August 17, 2021 by J C
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have received a lot of Olympic pins while doing my volunteer duties. One reason for that, I believe, is communication skills. Not a shift goes by that someone doesn’t ask me how I got so many pins. As an experienced teacher and trainer, I’ve adapted my advice to the situation. Regardless of my colleagues’ level of English, there is something they can do to become more conversationally adept.
One of the most common roles in my section is checking credentials. We sit and wait for people to enter the IOC offices, checking that they have the appropriate sticker on their ID and don’t have a fever. We, volunteers, do this at each checkpoint for about an hour at a time, but the poor security guards sit at those posts for two hours or more. With little foot traffic, you can imagine that it’s not such a fun job. Using simple language like, “How are you today?” (with an up intonation on today) in the morning, or “Looks like you’ve had a busy day,” when delegates return to the hotel in the evening. These gambits often lead to short conversations that most beginners could take part in fairly easily.
Using common questions such as Where are you from? Are you enjoying your trip? What sports are you planning to/did you see today? Can help beginners to sound more accomplished. I always tell clients and students that one way to sound fluent, conversational, and interested is to ask questions. For non-native speakers, asking questions means less time spent inventing answers. For the rest of us, it is a way to show genuine interest and friendliness. These simple questions can be asked over and over. As the first interaction is the most important in this situation, and the answers will never be exactly the same.
More advanced English (or French) speakers could try continuing conversations over several interactions, as we would often see the same people throughout the day. I struck up a couple of these conversations with an IOC member whenever I saw her. Only when watching the Closing Ceremonies did I realize she was the IOC Vice President!
Our other role is working at one of the information desks. People would come to us with all kinds of questions. “Where can I get the PCR test required for my home country?’ ‘Can you print a copy of this document from my phone?’ ‘Did Ms. President pick up her phone yet?’ ‘How do I get to the IOC Viewing Lounge?”
These questions rarely came as one-offs. Often they were asked as a story that included several questions embedded within their message. Usually, the volunteers wanted to take these questions in order although the questions were not cohesively organized. For those volunteers with higher levels of language, which was pretty close to all of us, listening in full, thinking through a response, and then framing it the most effective way possible provided a great sense of relief to the guest. This technique also netted me several pins!
Most people with a moderate level of language can do this. The secret is to consider the context. We are at the Olympics, and people usually need just a few things: PCR test-related information, help to navigate the transportation system, and solving problems concerning their phones. The limited number of topics in business communication makes it easier than general conversation, where the topics are wide open.
Volunteering provides an excellent opportunity to improve communication skills, as we are constantly faced with people that require some level of assistance. Occasionally, we even are exposed to some new techniques. IOC members, for example, are skilled at quickly reading name badges and using those names in conversations. This is a great way to remember names, because you see the person’s face, their picture, and use their name. Oftentimes these skilled badge readers would call me by name in subsequent meetings. Another gentleman would start conversations with, “Question.” This made it easy for the staff to know that the question was coming first, followed by the context. A brilliant idea for working with non-native speakers.
I improved my Japanese because I had to use it every day and I tried to communicate without fear of making mistakes. Finding opportunities to challenge language skills in working with international guests provided many of my colleagues the opportunity to test their language skills in a real-world environment as well, sharpen their abilities, and enjoy another aspect of volunteering at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.