Improving your Speaking and Presentation Skills
The Danger of Idioms
I was speaking at a conference in France, along with 3 other English-speaking presenters. One of the presenters on the team had a habit of using idioms – not just in his presentations, but in regular conversations. He used them liberally as we were having coffee together before the conference, and I wondered if he changed his speaking during his presentations… He didn’t.
Idioms Don’t Translate
The priceless moment came when he was presenting the next day. The crowd was filled with French-speaking attendees, most of whom were using headphones to listen to the translation of his presentation. I noticed a few quizzical looks throughout the presentation, but the best moment came when he made the comment, “there is more than one way to skin a cat!”
Immediately, the translator looked up in horror, and I saw a second of sheer panic in her eyes. She composed herself and then went back to her translation. In the following seconds, I saw the French audience (the ones listening to the translator) politely looking at each other, and somewhat confused. I could only imagine the questions going through their minds:
“What’s this about a cat?”
“What does killing a cat have to do with marketing?”
“Why would someone take the skin off a cat?”
At that moment, I was thankful for my college experience where one of my professors was merciless in exposing the idioms in people’s speech. “Idiom’s don’t translate!” she would declare. She expressed that idioms don’t always translate the same meaning to a listener. Whether its a language barrier or not, the listener applies their own cultural understanding of an idiom, and the idiom can distract from the message.
Idioms Require a Cultural Context
The nature of an idiom is that the there is no literal meaning communicated directly through the words or phrase. Only another person completely familiar with this phrase can understand the intention of the meaning – but not from the direct phrase, only through the familiarity of the phrase. As soon as you step outside of the culture, you have lost familiarity.
This has been impressed upon me as I have made frequent trips to Scotland where I love the land and the culture. I am fascinated by the idioms used in this country, but what has been the most fascinating is that each city tends to have their own dialect as well as their own idioms. Most times, I don’t understand the words used, nor the meaning of the idiom. This is what happens when you use idioms outside of their cultural context. Even though these Scottish idioms were spoken in English (somewhat), they were difficult for me as I was unfamiliar with the cultural linguistics.
Idioms restrict your intentional meaning, not expand
However, does an idiom help you to communicate your ideas more effectively? I think in normal conversation within a culture, it can communicate an idea, or a symbol, but of course, it only communicates a shared concept, not details or specifics to your situation. The more you converse with people beyond your immediate circles, you have to be aware that your idioms may not communicate your ideas as effectively. The more your audience broadens (especially internationally) the less effective idioms are for communication. Rather than communicating a shared idea in your culture, they will present themselves as obstacles to international audiences.
If you are speaking to large audiences, writing books or technical presentations, or communicating to people outside of your culture (or country) then you cannot rely on an idiom to communicate. In fact, an idiom may do far more to hinder effective communication than to improve it. Your audience may spend more time interpreting the meaning of the idiom than understanding the purpose of the statement.
Improving Clarity, Removing Idioms
Removing idioms is somewhat impossible, but awareness is the key to unlocking this discipline. Listen to your speech by video or audio, and listen specifically for idioms. Chances are, you may have two or three “comfort phrases” that you use as an idiomatic crutch.
By identifying them and considering a few questions, you will become aware of how you use idioms in your communication:
- Did that idiom communicate my idea clearly?
- Was that idiom necessary?
- Would someone in another of the culture or speaking another language understand that reference?
- Could I have stated the concept more clearly without the idiom?
- Do I use the idiom as a “crutch?”
Business Insider launched a number of videos about local idioms. Here is my favorite about ‘government cheese.’
In addition, we can also map idioms that show how we speak different versions of English in the US.