Teaching Tone and Register: the Press Conference

Teaching Tone and Register: the Press Conference

There’s a tendency for language students, especially young learners, to seek the ‘path of least resistance’ when expressing themselves.

This often results in short, choppy utterances which might seem efficient, but which lack idiomaticism and can sometimes come across as impolite. To help my ESL Business students grapple with these concepts in more detail, I arrange a fictitious Press Conference, where we practice different styles and registers of question forms and generally give the spokesperson a hard time. It’s good fun, practices lots of useful language, and shed light on what is, for many, a tricky corner of language use.

Make These 4 Successful Steps to Teaching Tone and Register

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    Press Conferences are at their most enjoyable when there’s a scandal in the wind. I invent companies and different types of wrongdoing, depending on the level of the students, and the content of our business course thus far. Here is one of my favorites, delivered either as a reading, or as a listening exercise:

    Faber is a well-known and respected brand of medical equipment. Founded in 1978, the company has offices in six countries and a factory in Pakistan. It has contracts with the National Health Service in Britain, and also three private healthcare companies in Europe. Recently, the company hit some problems related to the ethics of its management, and action is needed to protect the company.

    I normally ask some check questions about the NHS, and elicit examples of unethical business practices.

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    The Allegations

    Then, we move onto three serious allegations against Faber.

    1. Poor Working Conditions
      A British newspaper sent a journalist to secretly film Faber’s factory in Pakistan. Faber have always claimed that they follow local laws regarding wages and conditions, and that their workers are happy, but, the journalist found worrying evidence:
      • Workers are sometimes beaten for slow work
      • Wages are reduced if the factory doesn’t hit production targets
      • There is a lack of protective clothing, resulting in some injuries
      • The on-site living accommodation is dirty, cramped and basic
    2. Nepotism
      Faber is being sued by Gary Nelson, a biologist who applied for a job at Faber last year. He was well qualified for the job and was very surprised when another biologist was hired. He claims that the successful candidate was a friend of one of Faber’s managers, and that he was not well qualified. He also claims that this is not the first time a friend of the management has been hired; last year, a computer technician who was dating a manager was hired, but was then fired when they broke up.

    3. Financial Information
      Last year, Faber received a valuable new contract from the NHS which sent its share price through the roof. Many Faber shareholders became rich, and we were delighted with this result. However, two new shareholders, who had never invested in Faber before, luckily bought shares just days before the contract was announced. They sold their shares very quickly and made a large profit. The police are investigating whether someone in the company informed these profiteers of the contract and perhaps shared the profits with them. This is called ‘insider trading’ and is illegal.
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    The Journalists Prepare

    Obviously, the company must make some kind of public statement to defend itself against these allegations. Given that I want all of my students to practice the question forms, I tend to take the role of the Faber spokesperson, but it’s possible to divide the class in two, with one side defending Faber and the other asking increasingly pointed and accusatory questions.

    I brainstorm with the students those aspects of question forms which change the register, or level of politeness. We’re aiming for these details:

    • The shorter the question, the more likely it is to sound strong and insistent
    • Omitting ‘politeness’ words will make the question sound more direct and challenging
    • Using the imperative form makes the question sound almost like a demand (e.g. the difference between ‘Could you tell us why...’ and simply, ‘tell us why...’)
    • Refusing to accept the answer is a good way for journalists to press a point
    • Demanding more detail, more specifics, an exact timing etc, are all ways to pressure someone
    • Using strong, accusing words (blame, fault, mistake, error, misjudgment) adds strength
    • Using passive, rather than active grammar helps to soften the question

    I then provide five ‘lightweight’ questions - unchallenging, meek queries which one would deliver in a polite tone - and ask the students to design stronger, tougher (even meaner) questions on the same topic:

    Lightweight / Polite / Unchallenging

    1. Could I ask about these proposals?
    2. If I may ask, which member of the team could have been responsible?
    3. Why is so much time needed to make this decision?
    4. Some critics argue that the budget was insufficient.
    5. Are you certain that the hiring criteria are tough enough?

    Some good examples of the questions my students composed are:

    Medium-weight / Fairly polite / Some pressure

    1. Would you tell us about these proposals?
    2. Whose plan was this?
    3. Why is the decision taking so long?
    4. How would you respond to claims that the budget was insufficient?
    5. Is it time to review your hiring criteria?

    Heavy-Weight / Not polite / Serious pressure

    1. Tell us about the proposals.
    2. Who was at fault?
    3. Why haven’t you decided yet?
    4. Why wasn’t the budget bigger?
    5. How could you possibly have hired someone so incompetent?

    In teams, the journalists prepare these questions, deciding on how strongly they intend to press each point. When everyone is ready…

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    The Press Conference Begins

    This is great fun, but rather like facing a shooting gallery, especially with an experienced ESL Business class! The teacher (or Faber representative) attempts to defend the company record, explaining that the journalist is mistaken and that the company is following all local ethics regulations, that the accusations of nepotism are merely a case of sour grapes, and that there’s nothing at all to the rumors of insider trading. The students pepper the spokesperson with questions, ramping up the strength as the Press Conference continues, and piling on more pressure in the hopes of forcing a mistake or confession.

This exercise practices a lot of useful language at once.

Register is always relevant and useful, as are the different types of question forms. Working in groups requires explanations, discussions and compromise. And the Press Conference itself, frequently hilarious as the poor spokesperson is battered from all sides, is a terrific exercise in using tone and pace when speaking, listening to others, and (for the spokesperson) responding to the impossible. I recommend you give this a try if you’re ever working with an advanced business group.

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