Communication skills trainer Katie Challans: “I can tell a Dutch person from a Belgian person by their body language.”

Katie Challans (69) is co-owner of Challans & Faber Business Communications. Though she could have been retired by now, she has chosen to continue her work in event design and organisation, personal effectiveness and time management training, and conference organisation. Her main passion, however, is teaching communication skills.

Based in Brussels, Katie does not only teach communication skills to native speakers, but also to Dutch speakers from Belgium and the Netherlands. I really wanted to interview her, to get the perspective of a native speaker who has dealt with people from above and below the border.

How does a Brit from London come to live in Brussels and speak Dutch?

My husband Wim is originally from Friesland, but was just about to start studying in Leuven and live in Brussels when I met him in London. One moment I was wondering, “what’s Brussels like?” and the next I was living there! We have been in Brussels since 1982, and I have taken Belgian nationality. Of course, I learned Dutch and French as soon as I could.

You teach communications skills to Dutch speakers. What is your focus?

The people I teach usually work for international companies where the higher-ups are native speakers. For that reason I focus on communicating with native speakers. My students don’t only need to speak the language, but also speak it in a way that doesn’t make native speakers snigger (= stiekem lachen).

The course I enjoy teaching the most is for people who have to pass an exam in presentation skills. I train the people who failed the exam on their first try, it’s up to me to help them pass the resit (= herexamen, UK Engels).

You have worked in both Belgium and in the Netherlands, what are some differences you have seen?

Your question reminds me of the time I trained people for meetings which were half-Dutch half-Belgian. Because there would typically be one or two French speakers in the meeting, everybody had to speak English, and my help was required.

One of the issues I had to discuss was how to greet people when you come into the room. The Dutch walk into the room, say “hi”, and sit down. Belgian people are used to a more formal greeting, like “good morning”, and then going round and shaking hands with everybody. In this situation, Dutch people find the Belgians overly formal, and Belgians find Dutch people downright rude!

Another issue was the food. The meetings were sometimes in one country, sometimes in the other. The ones that were hosted in the Netherlands would have a quick cheese sandwich for lunch, the ones in Belgium would have a three-course lunch served by a waiter with white gloves. In each situation, half of the meeting participants were unhappy. The Belgians felt that they were not served enough food, the Dutch felt that the Belgian system was too time-consuming and overly formal. In the end, all meetings were moved to Belgium, which worked out for the best, as it is difficult to complain that you are being served too much food!

I’ll tell you another funny thing. When we were providing these sessions, my husband and I could tell if it was a Dutch or a Belgian person walking into the room just by their body language. Dutch people are more out there, more extraverted.

My advice to Dutch people dealing with Belgians is to tone it down a little, be a bit more modest, a bit more formal. The Belgians need to try to be a little more extraverted, a bit less modest. That way they can meet each other in the middle.

Do Dutch people and Flemish people speak English differently?

There’s no big difference. Flemish speakers speak excellent English, and so do the Dutch. Flemish speakers have the advantage that they also speak French, and of course English has a lot of French words, so they may even be slightly better.

Belgians are more modest about it, though. They are quieter and don’t boast about how good their English is. I also see it in science and medicine. The Belgians are very accomplished, but they don’t feel the need to shout it from the rooftops.

Katie Challans is co-owner of Challans & Faber Business Communications. Apart from the communications skills training and presentation skills training mentioned in the interview, she also provides personal effectiveness and time management training.

If you would like to get in touch with Katie, please visit her website.

She is planning to retire in the summer, though, so be quick! 

Katie’s 14 tips for presenting in English

With Katie’s extensive experience teaching presentation and communications skills, of course I asked her for tips on presenting in English as a non-native speaker.

Tip 1: Be wary of being overconfident about your English, especially when dealing with native speakers

In my work, I encounter business people who work for international companies and are interested in furthering their career. They are confident in themselves, and confident with their English. However, though their English is excellent, they may still be making certain mistakes without realising it.

Many Dutch speakers think that if they are making important mistakes, other people will point this out to them. The Dutch are very direct and to-the-point, and expect other people to be, as well. But they don’t realise that English speakers, Brits especially, are too polite to mention any mistakes they might be making. The native speakers might be sniggering (= stiekem aan het lachen), but the Dutch speaker never finds out.

So remember: What you are saying, or writing, is not wrong. But it may not be right, either!

Tip 2: Always have three things to talk about, never two

There is a huge problem when you stick up your fingers to tell people you have “two things to talk about”. You are either making a peace sign, or, if you turn your hand around, you are making a very rude gesture for British people. (Pictures here.) I can’t tell you how common this is, I have seen this so often.

There isn’t really a good solution, either you don’t stick your fingers up or you find three things to talk about instead of two. Three is a nicer number to talk about anyway. An odd number is a better number for a list of things.

Tip 3: Don’t write your presentation on your PowerPoint

We can read it quicker than you can say it, so having your whole script on the screen behind you is a bad idea. Instead, have bullet points on the screen. Also use illustrations, images, graphs etc. Give your audience three channels of communication: visuals, text and the spoken word. That is the best way to get your message across!

And remember: if the electricity goes off, you still have to carry on!

Tip 4: Never read from your PowerPoint

This is a classic, but I can’t tell you how many presenters I have seen who turn around and read from their PowerPoint instead of facing their audience. A solution for this is to not have a lot of text on your PowerPoint slides, as in tip 3. You can’t read from text that isn’t there!

Tip 5: Practice, but don’t learn your presentation off by heart

I see a lot of presenters who are confident before they go on stage, but then freeze in fear once they are up there. My advice is: practice. Practice with your outline (never write down every word you are going to say!) Record yourself, see how you sound. Present to your friends and colleagues. In front of the mirror. Every time you do it, it is going to be different. But you will get more comfortable saying the words that you need to use.

Tip 6: Don’t have a script

Write an outline, but don’t write down every word. Having a script means that if you look up at your audience and then down again, you will not remember where you were.

Tip 7: Don’t try practising a word you can’t say, just find another word

Previous interviewee Nigel Saych already mentioned this one, but it bears repeating: rather than struggling with a word you find hard to pronounce, just look up a synonym and use that one instead.

Tip 8: Speak in an informal, relaxed way. Avoid long sentences.

I often notice that Dutch speakers have trouble with the English word order. This gets worse as sentences get longer. My advice therefore is to avoid long sentences, even if these are sentences that were written down in a report that was checked or translated by a native speaker. These sentences are not your own, they are typically very formal and shouldn’t be used in a presentation. Presentations should be informal and easy to understand.

Tip 9: Slow down! Especially when speaking English in a multicultural situation.

Giving a presentation is nerve-racking, and being nervous makes most people speed up. Make a conscious effort to speak slowly. Otherwise, your audience will not understand you, especially the non-native speakers!

Tip 10: Only use words that you personally understand

If you are presenting from a report or other written source, do not use any words from that source that you do not 100% understand yourself. Find a way to say it with other words.

Tip 11: Avoid jargon

Jargon, the words and phrases used by people in a particular profession, are often understood less well by others than you think. Especially if you have non-native speakers in your audience, it is important to avoid these kinds of terms.

Tip 12: Avoid jokes

Natural humour, the kind that comes to you as you are speaking, is okay. But jokes don’t travel well over borders – even the Belgian-Dutch one!

Tip 13: Check your pronunciation of French-sounding words

English has a lot of French-sounding words, but they tend to be pronounced differently. I once had a student, many years ago, who pronounced the word “voucher” (= tegoedbon, uitspraak: vou-tjur)  in the French way, saying something like “voo-shay”. Talk about a mistake that makes native speakers snigger!

Of course, you should check any words you are unsure of, not only the French-sounding ones!

Tip 14: Don’t worry about not being a native speaker

English speakers are always impressed by anybody who speaks their language.

Also, non-native speakers are often better presenters in a multicultural context. British people forget that not everyone speaks English perfectly and go off at the speed of light, using idioms that not everybody understands. People who speak English as a second language are actually easier to understand.

Katie’s six tips for online meetings:

The past few years, Katie has been giving communications training specifically for online communication. She was happy to give a few tips from that side of her work, too.

Tip 1: switch your camera on

This goes for everyone, but if you are a non-native speaker or are dealing with non-native speakers this is especially true: seeing someone’s face move with the words does so much for understandability. People underestimate how important this is.

Tip 2: put on your shoes, socks, and your good underwear

Dress as if you are going to the office. It makes a difference.

Tip 3: use your face

When you are in a room, you can use body language and wave your hands around. On screen, you only have your face, so you need to make sure you are expressive.

This is also true when you are a listener, not a speaker: give the speaker visual feedback. The person you are speaking to should be able to read your facial expressions. Keep your chin up and let people see your face. Smile if you like something, frown if you don’t understand. It makes life so much better for the person speaking, and they will love you for it!

Tip 4: slow down and articulate

This is extra important when your voice is being relayed by computers.

Tip 5: make sure that your first words are heard

I regularly see people starting to speak while their microphone is off. Practice with new software beforehand to avoid this.

Even with practice, though, mistakes like this do happen. Don’t be embarrassed, but do make sure to backtrack and repeat the words that were lost, otherwise nobody will be able to follow you.

Tip 6: put up your hand to speak

In an online setting, two people can’t speak at once. I tell people to wave at me if they would like to say something. The little hands that online meeting software provides are not obvious enough for many chairs (= voorzitters), putting up your hand is much clearer.

Two bonus tips

The two tips below also came up in my conversation with Katie. They’re not really about presenting or online communication, but they are great tips nonetheless, so I am sharing them as a bonus!

Bonus tip 1: Don’t assume you know where people are from based on their names

My full name is Katharine Challans and as you can imagine here in Belgium people often think I am French. I have trained myself to never make assumptions, there are so many people with names that sound like they are from one place but the people themselves are from another!

Bonus tip 2: Are you sure your conversation partner doesn’t speak Dutch? Or perhaps they are trying to practice their Dutch? Let them!

Many Dutch people speak exceptional English. My husband speaks better English than I do! They also often like to show off how good their English is. Any English speaker who is trying to learn Dutch will tell you: if the Dutch hear an English accent in a supermarket or restaurant, they will almost always switch to English. This is frustrating for the person trying to speak Dutch. They’ve come to your country, they want to speak the language. Let them!

Interviews for English and the Dutch

You just read one of the interviews that I conducted for my newsletter English and the Dutch.

I interview people who work on the boundary between English and Dutch. There’s a lot of them out there! Teachers, translators, people in the tourism sector, people who promote Dutch-speaking regions abroad, and so on.

If you know someone I should interview, or if you would like to be interviewed yourself, please let me know! Just send me a message via my contact page.


Heddwen Newton is an English teacher and a translator from Dutch into English. She thinks about languages way too much, for example about how strange it is that these little blurb things are written in the third person.

Heddwen has two children, two passports, two smartphones, two arms, two legs, and two email newsletters.

English and the Dutch examines all the ways Dutch speakers interact with the English language. It has more than 800 subscribers and is growing every day. Sign up here.

English in Progress is about how the English language is evolving and how it is spoken around the world. It has more than 1100 subscribers and is growing every day. Sign up here.

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Photos: Headshot courtesy of Katie Challans, online meetings by Anna Shvets, Pexels


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