Friday, September 19, 2008

Fun Friday: Embarrassing Differences between UK and US English

Yes, the UK and the US are two countries divided by a common language. Although most of the differences are cosmetic - like spelling color as colour or center as centre, there are also vocabulary differences that can get you in a bit of trouble.

I was watching Ellen Degeneres the other day and she was interviewing Victoria Beckham. Victoria told the story of her son's first day of school in LA. His teacher asked him, "Do you like to collect anything?" and when he replied, "Yes, rubbers!" she almost fell off her chair. Of course, "rubbers" are "erasers" in the UK, not condoms.

For anyone planning trips over the Atlantic any time soon, these translations might be useful. A quick warning: This list is rated PG-13 for sexual content, so if you're easily offended, you may want to skip this post. These aren't translations you'll learn in English class, and I feel I have an obligation to tell you their meanings across cultures in order to save you future embarrassment.

UK fag = US derogatory term for a homosexual
UK no naked lights = US no showing your nipples (use "no open flame" instead)
UK keep your pecker up = US keep your male organ in an upright position (use "keep your chin up" or "keep smiling")
UK mate = US marriage partner, someone you have or plan to have children with (use "friend" instead)
UK pot plant = US marijuana plant (use "potted plant" or "house plant")
UK sleeping partner = US someone you're having sexual relations with (use "silent partner")
UK tramp = US "loose" woman (use "homeless person" instead)

This list could go on and on and on...

Have you ever been in an embarrassing situation because you said the wrong thing? Share your story!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

English Language: Choose Your Words Wisely

I met with a client today and he had several questions about writing email. He asked if it was correct to write "as follows" or "see below" before introducing a list of ideas his department came up with. I said that sure, you could use either of those phrases, but why would you want to? Why not just write: "Our department came up with these ideas:" and then write the list?

For some reason corporate language is getting more and more convoluted. We've lost track of what words actually mean and instead copy what we see everyone else writing.

Why do we write, "Please find attached?" I don't know about you, but my attachment isn't hiding. How about, "Please revert back..." Back to what? I like myself just the way I am, thank you very much.

According to the Plain English Campaign in the UK, a survey revealed that "many staff who work for big corporate organisations find themselves using management speak as a way of disguising the fact that they haven't done their job properly. Some people think that it is easy to bluff their way through by using long, impressive-sounding words and phrases, even if they don't know what they mean." Great idea! If you don't know what you're talking about, you can find some great big words to use here.

Shirley Taylor, Business Writing Guru, explains that people tend to use simple cliches in their writing that are old-fashioned and overworked. See her list: "A-Z of Bloopers and Blunders, Common Errors and Clich├ęs" for great examples of management speak in action. I'm willing to bet that you use most of these phrases in business email every day.

It's time to speak and write clearly. Yes, I can agree with another one of my clients who says that "sometimes it's necessary to use more words to soften the message." But at the same time we need to be sure that all of those words make sense.

We need to start somewhere. The most common excuse I hear for writing overly-inflated flowery prose in business situations is "That's just how we write here." Says who exactly? I've never once heard the reasoning, "Because I feel that my style is the most effective way to communicate." If we keep doing what we've always done we're going to keep having to waste time clarifying emails with vague words and phrases like "deliverables," "core competencies" and "performance management."

Not to mention all the antiquated phrases like "as per your request" and "enclosed herewith." If you wouldn't say it, why would you write it?

I make it my goal to write as clearly and simply as possible so my message can reach as many minds as possible without a bunch of question marks blocking the way. I hope you'll join me in this effort.

What are the worst words and phrases you come across at work? I'd love to hear your comments!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Speech Training: Linking words

I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream!

The fun in this old rhyme is due to what's called linking in English. One of the greatest challenges to understanding any language is to know where one word ends and the next begins. And linking makes things even more difficult because it's the process of joining our words together.

There are two ways we link words in English.

1. Vowel to vowel
When one word ends in a vowel sound and the next word starts with a vowel sound, we insert a /w/ or /y/ sound to link the words together.

For example:
Why are you always doing that? = Why-y-are you-w-always doing that?
How about three of them? = How-w-about three-y-of them?
Did you throw away all the garbage? = Did you throw-w-away-y-all the garbage?

2. Consonant to vowel
When a word ends in a consonant and the next word starts with a vowel, the consonant sound will link to the vowel in the next word.

For example:
I'd like a glass of red wine. = I'd lie-ka gla-sof red wine.
I jumped in the pool on a hot and sunny day. = I jump-tin the pool-lon-na hot and sunny day.

And you thought English was difficult enough! Actually, if you begin paying attention to how words link together, it will be easier to understand the language and your own English will sound more like a native speaker's. Give it a try!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Public Speaking: How to Boost Your Business

Have you ever considered speaking in public as a way of getting free publicity for your business? Even better, how about people pay you to do it?

Organizations everywhere are looking for people who can speak at their meetings and share their unique knowledge with their members. By taking advantage of these opportunities you not only get to share your passion, but also get great publicity for your business.

But what if you don't have any experience speaking publicly?

1. Speak from the heart
Speak about what you know and love and the content will come naturally. Don't think about selling your business, closing deals, or what will "sound best." Just focus on your passion and people will naturally be drawn to you. Make sure that you are sharing your subject knowledge, and not just making a sales pitch. Your goal should be to educate, enlighten and share, not close a deal. When people see how knowledgeable you are, the business will follow.

2. Organize your content logically
Create clearly organized points. They are easier for both you and your audience to remember. This can be the hardest part, because when you're an expert at what you do, everything seems important. Don't overcomplicate things. Give people the need-to-know information in simple language they can understand.

3. Use clear and simple visual aids
Visual aids are just that - aids. They shouldn't dominate the presentation, you should! Use a large sans-serif font (minimum 28-32 font), simple colours and strong images.

4. Pay attention to your body language
Did you know that your audience gleans 55% of your message from your body language? Make eye contact with members of your audience, stand up nice and straight and be sure that your clothing is professional. You should have a strong, polished image.

5. Know your audience
There are so many different professional organizations and community groups for a reason: each group has a different focus and different goals. It's imperative you understand where the members' interests lie. Customise your talk to appeal to that specific audience and their needs. How can they apply your knowledge to their lives?

6. Speak clearly and correctly
It goes without saying that you should always use proper grammar and pronunciation. Speak slowly and clearly. Every word you say is important, so make sure your audience catches each one.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Speech Training: The Powerful Pause

“It’s not so much knowing when to speak, but when to pause.”
~ Jack Benny

Many people overlook the power of a good pause. Whether you are telling your best friend a story or delivering a speech to a room of 1,000, silence can be your best friend.

So why do so many people forget to pause? Generally people feel uncomfortable with silence, hence the phrase "awkward silence." But this discomfort is also culturally defined. Americans, like myself for example, do not like silence. If a room goes quiet everyone panics to think of something to say. If we're on a first date, the goal is to keep up constant conversation. If we don't, it means we don't "click." Not all cultures are like this though.

My husband is from Denmark. The first time I met his family I was amazed by how quiet they were. In my family it's hard to get a word in, whereas his family can sit through long stretches of silence without even thinking about it. The first time I met them, I kept trying to fill the silence, worried that it meant they didn't like me. Their comment to my husband later on was, "She's a really nice girl, but she sure does talk a lot!" Granted, I talk more than most anyway, but in this case it was really bad!

Since then I've learned to enjoy silence, not fear it.

So how can you use pauses to your advantage? There are a number of instances where you should practice the power of pause:

1. Pause according to punctuation. You should always pause for periods and commas.

2. When you change topics or finish an important idea, pause so that your audience can digest what was just said.

3. Pause and check for understanding more often with individuals who don't have English as a native language.

4. Use a good pause as a cliff hanger in a story. It will get people's minds racing!

5. Pauses can grab attention. If you notice people aren't paying attention, go silent and see how long it takes them to react. It will be quick!

6. Pause after you tell a joke. If you're lucky enough to get laughter, just bask in it! If no one is laughing it might just take them a second to "get" what you said.

7. Give your audience time to answer the questions you ask. I can't stand it when speakers answer their own questions! It's intimidating for people to speak out in a big crowd. Give them time to not only formulate an answer, but also build up the courage to respond.

Did you realize you had so many opportunities to pause?