Saturday, January 9, 2010

Finding words in a new language

Presentations and public speaking can seem challenging enough in your own language. Tackling a talk in English when it's not your first language poses unique, layered challenges--and that's true even if you've achieved fluency in speaking, reading or writing English. When I conduct public speaking workshops, I'm often approached by non-native speakers of English with a wide range of concerns--from word choice issues to figuring out colloquial phrases--and now I have a great resource to recommend to them. This article by William Zinsser focuses on writing English as a second language, but the principles in it will be just as helpful if you're putting together a presentation or speech. (And native English speakers will find some insights about other languages that may prove useful.) Zinsser originally delivered this as a speech to new international students at Columbia University's graduate journalism school in August 2009.

Here's what I think you'll find most useful in the article:
  • Insights on how we use words differently in English versus other languages, including fewer adjectives, more "suffocating" words with Latin roots and more Anglo-Saxon active verbs.
  • "Simple is good," advice that gets at the core of what works well in English, is approachable for a non-native speaker and essential for any speaker who wants to be clear. Zinsser thoroughly dismisses the notion that you need complex words in order to be taken seriously.
  • An emphasis on storytelling that the audience can follow, through a simple order of events, clear words, and active verbs that move the story forward.
Zinsser includes passages from clear English writing so the reader has examples of each principle. Just replace the word "writing" with "speaking," and you'll find this article an excellent path to redirect your pursuit of clear speaking in English. (A hat tip to Lisa Orange for pointing me to the article.)

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