INTERVIEW: MARK POWELL
Written by Annamária Rády, Published in Macmillan Hungary
Q What makes a good Business English author? In what way
are you different from an author who does not specialize in business
or any other professional area?
I think what makes a good author of any kind is probably just
the willingness to sit down and write the stuff when there are
so many excuses not to! But I'm not sure Business English writers
are any different from other EFL writers, except perhaps that
they need to realise that, whether or nor their learners actually
want to do English, they certainly want to do business. And that
means putting the learners' professional goals first - however
unclear these may be. In this sense, Business English is always
a means-to-an-end. ESP pioneer Peter Strevens put it well. The
purpose Business English, he said, is not primarily 'educational'
but 'operational'. I suppose the other thing is that Business
English authors and teachers need a fairly well-developed curiosity
about business - not necessarily business expertise or even experience,
but certainly a kind of journalistic interest in business and
willingness to find out how it works.
Why has learning Business English become so fashionable? Students
with absolutely no knowledge of English want to learn Business
You're right that in one sense Business English is thought to
be trendy these days, and that's partly because business itself
is a whole lot sexier than it used to be, the pinstripe-suit-and-briefcase
image replaced with the designer-suit-and-laptop image. A lot
of younger professional people especially seem to see English
as a 'cool' language to speak as well as the most useful one to
invest their time in. On the other hand, most fashions are short-lived
and, as far as I can see, as a lingua franca, English is pretty
much here to stay. Even if, at some point in the future, the American
economy should go into decline and globalisation be thrown into
reverse, I still think it would probably be too late for any other
language to take the place of English. Chinese? I don't think
so - have you ever tried learning it?
It might sound a stupid question but how do you write your books?
Let us just think about in company, the latest book of yours.
With great difficulty - ask my publisher! No, seriously, some
people plan their books down to the last detail, have the whole
syllabus mapped out in advance, archive all the authentic material
they are going to use and so on. I can't work that way. I wish
I could. My publisher wishes I could! At the beginning of the
project I'll have very clear ideas about how I want some of the
units to be. Others, quite frankly, will be a bit of a blur at
this stage. I'll know most of the language areas I want to cover,
but often during the writing, I'll be forced to change my mind
about those. Because of space constraints bits of units will have
to be ditched or relocated to another part of the book. My guiding
principle, if I have one, is really this: does this material motivate
ME? Would I want to teach with this at 9am on a Monday morning
with my least favourite class? Ultimately, I think you have to
start out by writing for yourself and go from there. Editors will
soon cut you down to size if you get too idiosyncratic.
How about authentic material? Was it a problem to get copyright
/ authorization for it?
For the most part, no. Getting copyright is really the publisher's
responsibility rather than the author's. And most publications
are happy for you to use extracts from articles and so on. Journalists
rarely object to slight changes or cuts to their copy - that's
what their editors do to them all the time! Photographs and songs
and so on can be trickier. With photos it's often hard to find
out who the actual copyright holder is, which can be annoying
if you've based a whole activity on their picture. Songs can be
quite expensive, if you want the original artists. Fortunately,
songs are not used a lot in Business English - although there
is one in In Company! It was very cheap - the tune was copyright-free
and I wrote the lyrics.
Do you think that as a very popular business book author you would
make a successful businessman?
Well, in one sense, I am a businessman already, having worked
freelance since 1994. Perhaps entrepreneur is a better word. I
combine teaching with teacher training and writing and have to
make sure that all those activities add up to a reasonable income
at the end of the year because there's no monthly pay-cheque,
no holiday entitlement and definitely no fringe benefits. But
if you mean could I work for a company in an office, I think the
answer would have to be no. I'd make a terrible employee. I get
bored rather quickly and do not respond well to authority. I work
well in teams, but only on a short-term project basis. Like dolphins
and badgers, I don't thrive in captivity.
You have run summer courses in Hungary at Dudás Julia and Andrew
Wright's language school. Whose idea was the course in the first
place and how successful is it?
I can't remember exactly whose idea it was - probably Julia's.
She's very much an ideas person. Actually, it came about because
Julia attended a training course I was running in the UK and decided
we could run the same thing in Hungary. We've done several now.
You'd have to ask the participants how successful it is, but the
feedback I've had has always been extremely encouraging. It's
certainly a lot of fun to do - intensive, but exhilarating. I
was going to use the old cliché and say 'its the most fun you
can have with your clothes on', but we've had such great weather
on some of the summer courses, that's not entirely true. Fortunately,
the new training room at
ILI is fully air-conditioned and we've still got the enormous
garden to sunbathe in!
You are not the only British author I know who lives and works
in Spain. Is there an immediate reason for it or it is just the
climate that makes British more able to write?
The immediate reason was marrying a Spaniard. We were faced with
a straight choice: Brighton or Barcelona? A somewhat faded English
seaside town blasted with wind and rain or one of Europe's most
exciting and beautiful cities bathed in the Mediterranean sun?
After a lot of agonising, we chose Barcelona.
Is there anything you can tell English teachers in Hungary about
Mark Powell, not as an author and teacher of English but as a
This is a bit Miss World, isn't it? Wanting world peace and caring
for the less fortunate and so on. Um, well, I read everything
that comes within my field of vision (I'm very short-sighted,
though). I like reciting bits of Shakespeare even when people
don't want me too. I've never stuck with a hobby for longer than
a month. Some of my best friends have been dogs and cats (not
as sad as it sounds). You always know where you are with 'an animal
companion' - they give you attention and you give them biscuits.
An uncomplicated relationship.
You have been to Hungary several times. I do not need to ask you
whether you liked it or not because I know the answer already.
But is there anything that you would call specially Hungarian,
something that you have experienced here and not anywhere else?
Yes, I've worked out Budapest must be the foreign city I've visited
most often apart from Vienna. And I've always had a good time
here. Hungary is quite a mysterious country, it seems to me. Of
course, I've never been here as a tourist. I'm sure for tourists,
Budapest is just another stop on the European capitals route.
It is, if you're just going on a river trip or looking at the
architecture. I'm more interested in the Hungarian restraint and
quirky sense of humour (not completely unlike their English equivalents)
with all sorts of wilder stuff going on underneath. You can be
very impassioned. You don't go berserk on violins for nothing!
I like that. Of course, we English can be tempestuous, too. No,
it's true. It's our great national secret. Just don't tell the
Italians, French or Spanish about it. They think they have the
monopoly on that sort of thing.
When will our enthusiastic teachers of business English meet you
next in Hungary?
We're scheduled to be doing another CertTEB Business English Teachers'
course in October 2002. And then we've a couple more pencilled
for 2003. I'm looking forward to October already!
you for the interview.