As Nigerians, we are not in denial about many truths – endemic corruption in the public sector, epileptic power supply, and chronic youth unemployment. Yet, we are oblivious of our inability to communicate effectively. This fact is evident not only in the ridiculous speeches given by some of our leaders, but also in the error-ridden content often printed by our newspapers or visible in other media.
The reality we thus face is this:
Nigerians suffer from a crisis of poor communication skills.
Specifically, we struggle with two of the three types of communication: the oral and the written. Nonetheless, we could become communicators who are more competent in our fields if we acknowledge the problems below and strive for change.
Problem #1: Much a-speak about nothing
Nigerians love to talk.
We love to hear the sounds of our own voices, so we waffle on. We rarely get to the point on time. We also use big, redundant words and phrases to impress. Let us also not forget the Nigerian way of reeling off titles as our identities when introduced in public: ‘Barrister A B’, ‘Engineer C D’, or ‘Architect X Y’.
In the business setting, we love to use jargon and other examples of business-speak such as ‘leverage’, ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘striking while the iron is hot ‘. While some might protest that we are no worse off than professionals in other countries, we should cease to make excuses for our faux pas. The fact that other people are doing so should not make us complacent.
First, we should realise that we tend to sprout lengthy, often meaningless utterances in public. A more effective method to gain support and influence people is to prioritise the three beacons of effective communication—simplicity, brevity, and clarity—beginning with the way we speak.
Next, we should learn the rudiments of public speaking. We could take some courses, and go online to watch some TED talks to study others who have perfected the art. Let us also observe the styles of charismatic figures whose eloquent speeches and masterful deliveries on radio, television, and in professional settings inspire us.
To speak convincingly in public, we should learn how to use presence, pitch, tone and pauses to create an impact and connect with our audiences.
Finally, we must practise consistently, in season and out of season. By striving to master public speaking, we would become relevant in our businesses, in our careers and in public.
Problem #2: Weak, inept writing
It is everywhere.
We break so many grammatical rules that often, entire sentences do not make sense. There is also a predisposition to ‘nigerianise’ the English language. Moreover, because only a few of us took refresher courses in grammar after secondary school, the wrong terms, over time, became widespread.
Cases 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) “You’re not going to work today?”
“Yes”/ “Yes I’m not going”. (Nigerian English).
“No”/ “No I’m not going”. (Standard English).
3) “Please borrow me some money”. (Nigerian English).
“Please lend me some money”. (Standard English).
Other problems in writing:
1) Excessive capitalisation.
This is the single most prevalent grammatical error in Nigeria today. We see it in emails and newspapers; in contracts and formal documents; in content online; 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 Oil & Gas sector.
Our company, ABCD Limited, is into Trading, Manufacturing, Banking…
We are Resellers of imported merchandise…
2) Erroneous subject-verb agreement.
3) Wrong word choice when choosing synonyms (words having similar meanings e.g. big/colossal, laughable/absurd).
4) Pervasive confusion with homonyms (words sounding the same but having different meanings e.g. son/sun, lunch/launch).
5) Widespread misuse of punctuation marks, with the comma (,), colon (:), semi-colon (;) and the apostrophe (‘) being the most abused.
Regrettably, the root of our weak writing is twofold:
A) Poor reading culture
We simply stopped reading good materials: well-written books by respected authors, plays, short stories, articles, etc. after school. Instead, we have developed an unhealthy penchant for poorly written content that is rife on social media.
Let us return to great content, beginning with the classics, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; Chinua Achebe’s renowned Things Fall Apart; or any of the numerous plays, poems and novels penned by the first African Nobel laureate in literature, Wole Soyinka.
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
Realistically, we would not remember all the grammatical rules we memorised in secondary school. Furthermore, language evolves over time and as professionals, we must keep abreast of the changes.
However, we have become unwilling to do the work. Yet, it is only by consistent practice that we steadily improve. It is that simple.
We need to register for refresher lessons in English grammar. That notwithstanding, we
should sign up for business writing training sessions and use the practical suggestions given to improve our writing abilities.
Let us also develop a daily habit of reading good content to increase our knowledge of the English language. Above all, we must write at every opportunity we get.
Even though a crisis of poor communication skills exists in this country, if we become open to change and are willing to do the work, we would reverse the trend.
The good news is that Nigeria is blessed with significant intellectual capital, and the steely resolve of its citizens. These are the reasons we excel in various fields abroad.
We therefore owe it to ourselves to become the best versions we can be. Let us thus not tarry any longer.
Lucille Ossai is a communications trainer and the founder/editor of the award-winning Lagos-based Rethinking Business Communications Blog
· This article has been adapted from a blog post originally published on the Rethinking Business Communications Blog.