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How to Prepare for the Unexpected: Developing Your Flexibility As An English Second Language Speaker

Updated: Dec 9, 2021

In episode 17 of Think Big Podcast, I share my thoughts on developing your flexibility as an English second language speaker. This came about after I completed some coaching with Emma Wainer and I had some big moments around how to prepare for presentations, meetings and other speaking situations. In the last 2 years of working with clients, I've also noticed how difficult it can be to get the balance right - feel prepared with what you want to say, but also be more flexible and in the moment so you're listening.

In the episode I share:

✨My top 7 tips for how you can prepare what you want to say

✨Examples of things you can say when the questions are tricky and you're not sure how to answer

I hope you get as much out of it as I took from putting it together. Tara - ArchiEnglish details

✨ Connect with me on LinkedIn Tara Cull

Extended Shownotes


Want more examples of practical language for architects? Check out our planner below.



Video - Emma Wainer, Stephen Drew and I discuss body language in job interviews

Video - Boris Johnson Speech Blunder

If you're interested in Neuroscience check out Andrew Huberman's work:


to live in the moment - to be focused on what is happening in the current time

come back from something - to be resilient and overcome a challenge

bounce back - to recover your good spirits

lose your train of thought - to be unable to resume one's previous progression of thought.

the way we show up - the way we decide to be in our interactions

off the cuff - without planning often we say ad-lib also map out - to make a plan

not let something faze you - not let something distract or upset you

draw upon - to start using a supply of something and it can also be ideas or inspiration

laser-sharp (adj) - showing a lot of intelligence

take something head-on - to face a challenge without fear

Vocabulary for Answering Tricky Questions

Thanks for asking that question. I'm not 100% sure, but I'd like to give it more thought. I'm going to look into it and get back to you by the end of the week. I’d like to have more time to consider this question. I'm going to speak with x and then I'll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks for asking That question. I think you raise an interesting point. I’d like to give this more thought. We did initially consider this, but we went in a different direction. Perhaps we could look into it again with a fresh set of eyes. That’s a great point, I must admit I hadn’t explored that in detail. Could we take a second look and get back to you?


Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:00

You're listening to Think Big episode 17.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:14

Hello, big thinkers and welcome to think big English for architects. I'm your host, Tara Cull, language teacher and landscape architect. And I'm bringing all these things together to help you with your language learning.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:27

If you want to know more about my coaching programmes, you can go to archi To find out more, as always, you'll find the transcript with key vocabulary and expressions at archy

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 00:45

Have you ever been in a meeting before where you planned everything you wanted to say, and everything you planned just went out of your brain? Or if you saw the news this week, and you watched Boris Johnson, who had his speech prepared, he had everything ready to go, but he just lost his place in his speech, he hadn't stapled his notes together for one, and he struggled to improvise. I think he relied so much on his prepared notes that he just didn't know how to come back from it. I'm going to post the video, so you know exactly what I'm talking about. And the reason I wanted to share that was because I wanted to talk about how even people who are used to speaking all the time can find it difficult to improvise or to come back from when they make a mistake with something that even native speakers do. But the key is to be prepared. In today's episode, we're going to be talking about the topic of being flexible, about planning and understanding what you're going to say. But also trying to understand about the other things that you can do outside of the content of what you're saying. So that you can feel prepared, even when you don't know all the answers. The thing is, many of my clients feel like they need to plan everything that they're going to say in a conversation or a presentation. But something I believe is the most important skill to develop as a language learner is not just speaking or listening skills, not writing or reading skills, but developing these essential skills of flexibility so that you can bounce back quickly from setbacks. When you make a mistake, you can can keep going and you can continue. There will be times when you're in a meeting with a client and you might make a small mistake with your English or you don't know how to answer a tricky question. But you have to just keep going. And it's building that flexibility to bounce back from those setbacks that is so important. So in today's episode, we're going to address some of those practical things that you can do to overcome some of those challenges. Honestly, I understand how it feels because just last week, I had to do an interview in French. And I prepared a few things that I wanted to say the person that was speaking to me wrote down all the questions, and I was ready with what I wanted to say. And to be honest with you, I think I over prepared because when it came to this real conversation, the questions were different, or they were in a different order. And I lost my train of thought my brain was focusing on trying to retrieve the information that I'd prepared. And I wasn't really living in the moment. So I should have gone back to my own simple advice that I give to others. And being more focused and preparing my mindset above all else, you know, knowing what my one simple objective from that conversation was preparing physically for how I could be more in the moment by breathing, and also just keep going without getting too caught up on being right or wrong. And of course, it is easier said than done. But I think I understand what it feels like. What I want to talk to you about today is how you can plan for the unexpected and be more flexible. How can you work flexibility into your plan so that you can stay in the moment that you can try and absorb and understand what's happening around you. Let's talk about some of the things that you could do to make the experience easier for you. So you might be a participant in a meeting, or you also might be leading a meeting. For me it really comes down to preparation but preparation doesn't need to be a long time. It doesn't need to be days and days. It can be just five minutes, but it's about finding what works for you I'm going to take you through my list of seven different things that you might do in order to feel more prepared for difficult conversations, meetings with clients meetings with your boss or your colleagues, or people where you really need to make a good impression. So for example, a job interview, and I'm going to give you my top tips for how you might prepare or something, you might prepare for the unexpected.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 05:25

So let's get straight into today's episode.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 05:30

My first point would be that mindset preparation is everything. In the last few months, I've been doing a coaching programme with the incredible Emma Wainer. Now, if those of you who've been following me for a while have seen me do some videos with Emma, you will remember her from a conversation we did about preparing for job interviews, I definitely want to get her on the podcast for an episode, I think she's absolutely brilliant. And I had a great time in her coaching programme, I learned so many things. And I really want to share that with all of you. The most important thing I learned from this coaching is, the way that we show up when we speak is connected to our mindset, and how we feel about our ideas. If we don't feel connected, then it shows up in the way that we speak such as speaking too fast, because you just want to get it over and done with a shaky voice. Because you're not feeling confident about what you're saying. And not saying anything at all, or speaking up so quickly that you forget to take a breath. Although the training was in English, I really took a lot personally from it for my own French learning journey. So I wanted to share three things about mindset, that first really helped me. And the first one was, you are enough as you are, yes, you've always got things to learn. There's always more vocabulary to be learning, there are always more things that you can be learning about culture and understanding how things work. But the important thing is to remember is that you are enough now and you're on a journey of always improving and getting better. So you need to embrace it. And this is, in fact, the life of an architect, we're always learning and trying to figure out how we can do things better. Number two, when it comes to mindset is to trust that you have prepared yourself enough to the best of your current ability. And that you will be able to manage things that are thrown at you. We can only do what we are capable of doing in that moment in time. And the third thing would be to focus on listening and being in that present moment. Because it will help you to be focused on what you need to do right now, not what you need to do much later on. Now, these things about mindset are very important. And they take practice and consistent practice. So it's not just something that's going to happen overnight. So that would be my first point, mindset preparation is everything. Number two, is planning doesn't mean just planning everything you say or writing everything you say. My first point is when you're trying to plan for flexibility, it doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be off the cuff. So when I say off the cuff, you haven't prepared anything. So the first thing that you might do to prepare for a meeting or a difficult conversation, is to make sure that you know exactly what is your objective for the meeting. So you answer that question, what is your objective for the meeting? Is your objective that you want to be able to confront somebody about something or challenge them about something, try and put into words, your challenges so that they understand your perspective, that might be your objective? Or is your objective that you need to sit and listen to what the client has to say? Maybe you're a participant in the meeting, and you just need to listen to what the client has to say, and to take notes. Or maybe your objective is that you need to lead the meeting to ensure that all the participants feel heard and acknowledged. And during this conversation, what do you need to do exactly if you're giving a presentation or leading the meeting? Are you there to educate or inspire or challenge? Or do you want the audience to take action? When you know exactly what your objective is? You know what you need to focus on for the meeting. And when you get lost or when you get stuck you can always try and go back to that number one objective. What can tend to happen particularly with many of the people I work with is they tend to feel that they need to focus on everything Everything, they need to fix all the things, they need to have more vocabulary, they need to be able to lead a meeting, they need to be able to ask questions, and it makes them feel stressed and overwhelmed. But when you focus in on just one thing at a time, and you set that very clear intention or that clear objective, it helps you to get into that conversation and into that meeting, or, or whatever that experience is knowing exactly what you want to get out of it. And so everything else, maybe you didn't do everything correctly. Or maybe you did something wrong, but at least you've tried to work towards that one objective.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 10:44

You can plan your objective in several ways. And I'm going to give you some suggestions, you could write what your objective is on a post-it note and put it on your screen, you could draw a little diagram to represent what your objective is, you could have a conversation with somebody about it, you could ask them, What is the objective in this meeting? Or what objective Do you want me to have? In this meeting or this presentation. When we visually see what our objective is, we can then picture it during the meeting or during the conversation. So if unplanned things happen, as I said before, you need to be flexible, then you can go back to that initial objective. If you're giving a presentation, something I've spoken about before on the podcast is don't forget to plan what you will say with each of your slides. Often we can prepare slides and think that we are safe, that there'll be enough. But sometimes we haven't have had enough time to plan exactly what we want to say, you know, what are the important keywords that your say with each of your slides. These are the many things that I think people forget about. With my university students, I try and suggest to them to put keywords in their notes, so into their presentation notes, so that when they're sharing their screen, the audience can't see them. Or if you go back to pre pandemic times, and you're doing the presentation to a live audience, can you somehow put those keywords in dot points on your presentation, or somewhere on the slides.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 12:26

Just as a side note to over the next few months, I'm going to be producing a course about how you can build your vocabulary, and how you can make it richer through using sketching and diagramming and drawing. But for now, one thing I would say to you is use this to your advantage. If you're an architect or a landscape architect or a visual person, I'm sure you already use drawing already for a lot of things that you do. Even though English might not be your first language, you can still draw, and everyone can draw and make diagrams. And it's much easier to talk to a diagram than it is to talk with text. So have a think about how you might use a diagram as a way of representing your journey through a meeting. For example, one thing that I saw recently was somebody had drawn a circle diagram. And they tried to map out what was going to be the parts of that meeting that parts of the of the presentation and how it looked as a circle. And then they had a little circle that came off it that said what do I do if this happens? How do I get back to how I want to be in there. Now that might not mean anything to me. But if that means something to you, then that's the most important thing. Number three would be to before you go into this meeting before you go into this presentation, if you do have the time, because we don't always have the time is to think of possibilities. So troubleshoot possibilities, before they arrive. Once you know your objective, think about these possible scenarios. So what are some of the possibilities for things that people might say to you? For example, if you're presenting a concept to a client or a colleague or a consultant? What are some of those possible questions that they might ask you? You could write a diagram or make a drawing to represent three to five different questions that they might ask you about the design. You know, they might ask you things like Why have you chosen to do it this way? Or can you explain in more detail why you've chosen that material? Or they might ask you to explain what are the alternatives or what are the other options? When you try and think of these questions consistently. You'll get used to asking yourself these questions, and they may or may not come up in the meeting. And often what my clients will say to me is that we practised all those questions. One of them came up out of the five that we did. But I felt prepared, even though those questions didn't come up. So it helps you with your mindset, but also helps you to think more critically about the design, so that you can be more flexible when it comes to the questioning within the meeting. Number four is looking at how we answer questions we don't know the answer to when you want to prepare for the unexpected, you know, how to say very confidently the important things that you've already planned. But what happens when somebody asks you a question that you have no idea about? Or that you haven't even prepared? One of the things that I often suggest to people is to acknowledge the question, not let it faze you not let it stress you. And say something like, thanks for asking that question. I'm not 100% Sure. But I'd like to give it more thought. I'm going to look into it and get back to you by the end of the week. So what that shows is that, although you're not sure, you're going to be proactive and do something about it. And it's not that you it's not that you just don't want to do it or that you have misunderstood. You just want more time. Another thing you might say, I'd like to have more time to consider this question. I think it's a great question. But I want to speak to somebody before I get back to you. Or you could say thanks for asking that question. I think you raise an interesting point, I'd like to give this more thought. If you had three really good responses for questions that you didn't know how to answer, then that would help you to feel like you've got something to draw upon. When you're in the meeting. If you have a notebook, maybe right at the top of your notebook, write a short version of it a long version of it. Give yourself a couple of opportunities to come up with this during the meeting. What if you're in a meeting, though, and someone questions you for something? And you're like, are No, I haven't thought about this? I didn't think about that.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 17:27

Something that you could say is? Well, we did initially consider this. But we went in a different direction, perhaps we could look into that, again, with a fresh set of eyes. So it shows that you're acknowledging that we had thought about it in the past. But maybe we didn't acknowledge it enough. Instead of saying, Oh, we didn't think of that, you can almost try and make the client seem like you have considered it. So that it's, it's a bit more of a response where they feel like you're being proactive. Something else you might say, That's a great point, I hadn't explored that in detail, could we take a second look and get back to you. As you can see, there are lots of ways you can prepare for those tricky questions. And you can have two to three different responses that are going to help you feel more prepared, no matter what the question is. And as I was saying, In the beginning, trust yourself that if you're not sure about the answer, you know exactly where to find the answer. And that's the most important thing. And something that I definitely appreciate when I'm asking questions, say to consultants, is if I ask them a question, and they say, I don't know the answer, but I'm going to find out for you, that is always very much appreciated. Point number five would be to be a better listener. Preparing for the unexpected is really hard. But you can make it easier for yourself by focusing on how you are going to be a better listener. Often people go into meetings feeling like in order for them to make a good impression, or for people to feel like they're doing a good job, that they have to speak more or that they have to say certain things. And yes, when English is your second language, and you really want to make a good impression. Sometimes you feel like you need to say more things. But if you can figure out a way to show that you're listening without saying a lot of things, then this is going to be really important for you when it comes to your visibility and making an effort. And this is especially important when you need to clarify things when you need to ask that what you have heard or what what you've noticed is correct. I used to work with this engineer and he was a very quiet guy, when he had something to say it was always so well-considered, and really useful. And I always used to think to myself, I wanted to be more like him. He spoke English as a second language. But he'd really worked out this way to stay focused and listening to what everyone was saying in that meeting. And when he would say something, it would be very profound. And I would always think, why didn't I think of that? I'm certain it's because he had developed laser sharp listening skills. And so I've always saw that as a superpower. So that might mean if you're not leading the meeting, what are you doing to make sure that you're really listening? Are you taking your own notes. So even if you're not the person talking, or leading the meeting, are you practising by taking your own notes, sometimes what I challenge a lot of my clients to do is to either use a meeting minute template, even though they're not the ones taking the minutes, then they can use those personal minutes, so that when the meeting minutes are sent, they can compare them, or they can just make sure that they've understood everything. And I think that's a really good way of making sure you've understood stood the topic or of the conversation. Another way you can incorporate your listening into a meeting is to use a lot of reflecting on what people are saying, or repeating back what they say. And this might be a technique that you use as a leader of the meeting. Now, this could be one of your objectives that we discussed in the beginning, when you repeat back what people say. To give you an example, you might say something like, you mentioned that you want the fence to be painted in the internal courtyard, what colours have you thought about? Or you could say, for example, you mentioned that you want the fence to be painted in the internal courtyard. I didn't catch what colour you said. Or maybe you could say, when you said you're not sure about the bench size, can you explain what you mean by that?

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 22:15

We can use these examples as a technique to clarify what they've said or to check if they've already told us something. And I think it also ensures that people see that when you're in a meeting, you're active, and you're doing something. So even if you don't say many things, if you focus on saying one thing, where you're clarifying something within the meeting, then it allows people to see you're, you're active in the meeting, and you're participating in the meeting. Number six would be to prepare physically. So when I say prepare physically, I mean, think about breathing techniques, something that I often do is an activity called cardiac coherence. And to do this, you simply breathe in very deeply for five seconds, and then you breathe out for five seconds very deeply. And you continually do this without blocking your breath. And you're supposed to what they say, do it six times in a row. And then this breathing frequency puts the heart back into its optimal rhythm. The other thing that you can do is to remind yourself where you are. So it's a little bit of mindset thing, it's about saying a couple of things to yourself that you're you deserve to be there and that your voice deserves to be heard, and that it's okay. Something that Emma also taught me in the course, is to put two feet on the ground when you're sitting at a seat in the meeting. And that really helps me to feel much more grounded in the conversation. Something that as a side note, as well, something that I also realised through doing the coaching is that I quite like standing up, it gives me a slightly different energy when I'm standing up compared to sitting down. Now, I'm not suggesting that you do that for all of your meetings, but you need to find what works for you, what puts you in that energy space, that's going to help you feel much more confident and in the moment. And something else that I always do too is I have a little post it note on my computer screen. Or if I'm doing anything face to face, I either have a little mark on my hand or a little note on my hand. And I might change sometimes but at the moment right now, I'm looking at a post it note in front of me that says my audience appreciates what I do. And I'm trying to do that so I'm feeling connected to my audience. I'm feeling connected to the people that are listening to me that you that you who are listening to me and sometimes I also just have On a post, it notes, a little thing saying smile. And that helps me to feel like I can bring the energy into the conversation with a simple smile. Number seven is to think about what you did well. And also thinking about how you can overcome fear, move towards fear. When you finish a meeting, or a presentation or a conversation, I want you to focus on what you did well, what is something that you did well, and if you know what your objective is, of course, you're going to know what you did in order to meet that objective to work towards that. So maybe you could do something better for next time. But I think the most important thing is to focus on what you did well, and what you want to work on, for the next time. Sometimes we try and fix everything. But if we focus on one thing at a time, it's like building the foundations of brick wall, one brick at a time in that wall. And the other thing is that people will say to me, that they won't even try certain things. They won't even speak up in the meeting. They won't ask somebody a question because they feel fear.

Tara Cull - ArchiEnglish 26:19

But what if I said to you that you can use your fear as a way to guide you, if you're fearful of speaking up in a meeting, put it as your objective, that's going to be what's going to guide you and help you to overcome that fear of speaking up in a meeting. The other reason that I talk about being fear, so important with your language learning and these, overcoming this idea within a meeting is that some neuroscientists that I follow quite often, and one of them in particular, Andrew Huberman, he talks about the courage circuit. Now, the courage circuit is where we let fear guide us, we let fear tell us what it is that we are feeling. And we do those things that make us feel the most fear. And the reason we do them is because well, the Neuroscience tells us that when we do those things, and when we achieve some level of success, then our brain releases a source of dopamine. And that helps you to feel like you're achieving something. So yes, it might be fear. But I challenge you to take on that fear head-on. So my final thoughts for today, we've talked about mindset preparation is everything. Planning doesn't mean just planning everything your se, it means planning a couple of things. Think of possibilities and troubleshoot what may happen during the conversation during the meeting. Think about how you're going to answer tricky questions. The more you do this, the easier it will become. When somebody asks you a question that you're not sure about, you're just going to use the same answers every time. Next, to be a better listener, to prepare physically. And finally, to think about what you do well, and to look at fear in the face and just do it anyway. My final thought and idea is that many people believe that in order to be a good communicator, you're just born with it. But the thing is, is that all excellent communicators work at it. If you want to work at it in the long term, then some other things that you might think about, who were you, as a communicator? If you want to know who you are, as a communicator? What do you prefer? What's important to you? What do you value? And how does that translate to the way we speak? What we value might also change depending on the context of our life, or the project that we're working on? Do you care more about the process and delivering a project on time? Or do you value more about ensuring that the client's needs are met. But the important thing to remember is in any communication, it's not just about you, knowing more about you is important. But knowing more about who the people around you are, and the people in your meetings and your audience of your presentations is just as important. If you want to be a better communicator, we need to know more about how others communicate and what words and vocabulary they might be using to match what they value as a communicator. For example, a developer might be more concerned about efficiency, effectiveness, saving time and cost and money. However, if I'm speaking to a client about a project who is more concerned about high-quality details, then I'm going to need to adjust the way I speak so they hear me talking about what they value. If you really want to take your communication skills to the next level, it's not just about more vocabulary, more expressions. It's all integrated. And these things are what I take great delight in sharing with my clients and also listeners on the podcast. So I encourage you today to think about how this episode has had an impact on you. I encourage you to sketch or draw notes and share them with somebody else about what you have learned today. What have you learned about yourself? What are you going to bring to your next meeting? How are you going to change your mindset about thinking about what's important for you to share? If you found this episode useful, or if you have some learnings and insights to share with me, then I'd absolutely love to hear from you. You can send me an email at Or come and connect with me on LinkedIn. I look forward to sharing my next conversation

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Have any questions about anything you've heard in today's episode? Send me an email.

Want to uplevel your communication skills to present your projects with more confidence? Find out more about my 1:1 & coaching programs. Find more examples to help you feel more prepared in our Coaching Guide, Planner and Language Guides.

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