It’s been a while, and I’m back, sharing a bit about Israel, its artists, and their emergence onto the world stage. I could’ve shared much more, but a bit at a time is best, right? Stay tuned… Meanwhile, click on the image to watch the interview.
Yes, I did it. I made reference to the hugely successful trilogy written by E. L. James currently conquering the world. But it’s not really what I’m addressing. I’m addressing the superlative in English. By now we know that there are many ways to say things. I emphasize this to students, as I dissuade them from panicking when they forget a word. I often reference the “basket of words,” we have in English to describe things. It’s a pretty rich language in that respect. Difficult? Yes. Replete with exceptions? Yes. But also rich.
One student of mine would often use the word amazing when describing any number of things, ranging from a song or piece of music to how she feels when she has a novel idea. Together we worked on alternatives to amazing. There’s nothing wrong with using that word, but I just wanted her to have some variety in expressing herself. Non native English speakers often feel as if when they speak in English, they lose part of their personality, their style, or their tone, and what’s left may be understandable English, but a part of them is missing from the communication. Another example was when she acquired the word vast, which has a much richer and descriptive connotation than big, when describing the volume of something very far reaching.
We’re not aiming here to transform these people into highfalutin, over sophisticated speakers who sound affected. Actually, over-stuffing your speech with over-the-top vocabulary can work to your detriment. Psychology professor Daniel Oppenheimer, in his study “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long words Needlessly,” indicates that clear, simple, and straightforward language is often the best. So why am I promoting the use of words beyond amazing and big? It’s not to make you sound smarter. Although, I know that many non native English speakers complain that they feel like they sound dumb when speaking in English, while in their native language they feel like they sound intelligent. My purpose here is to help people to be more descriptive.
When I helped prepare with an actress for interviews and press conferences in English about a Hebrew film in which she plays the lead role, I wanted her to be able to explain what makes the film so great. Incidentally, what we decided upon was not to express how great the film was, but that it was groundbreaking. This was a much clearer indication of the fact that the film was the first of its kind in Israel. It was distinctly different from the films preceding it. I don’t consider groundbreaking all that fancy of a word. I do consider it descriptive. So why all this word play and analysis? I see it as all being connected to better communication. Being clearer helps us to more effectively transmit our message and connect to people, even across vast distances.
I’m not the only one who thinks about variety. Paul Simon does, too, in his famous 1975 hit, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. There are so many ways to say things. Enjoy them.
This is also true for native English speakers. How often do you use the word amazing? Is it indeed what you mean? And then there’s great, which is also fine to use. I have nothing against these words. However, exploring the possibilities of how to best to express yourself gives you so many more options. When we describe something, there’s always that gray area. It’s up to us to provide the vivid description and bring some color into it.
Do you want to sound natural in English? Here’s a tip. When you tell a story about something that happened to you in the past, tell it in past tense. Sounds obvious, right? For example, “I was riding my bike, when a car drove into it, and knocked me down. I fell off the bike.”
Now think about when you tell someone the story or plot of a book or film. It’s a fictional story about someone else. Did the hero “go to the library after he discovered the truth?” Or does he go to the library after he discovers the truth? Which option sounds more natural in English?
When we tell the story of a work of art, we usually speak in present tense. Boy meets girl. They fall in love. Why are stories of film and books told in present tense?
When I see a movie or read a book, no matter how old the story is, for me, that story is taking place right now, while I’m experiencing it. When I finish the book and lend it to someone else, they will read it, and then the story unfolds for them, as they read.
I often work with actors who would like to practice speaking about their latest project, perhaps a film competing in an international film festival. As we prepare for interviews with English language media, we practice discussing the film. Sharing the film’s plot in the present tense is one of the ways to sound more natural in English. And it’s also a nice way for stories and works of art to live forever, never getting old.
Real life story: On Saturday night, an actor came over to my house to prepare for an important film audition in English.
In anticipation of the story’s continuation, I draft the rest myself: He gets the part, and the film goes on to receive international acclaim, as does he. Notice that this fictional (for now) part of the story is told in present tense.
That’s my artistic spin on the story’s continuation. Here’s hoping that life imitates art….
What happens in your story?
I don’t claim to be a self-help guru. I do claim to help people express themselves well and be better communicators. But sometimes, the road to improving your communication or your language can seem impossible. And that’s where we turn to self-actualization and basically believing in yourself and believing in the process. I often find with students that it’s not the language that’s keeping them from progressing. It’s their confidence (or lack of confidence). And this gave me a thought.
There’s an often used expression, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it,’ which generally refers to not believing something will really happen until we see it with our own eyes. An example of this notion could be when asked about an upcoming vacation trip to Hawaii, someone responds by saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it. When I’m actually on the plane, I’ll know that it’s really happening.”
But what if we were to switch the order of the words to this expression? I’ll see it when I believe it. To me, this makes a lot of sense. If you don’t think achieving something is possible, chances are that you won’t achieve it. Now think of the converse statement- if you believe it’s possible, then you can actually visualize achieving it. And only then can you set realistic goals and a plan for making it happen and be on your way.
Relating this to the goal of breaking a language barrier or becoming a better public speaker, I see it as a switch you need to make. One student told me when I met him that he had a block against English- some kind of learning difficulty, which kept him from being able to speak the language. The more we met, discussed, read, reviewed song lyrics, watched films- all in English, the more he was able to express himself in English. He then told me that I helped him break down the wall that was keeping him from English. The truth is that I didn’t break down the wall. He did. He did it by talking about his English goals, believing that it was possible, visualizing himself speaking English, and then working to make it happen, jumping right in and speaking.
I was working with another student, an actress, who had an audition for an English language feature film and wanted to make sure she had a good grasp of the scene and pronunciation of the lines. When we first took a look at the scene’s script, she said, “oh, I can’t do this in English.” We visualized her in the role, speaking in English, pronouncing each word clearly and with her interpretation of the character, and then we jumped into it. We practiced and practiced until she felt comfortable with the lines. And then I reminded her that she had originally said she couldn’t do it. And we laughed. I want to tell you that she got the part, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that she believed it, saw it, and did it . As for the casting of the role, we’ll have to wait and see. What is important here is that she is now taking the steps to believe in, visualize, and then prepare for her breakthrough to an international career.
Whatever your career, once you believe it’s possible, which I know is often the hardest part, you can then see it and then make it happen.
I once bought a pair of eyeglasses at a branch of a national optical chain. After I took the glasses home, I returned to the store a few days later, in order to have the glasses adjusted.
I told the salesperson that the glasses felt too small, and she replied, “They’re not too small; your face is too big.”
After recovering from her comment, I decided that a) I don’t want to purchase anything from that store in the future, and b) there’s a way to say things, and this was not the way, especially if you value the importance of customer service and customer retention.
My friend is a kindergarten teacher. She told me how at lunch, one little girl took out a bag of grapes to eat, and her schoolmates told her that she wasn’t allowed to bring grapes to school. When my friend heard what was happening, she confirmed that indeed, “Grapes are an after school snack,” to which the little girl replied, “Oh, right, because grapes are made with nuts.” Cute story about how in today’s allergy-sensitive world, the kindergartener knew that nuts in school is a no-no. Incidentally, the grape issue is that grapes are a choking hazard.
What struck me, though, was how the teacher referred to the grapes being an “after school snack,” rather than saying something along the lines of, “You aren’t allowed to bring grapes to school.”
There’s a way to say things, which has the ability to sound positive, to motivate others, and to empower.
Many people don’t realize the potential power that words carry. I have written about this before, and I believe it bears repeating.
Whether you are an executive, a manager or team leader, a sales professional, a teacher, or any other type of professional, you have the power to influence people at all levels. Thinking about the way you deliver your message and the words you choose to use will give you the opportunity to shape that influence. I’m not advocating always being super-positive. There are times that call for harsh words. The key is to be mindful of your words. We have very little control of our lives. However, what we can do is be aware of what we say. Words can crush confidence, kill a buzz, or build confidence and inspire.
We all can refer to great speakers. We have heard quotes from motivational speeches given by myriad personalities as different as Winston Churchill, leader of the United Kingdom during the Second World War, and Vince Lombardi, renowned American football coach of the 1960’s.
If, as they say, knowledge is power, then awareness of our words is empowerment.