Communication skills pivotal to professional success

by Susanna Tai

Bilingual contest gives students the chance to shine

Tommy Tam, president, AIA UK, and chairman of the AIA Charity & Education Trust Fund
Photo: Ringo Lee

Almost every encounter in the business world – meeting clients, attending job interviews or networking at a cocktail party – inevitably involves communication and presentation skills. Without them, it is impossible to put across our thoughts and ideas effectively, or to portray our companies and ourselves in the best possible light.

As with many skills, knowing the theory only gets us so far, and practice is essential. So, if we want to make real improvement, the earlier we start the better.

In view of this, the Association of International Accountants (AIA) has been turning its attention to developing such skills in Hong Kong and China. The AIA Quest for the Champion Communicator Competition is a bilingual contest which aims to promote the importance of language and presentation skills among students and has been a resounding success since its launch in 2002.

The annual competition tests the ability of participants in both English and Putonghua and attracts entrants from major cities across the mainland. This year, the first round was held in Hong Kong on February 12 and the final will take place at Nanjing University of Finance and Economics (Xianlin campus) on April 16.

"The competition is designed to encourage university students, who will soon be entering the job market, to equip themselves with the English and Putonghua skills to help them with their future careers," says Tommy Tam, AIA president and chairman of the organising committee.

As an international financial centre, Hong Kong has long recognised the importance of good English for doing business. Following China's accession to the WTO and the mainland's impact on global trade and the regional economy, Putonghua is now becoming equally important. Graduates who are able to express themselves fluently and confidently in both languages clearly stand to benefit in the years ahead.

Judging panel
"The most valuable elements in this competition are doing the necessary research work and then standing up in front of the judges and conquering your fears," says Deirdre Mathias, manager of English instruction at Berlitz International Inc.

Her colleague and fellow first round judge Sophia Wei, who is a senior instructor in Mandarin, agrees that learning to speak expressively in public isn't easy. The other judges were Mr Tam, Jackson Yeung, chairman of continuing professional development (CPD) and past president of AIA Hong Kong, and the branch's honorary secretary William Ho.

Each participant had to deliver speeches in English and Putonghua on different designated topics, which were assigned in advance. This year, the topic in English was the negative impact of oil price rises and higher US interest rates on the global economy; in Putonghua it was the planned abolition of estate duty and its possible impact on Hong Kong residents.

"The competition helps students to improve their language proficiency, as well as to broaden their exposure to current affairs locally and around the world," Mr Tam explains. "This kind of awareness is also essential preparation for job interviews and for communicating with people in an actual work environment."

The best three performers selected for the final round in Nanjing were Bonnie Cheng Yan-Ki (champion), Clara Cai Xiaoxiang (first runner-up) and Celia Sze Wah-Sun (second runner-up).

"Participants this year showed real improvement, especially in their level of Mandarin," says Mr Tam, adding that the results seem to indicate that women have stronger language skills than men. "Personally, I found the champion's performance most impressive. She wasn't reciting from memory, but spoke very naturally and expressively," he notes.

Prize winners
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ms Cheng is currently a third-year student reading government and laws at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). "Neither English nor Mandarin is my mother tongue and the problem in learning is often a lack of practice. That's why taking part in the contest helped a lot," she says. Ms Cheng is now looking forward to the next round and has started to study German in her spare time.

First runner-up Clara Cai says that the ability to communicate well is vitally important in the business world. "Good language skills are also taken as an indication of your overall talents and leadership potential," she says. Ms Cai is in her second year at HKU taking majors in economics and finance.

Celia Sze's story is an excellent example of the benefits of putting theory into practice. She is a third-year student at the Hong Kong Institute of Education doing a major in English and a minor in Putonghua. "In the contest, I was certainly able to put what I have been studying to very good use," she says.

The three local winners will now go on to compete against about 21 top students from leading universities in China in the final round in April. They will have to speak on two different designated topics and then answer questions from the panel of judges. Each contestant has their fingers crossed that they will return with the title of champion communicator for 2006.

Tips for excellent presentations

  • Be knowledgeable about the subject
  • Know your audience
  • Speak clearly and use correct pronunciation
  • Don't panic if things go wrong
  • Be grammatically correct and make your meaning clear

  • Taken from Career Times 17 February 2006
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