Saturday, 19 March 2011

Teaching, copywriting and exploring social media in Milan: an update

It’s been a while since I posted anything here on the Milan English blog, so I thought I’d write an update on what I’ve been doing and what’s been happening here in Milan.

Well, the first thing is – I’ve been incredibly busy this year. As well as teaching I’ve been working on a social media project for a communications company here in Milan (more on that later). In terms of teaching, I’ve been focused mainly on the pharmaceutical sector. My main client is a NASDAQ-quoted American biopharmaceutical company with national offices here in Italy; but I’ve also been teaching at a much older manufacturer of pharmaceutical products with a production facility in the north of the city.

It’s been quite interesting to compare the two firms and their company cultures. While the American firm is a relatively new startup specialising in the research and development of hi-tech drugs for the treatment of rare forms of cancer, the Italian company (established in 1938) provides pre-filled syringes used to treat a range of conditions and also manufactures generic drugs and active ingredients for other pharma firms.

It’s always a challenge to design and deliver an English language course for people who work in a highly-specialised industry, especially where there is a lot of technical jargon to master and complex processes that have to be understood and explained. Personally, I find this is one of the most interesting and satisfying aspects of being a Business English teacher: going into a company where people perform a wide variety of technical and executive functions, talking to them about what they do and enabling them to do their job more effectively by helping them to master the English language.

In fact, it’s been as much of a learning experience for me as it has been for my students. The pharmaceutical industry has developed its own “sub-language” and procedures over many years. Obviously, people who research, manufacture and sell drugs have to use a lot of medical and scientific terms, as well as specialist marketing terminology. There’s an alphabet soup of acronyms to become familiar with (e.g. CRA – Clinical Research Associate, KOL – Key Opinion Leader and FDA – the American Food and Drug Administration, which is the de facto global authority for approving medicines in the world’s largest market for drugs).

I always find it fascinating to discover what other people do at work. In twenty years of teaching English to people in both Britain and (for the last three years) here in Italy, I have basically sat in classrooms or offices and been initiated into the mysteries of various professions, such as financial trading in the share and bond markets. I have also discovered how insurers (and re-insurers) operate; what problems engineers and architects face when executing a project; and what computer programmers and software developers need to know in order to carry out their work. Journalists, TV executives and media planners have discussed the finer points of their craft with me. And I’ve been introduced to the worlds of fashion, design, hotel management, diplomacy and the military. In fact, there aren’t many sectors or professions from which I haven’t taught people. I’ve also met countless researchers and academics, university students (at all levels) and teachers like myself who simply want to improve their English.

One of the most important things about teaching Business English is that whatever sector, industry or profession someone works in, they usually have a common core of needs in terms of the skills and general communication requirements their job entails. So, for example, everyone needs to be able to use the telephone, write emails and hold a meeting in English. Some people might need to do presentations (e.g. sales and marketing professionals or those who have to present data as part of their work); they might also need to be able to negotiate in English. Others (such as lawyers) may have to read huge amounts of material and be able to summarise the main points, or take detailed notes in meetings. And for a lot of students, their main priority might just be speaking – becoming more confident and fluent in a range of business as well as general situations, such as travelling, meeting new clients or socializing in English.

So, I’ve been very happy this year – and continue to enjoy living and working in Milan as a teacher and communications consultant. Northern Italy is indisputably one of the commercial power-houses of Europe, with firms operating in a wide diversity of sectors (including pharmaceuticals, banking and finance, fashion and design, media and advertising – and, of course, food, leisure and tourism.) I always look forward to meeting new people and finding out about their job and the linguistic challenges they face.

Well, that’s on the teaching side. I also mentioned earlier that I have been working on a social media project. This is basically a research and copywriting job in which I have to produce material for the web relating to technology. I am working as a consultant for OpenKnowledge srl, a company which helps clients by leveraging their social capital and specialises in developing social networks. The client for this particular project is a well-known consumer electronics company that wants to engage more closely with its customers via social media. This is definitely something I feel comfortable with – and, as with the pharmaceutical companies I have been teaching in – the project involves intellectual challenges as well as making potentially dull technical information more appealing to the target audience of the project. Although I have focused more on teaching than copywriting since I came to Milan, it’s nice having the two activities running side by side. I am also able to fit my online research and copywriting round my teaching – so, as you can imagine, I’m usually quite busy.

Social media has been in the news a lot this year. Not only have Facebook and Twitter featured heavily in the revolutions sweeping across the Arab world, but the speculation that a new boom is on the way has been fuelled by media interest surrounding the imminent stock market flotations of social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook itself. Obviously, social media is an arena in which the written word plays a crucial role. It’s also having a major impact on the way people get their daily diet of information and news. So as a language teacher and a writer, I am personally affected by the massive changes that are taking place not only in the media environment but in the way individuals learn about the world and communicate with each other. I seem to spend increasing amounts of time “catching up” with the latest developments and experimenting (or sometimes just playing) with new platforms and social media tools (such as FriendFeed and Tumblr, which both pull together social media from across different sites; Popplet, an innovative and intuitive mind-mapping tool; as well as a plethora of social media sites and blogs, such as Mashable and

I’ve also been developing my own social and professional networks. The Milan Business English Network (MBEN) recently reached 100 members on LinkedIn. (There’s a parallel group with the same name on Facebook.) I took the opportunity to turn MBEN on LinkedIn into an open group. Although this disabled a lot of interesting discussions between members, I am looking forward to extending this group and connecting with even more people who are interested in learning, teaching or using English in a professional context. Although we weren’t quite able to find the time for live discussion groups, I am hoping that these will take place over the coming months. (If you haven’t already joined, sign up now and start taking part in the ongoing conversations around English at work, writing CVs, doing job interviews and using your English language skills more effectively.)

So, overall, it's been a hectic few months – but very enjoyable nonetheless. I'll be posting more updates shortly, so visit the Milan English blog soon for more enlightening and useful articles on learning English, British and Italian culture - and other subjects that grab my attention which I think you might also be interested in.


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