vocabulary and key expressions needed for Social English and then it’s the job of the teacher to provide lots of opportunity to practise this language and develop students’ confidence with speaking in social situations. Here are ten activities for practising the language of Social English, developing fluency and the skill of networking. 

The first four activities focus on question forms which students need to practise to show interest in the other speaker(s). Activities 5, 6 and 7 offer the chance to talk about different topics and use a range of vocabulary as well as consider the skills needed to build conversations. Activity 8 is a way to make sure students use expressions taught in your lessons and the final two activity use business cards as the basis for free practice.          ETpedia BE

1. First day small talk

This simple activity is for the first day with a new class and practises basic question forms for making conversation with a new person. Invite students to ask questions for you and write them on the board; e.g. Where are you from? How long have you worked as a…?

Write around 10 on the board and then answer them for you. Next, put students in pairs and ask them to take turns at asking and answering the questions on the board so they find out about each other.

2. Guess the question

Another activity that is useful for students to get to know each other on a business course and also practise the language for making conversations is to ask students to think of five important facts about their life and to write down one word associated with each. So if it’s the city they are from, they can write it down. The word can also be something more abstract like the number of years they have worked for their current company (so they might write a number such as ‘ten’ meaning ten years). Next, put the students in pairs. The students show each other their list of five words and take turns to guess the question the word will answer; for example, Where are you from? or How long have you worked for your current company? The winner is the student who guesses the questions for all five words.

3. Dice questions

The aim of this activity is to practise questions forms to make small talk about different topics. You will need some dice. Students work in pairs and with two dice per pair. Write the following dice numbers (1-6) on the board: Topics: 1 = sports and hobbies, 2= travel and holidays, 3 = work, 4 = news and media, 5 = family and friends, 6 = weather Questions: 1 = what, 2 = where, 3 = how, 4 = when, 5 = which, 6 = why Students take turns to roll the two dice. One dice is for topics so if it lands on 4, the students must create a question about ‘news and media’. The other dice indicates the question word they must use, so if it lands on 5, they must start their question with ‘Which’. So the student who rolled can ask a question such as ‘Which newspaper do you normally read?’ and the other student must answer. It requires quick-thinking and generates a whole range of question types.

4. Developing open questions

Effective conversationalists tend to build small talk by asking a closed question (one that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’) followed by an open question starting with what, why, how, where etc. For example: A: Is this your first time at this conference? B: Yes, it is. A: How are you finding it? B: Great, thanks. It’s been really interesting so far. Students can develop this skill with the following activity which is also a useful way to practise and revise the language of question forms. Write a list of general Yes/No questions on the board such as: 1 Do you play much sport? 2 Do you like Italian food? 3 Are you from Sweden? 4 Do you often travel for your job? 5 Is this your first time at this conference? Next, put students into A/B pairs. A begins by asking B one of the Yes/No questions on the board and B replies with a Yes/No answer. Then A must create a follow-up question which is open and B must reply. Then they switch roles and repeat the activity with a different question. Continue until they have used all the questions on the board.

5. One-minute topics

A simple fluency warmer for a lesson is to have a box full of pieces of paper with different topics to talk about. These could include general topic headings such as ‘sport’ or ‘films’ or more specific headings such as ‘your favourite day of the year’ or ‘the least interesting aspect of your job’. Students work in pairs and take turns to pick a piece of paper out of the box. They have one minute to talk about the topic while their partner times them. If they manage to speak non-stop for a minute they get a point. Then they swap roles and the other student has a go. You can update the topics in the box from time-to-time with new topics; in fact if you choose topic areas recently covered in class then it’s a good way to revise recently taught language.

6. Common topics

Many business networking conversations centre around finding things you have in common with the other person. To practise this skill and the language required, put students into groups of four or five. Write a selection of small talk topics randomly on the board such as sport, family, travel, food, politics, religion, films, music, money, holidays, pets, weather. Next explain that they are at a networking event and they have five minutes to make conversation about any of the topics on the board. The aim is to find as many commonalities as possible with the other people in the group. For example, a conversation might go like this: A: Have any of you ever visited New York? B: No, I haven’t. C: Yes, I went there last year. A: Really? I was there last year as well… Every time a student finds something they have in common with another person in the group they give themselves a point. So for the conversation above, A and C both get a point for having both been to New York whereas B does not. The strategy to gaining the most points in this activity is to introduce as many varied topics as possible to try and find commonalities with other people in the group. The competitive element mixed with fun and rivalry makes it great fluency practice and really helps to develop the networking skill. (This activity is based on an idea from Daniel Pink’s excellent book To sell is human, published by Canongate 2012)

7. Taboo topics

Here’s a variation on the previous activity which focuses students’ attention on cultural differences and strategies for avoiding talking about certain topics. As with the previous activity, students work in small groups and you need to write a variety of topics for small talk on the board. Explain to the students that in certain cultures it isn’t appropriate to discuss certain topics; for example, some cultures will not talk about families in a working situation. Tell each student to choose two topics off the board which they will not talk about. These don’t have to be real cultural choices but random such as ‘films’ and ‘weather’. Now tell students that they have five minutes to make small talk about the topics on the board. In that time, each student must try to work out which two topics are taboo for each of the speakers. This requires students to try and introduce each of the topics into the conversation in order to establish which students are avoiding them. At the end of the five minutes, the students tell each other which topics they think each other chose. It’s a fun activity that raises their awareness of how culture can affect conversation and also practises a range of social English skills.

8. Tick the expression

If you have recently taught expressions to students for Social English such as ‘Have we met before?’ or ‘Do you have much free time for sport?’, then provide a list to students. Then put them in pairs or small groups of three and set a time limit of two or three minutes in which they must make conversation and try to use as many of the phrases as possible in an appropriate way. When they use a phrase they tick it on their list. At the end of the time limit, students count the number of expressions they ticked and see which person in the group used the most.

9. Business cards

Business cards are really useful in the classroom; collect them from anyone such as from past students and keep them safe. Whenever you set up a role play in class or try out some of the activities above, you can add variety by giving a business card to a student and saying ‘You are this person.’ It’s an opportunity for a student to play the part of someone else and imagine the type of topics and language that person might use. It also adds variety to any task and an element of fun which role play can bring. One simple low-level activity to practise basic question forms is to put students in pairs and give each student a different business card. Students must start a conversation in which they ask and answer questions about the details of the other person.

10. Speed networking

Following on from the idea of using business cards in 9, with large groups of higher level students give each student a business card. Tell them all to stand up so they can mingle with each other. Explain that they are all at a speed networking event in which they have two minutes to make conversation with each participant and, by the end, decide which people at the event might be useful to make contact with again. They must pretend to be the person on the business card. Every two minutes, tell them to change the person they are speaking to until they have met everyone. Discuss which people they think might be useful for them to meet again.

For more useful tips and ideas on teaching Business English, ETpedia Business English has all the answers.