- Next trainer development cohort 10th - 14th June 2024

Babushkas, bread and the basics of communication

26th August, 2021

Babushkas, bread and the basics of communication

‘Hurry up, English girl!’


The queue of old babushkas behind me was getting restless.


It was 1993. I’d been learning Russian at university for six months and was trying, and failing, to buy bread in a store in St Petersburg.


There were no supermarkets at the time – you had to ask for everything you wanted by name.  It was fetched from the back of the shop by a surly cashier who slammed it down on the counter with a snarl.


When I’d finally got to the front of the queue it’d suddenly dawned on me.


I knew how to say things in Russian like ‘Dostoevsky’s literary works plough the depths of human psychology’.  (Yes, I was a pretentious student.)


But I didn’t know one of the most basic and crucial words there was: bread.


I stuttered and mimed my way through my interaction with the shopkeeper and eventually left, red-faced, with my bread intact but my pride in pieces.


And I think about this moment a lot when I see businesses trying to impress.  At first glance they’ve got all the shizzle:


  • Shiny slides with their values of ‘creativity, integrity and excellence’ flying in from different sides
  • Slick videos of their leaders talking about their mission to make the world a better place (through the medium of tax law or accounting software)
  • 50-part infographics detailing their ‘commitment to delivering world-class solutions’


But like me in Russia, they’re often missing the basics.


Scratch the surface and the foundations just aren’t there.  


Foundations like: 


  • What exactly do you do? (in just a few simple words)
  • How will I be better off after working with you/buying from you? 
  • Why the hell should I care about what you do?  What’s in it for me?
  • What don’t you do?
  • Why are you better than the competition?


No amount of PowerPoint smoke and mirrors can make up for shaky foundations.


Eventually, you’ll be the one at the front of the queue, stuttering and bluffing your way through.


As for me?  I’ll never forget the Russian word for bread (‘xleb’ in case you’re interested).  


And I’ll never stop practising how I talk about myself and my business.

University of Cambridge


- Next trainer development cohort 10th - 14th June 2024

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