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.)

A politician's pointers on public speaking

Much of the time, I like to describe Washington, DC, as a "small town with a lot of hot air," to reflect my town's ability to deliver more-rhetoric-per-square-foot than almost anywhere else. But in this article, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, does a great job describing why--in his view--public speaking's a critical skill for anyone who seeks a career in public service or elected office:
Members of Congress need to be good at a lot of things if they want to be effective, but chief among them is the ability to communicate....When I say "communication" I mean it in the broadest sense: formal and informal; one-on-one and before a mass audience; in writing, in speeches and in discussion; with small, friendly groups of admirers and in front of larger, not-always-friendly crowds; on television, on the radio, on the Web, and in print; in the formal setting of the House or Senate floor and sitting at a formica-topped luncheonette table over coffee and doughnuts.

Among the pointers Hamilton offers:

  • Learn to speak off-the-cuff: While politicians do deliver prepared speeches, "more often they have to speak off the cuff, weighing the import of their words even as they say them....for lots of us it's a skill we learn with practice, and it's invaluable to a politician."
  • Be flexible and prepared for topic changes: "More than a few times, I've prepared for a public appearance only to have my speech become irrelevant when some national issue became the only topic people were interested in discussing."
  • Give thought to how you are presenting your points: "Speak clearly: don't slur your words, don't let your voice fade - you'd be amazed how many people have difficulty hearing."
  • Bring energy and passion to your speaking: "If you don't believe what you're saying, your audience won't either."
  • Let your speaking fit the medium: "You'll be much more convincing on television if you speak conversationally than if you come across as angry or impassioned; but before a crowd, speaking conversationally will just put the audience to sleep."
  • Listen to your audience--they might teach you something: "Being a good politician means being a good conversationalist, not simply scoring a few rhetorical points and then going home."

How to do all that? Hamilton recommends practice as the only way to learn these skills and to become comfortable with your public speaking. Can't argue with that one.

Related posts: See all our posts on public speaking by women in politics