Leadership Communication In Business English Class

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

I recently had the opportunity to discuss the contents of a TED Talk (titled “This Is Your Brain On Communication“) with adult learners in a business English class. In the process of explaining the video to the students, I discovered an easy way to explain how leaders use language. In this TESOL Blog post, I will share with you what happened in class.

A description of the TED Talk states:

Neuroscientist Uri Hasson researches the basis of human communication, and experiments from his lab reveal that even across different languages, our brains show similar activity, or become “aligned,” when we hear the same idea or story. This amazing neural mechanism allows us to transmit brain patterns, sharing memories and knowledge. “We can communicate because we have a common code that presents meaning,” Hasson says.

What I took away from this TED Talk was its focus on the sharing of “meaning.”

In the TED Talk, I was particularly interested in an example of framing (that was used by Hasson in an experiment) which resulted in the creation of meaning.

We took a story by J.D. Salinger, in which a husband lost track of his wife in the middle of a party, and he’s calling his best friend, asking, “Did you see my wife?” For half of the subjects, we said that the wife was having an affair with the best friend. For the other half, we said that the wife is loyal and the husband is very jealous. This one sentence before the story started was enough to make the brain responses of all the people that believed the wife was having an affair be very similar in these high-order areas and different than the other group.

Fairhurst (2011) focuses on such framing as the language of leadership.

The TED Talk experiment made it very clear to me what is meant by the expression, “Leaders make meaning.” So after explaining the example above to my students, I asked the class to tell me how the TED Talk story is related to leadership. I went on to talk about how leaders have opportunities to frame various situations in the same way that the Salinger story had been framed in Hasson’s experiment.

The class discussion of the TED Talk also made me more aware of a phrase I had heard used in connection with public speaking: “brain to brain communication.” So, during class, I was looking at the students’ faces to see if “brain to brain communication” was occurring and if meaning was being shared. When I could clearly see it, I pointed it out to my students. For example, at one point in class, I asked the students how much time they needed for a short discussion activity. One of the students responded with the number of minutes, but I did not hear her clearly. Another student noticed that I had not understood and said slowly and clearly the numbers 1 and 5, which I knew to mean 15 minutes. I replied “brain to brain communication,” and everyone laughed.

I also think that meaning is being shared through the ESP Project Leader Profiles that I have been posting, because we learn what our colleagues are doing around the world. The next one will be posted soon!

All the best,



Fairhurst, G. (2011). The power of framing: Creating the language of leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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