With this post, I probably won't win any brownie points in this country but the truth must be told.
As Nigerians, we're not in denial about many truths - endemic corruption in the public sector; epileptic power supply; chronic unemployment; and the slow or non-existent dividends of democracy such as equity, good governance and the effective rule of law. Yet, we're clueless about our inability to communicate effectively as professionals. This fact is evident not only in the ridiculous speeches given by our leaders, but also in the error-ridden content printed by our newspapers or in other media.
I'll thus take my cue from a quote by Ernest Hemingway, beloved American author and Pulitzer Prize winner, who gave sound advice for writer's block:
"Write the truest sentence that you know."
"Write the truest sentence that you know."
And for years, I have mulled over what I consider the appalling rate at which our ability to communicate has deteriorated, as easily illustrated in our public speaking, but more excruciatingly, in our writing.
Although the point below is not about writer's block, it is the truest sentence that I know as a communications coach and advocate, about our ability to communicate professionally:
Nigerians suffer from a crisis of poor communication skills.
Specifically, we most struggle with two of the three types of communication: the oral and the written. Nonetheless, we could become more competent communicators if we acknowledge the problems below and strive for change.
Problem #1: Much a-speak about nothing
Nigerians love to talk.
Or rather, we love to hear the sounds of our own voices.
So we waffle on.
Politicians, industry leaders, youth representatives, team players, religious personalities, etc. - we do it in small gatherings, in public arenas and on television. We rarely get to the point on time. We also use big, redundant words/phrases to impress. Let's also not forget the Nigerian way of reeling off our titles as our identities when introduced in public: 'Barrister A B'; 'Engineer C D'; or 'Architect X Y'. Non-Nigerians would have a good laugh at our expense every time this happens.
In the business setting, we love to use jargon and other annoying examples of corporate-speak such as 'leverage', 'paradigm shift' and 'striking while the iron is hot'. I'm sure we'll identify many of our faux pas mentioned in the video below.
Now you may say that we're no worse off than professionals in other countries.
But because other people are doing it, doesn't give us the pass to remain complacent.
First, let's realise that we tend to sprout lengthy, often meaningless utterances in public. Why don't we aim for simplicity, brevity and clarity instead in all our communications...beginning with the way we speak?
Next comes the education of public speaking. We can take some courses; go online and watch some TED talks to study others who have perfected the art; or listen to charismatic figures on radio, television, at work, and during various events.
A good example of an effective talk is the speech below given at the Bpifrance Inno Generation Event by Nigeria's renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist, Tony Elumelu. Note his use of simple language, his comfortable poise, and his clear message about using 'africapitalism' to change the negative narrative about Africa.
To speak convincingly in public, we should imitate what we admire the most from others—such as how to use presence, pitch, tone and pauses—to create impact and influence our audiences.
Finally, we must practise and continue to do so, even after we are told that we have improved. Public speaking is more than just getting up/sitting down and blabbering about whatever comes to mind. It's an art that we should strive to master.
Problem #2: Weak, inept writing
It is everywhere.
We break so many grammatical rules that often, entire sentences don't make sense.
There's also a predisposition to ‘nigerianise’ the English language. And because after secondary school, few of us took refresher courses in grammar, over time, the wrong terms became widespread and easily accepted.
Case in point:
1) What is good for the goose is good for the gander. (Nigerian English)
What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. (Standard idiom)
2) The soup should be cooked until the desired doneness is achieved. (Nigerian English)
The soup should be well cooked/cooked thoroughly. (Standard English)
3) "You're not going to work today?"
"Yes"/"Yes I'm not going". (Nigerian English)
"No"/"No I'm not going". (Standard English)
4) "Please borrow me some money". (Nigerian English)
"Please lend me some money". (Standard English)
And so it continues.
Other problems in writing are: not adhering to basic subject-verb agreement; wrong word choice when choosing synonyms, (words having similar meanings i.e. big/colossal, laughable/absurd); and confusion with homonyms, (words sounding the same but having different meanings i.e. son/sun, lunch/launch), etc.
Let's not even get into the misuse of certain punctuation - with the comma (,), colon (:), semi-colon (;) and the apostrophe ('), being the most abused.
Then there's the issue of excessive capitalisation. This is the single most prevalent grammatical error I see - in emails and newspapers; in formal contracts and in content online; on vans/trucks/buses; and on television.
It is really a scourge.
Some examples of unnecessary capitalisation are underlined below:
Over 90 per cent of the nation's foreign exchange is derived from the Nigerian Oil & Gas sector...
Our company, ABC Limited, is into Trading, Manufacturing, Banking...
We are Resellers of imported merchandise...
During my coaching sessions, I've noticed with concern, the excessive use of capitalisation in the work of different MBA participants - from the younger, full-time MBA students, to the senior professionals in the executive batches.
Given that such educated and well-rounded professionals reflect the society, I've come to realise that unfortunately, the root of our weak writing is twofold:
A) Poor reading culture
We simply stopped reading good material—well-written books by respected authors, plays, short stories, articles, white papers etc.—after school. Instead, we've developed an unhealthy appetite for poorly-written content, readily available on social media.
Be honest. When was the last time you read a good book? What about reading classics such as Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice; Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities; Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo?
We need to read to feed our brains, to expand our vocabulary and to sharpen our writing.
B) Laziness/unwillingness to brush up on grammar and to practise writing
We can't realistically expect to remember all the grammatical rules we memorised at school. Moreover, language evolves over time and as professionals, we must keep abreast of the changes.
We've become lazy and/or unwilling to do the work. Not only do we need to take some lessons in grammar but we should practise business writing at every opportunity we get, especially at work.
We should sign up for business writing training and use tips given on how to improve our writing chops. Let's also develop a habit of reading good content to increase our knowledge of the English language.
The Lagos Business School offers MBA programmes and executive courses for professionals at different stages in their careers. A useful module in both the full-time MBA and Executive MBA courses, Management Communications, offers effective support and coaching for oral and written communications. It's worth some consideration.
Yes, there is a crisis of sorts of poor communication in this country. But this crisis can be contained, and with the right strategy, solved...only if we become open to change.
The good news is that Nigeria is blessed with ample intellectual capital. This is why we excel in various fields abroad.
Therefore, even though we may often fall short in public speaking and writing, we could become more confident communicators by using advice given in this post.
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N.B- First image courtesy of Criminalatt; via freedigitalphotos.net. Second image courtesy of Master Isolated Images; via freedigitalphotos.net. Third and fourth images courtesy of Stuart Miles; via freedigitalphotos.net.