Understand Language to Make Language Work for You

In the field of linguistics there has for long been a debate on how human beings develop the ability to communicate. Often referred to as the nature versus nurture debate, the argument is over whether we are born with an innate ability for language or learn to use language through our interactions with environmental stimuli. Over time, both sides have presented convincing evidence. For example, Noam Chomsky, a linguist from MIT, demonstrated that babbling newborn babies produce phenomes (the smallest units of sound) which they could never have heard in the language of their present country, but which are used in a variety of languages all over the world. Babbling babies’ use of phenomes proves, according to Chomsky, that the human brain is prepackaged with a “language faculty.” Meanwhile, proponents of the nurture theory say babies merely make these sounds independent of any prewired linguistic ability. Given the nature of our vocal chords, any human has the potential to make these sounds; certain phenomes only become more difficult as a particular human grows more accustomed to the sound of the language in which he or she is immersed. It’s a matter of cultural evolution, according to the nurture camp. Depending on your interpretation of the data, the debate leans to one side or the other. But it’s most likely a combination of both: humans have some sort of built-in, prepackaged ability for language, which formed slowly via mechanisms of Darwinian evolution, but which quickly develops and matures based on input from the environment.

No matter which way the debate leans, all seem to agree on one fact: each one of us begins developing our linguistic intelligence at an early stage. Now that we’re older, we can hone in on this linguistic intelligence and put it to use. After all, before you master something, you must first understand it.

Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner says humans developed language as a tool. It’s a means at our disposal for achieving an end. Every time you speak, according to Gardner, you use language to achieve one of four ends.

They’re broken down as follows:

  1. People use language to convince or induce other people to a course of action. A boss, for example, may tell his employee that he needs his TPS reports by the end of the week, or a friend may ask another friend to pass the salad dressing at the table. According to Gardner, lawyers and politicians have developed this ability to a high degree, but it’s also an ability that begins to form at a young age—like when a three-year-old wants a second helping of cake.
  2. Language is used for mnemonics. Before humans had language, memorization was far more difficult. Language, however, functions as a tool for codifying and memorizing things. We use chunks to memorize phone numbers. We use mnemonics like Never, Eat, Sour, Watermelons to memorize the cardinal directions.
  3. Language is used as a tool for explanation. In fact, it’s the primary tool for teaching. Whether explaining literature or mathematics, anyone trying to teach someone something does so through the use of language. This is part of the reason why the human lexicon is forever expanding. As new developments and breakthroughs are made, new vocabulary words are needed to explain them. Google it.
  4. Finally, language is used to talk about language. That is, language is used to reflect upon language. This is called “metalinguistic analysis.” We can see this when a child asks his parent about conceptual words, like “dream” or “wish.” These questions would require the parents to think about the word and use language to explain its meaning.

Now that you have (I hope) a better understanding of the uses of language, try thinking of ways that you can put it to use. You can be confident in your linguistic abilities—after all they’ve been evolving since before you were born. Ask yourself the following questions: How can I put language to use to get a colleague at work to do something for me? What mnemonic techniques can I use to memorize things? How can I better use language to teach someone something, to make something run more smoothly on my next conference call or at work? If there is a difficult concept you’re working with, look at it at the quantum level. Look at the actual words you’re using to describe it and see if you can’t break those words down into easier-to-understand concepts. Who knows, a little metalinguistic analysis may very well make the answer to your problem crystal clear.

You Are Not A Bird, Stop Winging It

I went back a few weeks ago and watched my wedding video. We had a wonderful ceremony and like most weddings it wasn’t without its problems. The AC stopped working in the reception hall, which in the middle of June means everyone is going to sweat like mad. My friend from high school had to leave in an ambulance after accidentally putting her hand through the glass window pane and passing out in the bathroom – something I didn’t know until well after the wedding. (She’s a really great friend). Aside from those things, we were also the catalyst for what has become the worst best man speech of all time.

No, I’m not being mean, if you ask him, he will agree with you, and if you ask him what went wrong he will tell you.

“I was winging it.”

No, you didn’t read it wrong – my husband’s best friend made it up as he went along (for 30 minutes) about really nothing.

Personally, I think you should never wing it. Even if it’s a situation where you’re speech is something that everyone isn't looking forward to.

I understand that not every speech can be planned.

  1. Always have an idea of how you're going to introduce yourself. You should always have a standard greeting for yourself and your company, that way you're not stumbling through "umms" and "ahhs" as you try to think of things on the spot. This is also known as your "Elevator Pitch".
  2. Think about the subject being covered and what your knowledge of the subject matter is. If you were asked to "weigh in" for a brief moment, what would you say? You don't have to write this down, but at least give yourself an idea of what your take would be so you would be prepared if someone were to say, "Hey you, what do you think about blogging/social media/etc".
  3. Do some research. Learning more about a subject is always a great idea -- and if you think that you might end up having to weigh in on a subject you don't know much about it, take about ten minutes and Google it. It'll pay off in the end.

No matter what you're about to attend (wedding, graduation speech, networking event) you should always remember that you are not a bird, so stop winging it.

What do you do to get prepared when anticipating having to make a speech?

Down With Being Boring

Have you ever seen the movie Down With Love?

I have seen it so many times. You have to look beyond the fact that it didn't get great reviews and see it as what it really is -- it a satirical piece that pokes gentle, but loving, fun at the rom-coms of the 60's. It happened to be on a couple of weeks ago and I watched it with a friend. (Sidenote: Movies like this should always be watched with your best friend. It makes them way more fun.)

The movie was so flawless in its satire - even right down to the over the top, wild hand gestures. David Hyde Pierce really has those down pat. My friend and I determined that everything should have big, over the top hand gestures. It makes things more exciting. Simply reading your lines in a movie and expecting a reaction is not going to be effective. The reason Down With Love works is because the actors and directors took special steps to make sure they moved and spoke in a way that would make the audience feel a certain way. The hand movements and camera angle were supposed to look cheesy -- so that I would remember my love of 60s rom-coms and giggle.

The next time you host an event or a web conference, think about how you are using the tools at your disposal to evoke emotions in your participants. Much like an actor, your tools are limited to your voice, movements, and facial expression. When you're without one or more of these elements, like on a conference call, it makes it harder to get the reactions you want and you could end up failing. Think about when Hollywood made the move to "talking pictures" rather than silent films, many of the faces that people had grown to love were no longer a viable part of Hollywood because they had really unattractive voices.

It's not really a shock, then, that I am often suggesting that you are aware of the way you sound. Which is where this title comes into play -- Down With Love has inspired me to advise to be Down With Being Boring.

  • Stop writing out all of your notes on a page and reading them word for word.
  • Stop standing behind a podium.
  • Stop mumbling.
  • Stop leaving your audience out of the presentation.

Instead....

  • Start making a bullet list so that you can follow a guide for your presentation instead of droning on and on. (People know when you're reading from a list)
  • Step out from behind the podium and walk around the stage during live presentations. Movements are natural.
  • Speak clearly and enunciate. Be sure you host a sound check with the conference call provider or the venue to have a sound check.
  • Leave plenty of time for a Q&A session. The information you're presenting will surely raise questions along the way -- questions that only you can answer.

On your next presentation or conference call, try taking the down with being boring approach and see how your feedback changes. What do you do to keep from being boring when you make presentations?

Are You Asking The Right Questions?

I’ve finally purchased a home and one of the (many) unexpected things I have to do involves transferring my utilities. My power company makes it very easy – all I have to do is go online and arrange for the start date at one address and the stop date at the other. (Thanks Reliant)

With my cable company, my husband and I have been considering switching to a different company, since my bill has gotten completely out of control. I joined the customer service chat with my current provider to get details on how to turn off the service, if we chose to do so. The person I chatted with was very helpful and I was very honest with her about what we were considering.

She gave me all of the information, let me know about when I would be billed again and how the bill would be prorated should we chose to disconnect our services. She forgot one very important thing – she never asked me why I was planning a switch of services. There’s a good chance that with the right price, I could have been persuaded to stay with them a little longer.

My reason for wanting to leave is the steady dollar or two rise of my bill over the last few cycles, which can add up fast. This representative failed to ask me one very simple question – Why is it that you are looking for a new service? It’s very important when a customer calls you to cancel or close their service you ask them why they are interested in discontinuing their services.

Even if you can’t retain the customer, they might be willing to give you some insight on how you can improve an aspect or two of your company. Are you asking questions when your clients call in to cancel services? Do you think it’s important to find out why they are leaving and going to another brand? What do you ask them instead?

Picking Up What You're Putting Down

I admit to loving the cliche I'm picking up what you're putting down. I think it’s hilarious – don’t judge me. But I heard it the other day and I wondered how we can apply a statement like this to things like writing. Writing a blog is all about catching someone’s attention and getting them to come back over and over again. What makes someone “pick up” what you’re “putting down”?

  1. Make it shiny. What makes you lean down and pick up a coin from the ground? The answer to that question is simple – because it’s metal and the light catches your eye. Natural curiosity has you stopping to study the item to see what it is. 1. For blogs you have to create the shiny effect by grabbing their attention right away. Many readers are “skimmers” so they’ll read the beginning and the end, so if those aren’t interesting, your readers are going to move on. You have to tell a story, or a joke, and create a moment that they will want to stick around for. Now, you’ve caught their eye, just like a shiny coin waiting on the sidewalk.
  2. Add some value. How many times has a penny grabbed your attention and you’ve walked right on by? Why? Because it’s a penny and many of us can’t see the value of a single penny. (Don’t try to tally up the number of times you have done this, it will only depress you – seriously.) If that penny magically becomes a dime, I know you’re going to pick it up and put it in your pocket. 1. You have to tell people how the heck they are supposed to take what you’re writing and make it work for them. It is one thing to say “hey this worked for me” but another to really show them. If you don’t want to give away your own secrets, that’s okay, but you need to show them how another company did something similar. This is so your readers will be inspired to do something about the idea you’re sharing.
  3. Save, save, save. That dime will end up in a change jar or hanging out in your purse with your lip gloss, until the day comes that you’ve had enough and you head down to turn that coin into cash and go shopping.
  4. It’s one thing to make your readers pick up the coin and it’s another to make them save it. When you’re writing you have to give them a reason to carry around the information. It’s not as simple as “great content” – it’s about showing readers how your post is going to affect their business or blog down the road. What happens in six months? What happens in twelve? Give them an idea so that they will put your post in their pocket and take it with them.

The next time you write a blog, plan a conference call, or start new campaigns think about how your attention is grabbed when you see that coin on the street. What makes you think it’s valuable and worth putting in your pocket? Ask yourself this – are your readers or atendees picking up what you’re putting down?

Make the Things You Hate Suck Less

Confession: I hate cucumbers and tomatoes. There is just something about the texture and that jelly like seed pod thing in the center that just grosses me out. I am such a picky eater in the first place, but you start trying to fancy up my salad with crap like cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, that just became the garbage cans lunch and I'm going hungry.

Second confession (two in one post!): I love pickles and bruschetta.

What is that? I had this realization about myself and my food choices last week and I simply can't understand it. Throw a cucumber in some vinegar or toss some Roma tomatoes with basil and garlic and I will be the happiest girl in the world. Why? Simple - someone took something I dislike and added a lot of things that I do like (salt, garlic, warm and toasty bread). Those simple additions can take something that would make me walk away from a meal and chow down.

It's a principal you can apply to one of the most hated things in all the lands - public speaking. Figure out the things you don't like and add elements of things you really look forward to. Here's a couple of examples:

  1. You hate being the center of attention, but love a team atmosphere. Instead of the typical 'stand in front of a room' presentation try doing a collaboration type of presentation. Let people make comments, ask questions, and build off a main idea that you have presented. Instead of doing a thirty minute presentation and then taking brief Q&A, do a five minute presentation and spend the rest of time getting your audiences input.
  2. You hate using a podium, but love attending round table meetings. In this case, consider setting up something more like a town hall meeting and using limited visuals if possible. Try to put yourself on the eye level of your audience by sitting down on a stool and shifting around as you speak to make eye contact.
  3. You hate using PowerPoint, but love a visual element in presentations. Try a different kind of visual presentation -- like using a short video or even the old school white board. PowerPoint, strangely enough, can make a lot of people uncomfortable so even though it might be considered "old school" to not use one, you have to find what works for you. Just remember that it is never okay to read from your presentation slides.

Just like cucumbers and tomatoes, public speaking can be considered a hated part of every day society, but by adding in some things you like, you might never think about the bad things.

Laura Lee Interns at AccuConference: Week 3

Third in the series from our interns. Laura Lee also learned the elevator rules and enjoyed free ice cream for volunteering to go pick up the treats for the office

Well, I was not disappointed. Last Monday was the Fourth of July and the building management here threw a regular party complete with hot dogs, cookies and cold ones. I’m talking about lemonade and fruit punch here people; don’t be too jealous. On that note, the official countdown has begun. No, not the days left until I leave and go back to Oklahoma State (home sweet home), but the countdown to my 21st birthday which takes place at the end of this month. The magic date is July twenty sixth. So as my final days of being the ripe old age of 20 come to a close, I’ve been learning some cool things on the job. Last week we learned how to file with the United States government for a trademark, since we are creating new products and don’t want anyone else to steal our ideas. The process is a lengthy one, but being here at the company has taught me that our ideas (especially in the marketing world) are what really sell and what keeps the company going, so why not put a trademark on it?

I was sent on my first ‘intern run’ this week; which included getting the office ice cream from Braums down the street. I can’t really count it though- I completely supported the mission as ice cream is my one and only staple food…and they paid for my ice cream as payoff for going to get the goods. But I did feel more like a typical intern taking down everyone’s orders and money.

I am also learning a lot about etiquette in a business environment. For example: why do men ‘hold’ the elevator door for women? It seems very gentlemanlike, but the concept is just strange to me. Instead of letting the girl go first they jump in the elevator and then stick out their arm on the elevator door. That took some getting used to! The first time that happened I literally thought the guy was going to karate chop me as his hand flew out the elevator. But I’ve learned to dodge out of the way of the karate chop and gracefully say thanks to the gentleman holding my elevator door so gallantly.

When I am confused about something (this actually happens a lot- surprising I know!) there is no sweating over if I should ask someone or not. The atmosphere here is very much like that of a big family. I think that being in a welcoming environment is key to learning, and I am learning a lot.

Tell Your Story

A couple of weeks ago, while catching up on some reading, I came across a post from Mack Collier (the leader and brains behind Sunday night #blogchat on Twitter) titled: Turning Failure into Success. I suggest that everyone check it out and read it, but if you can’t, here’s a quicker overview. Mack tells a story of his lack of preparedness in a college Business Communication presentation, his train of thought completely derailed, and even how he considered abandoning ship. Nine years later, at the B2B Forum, he found himself wishing he was presenting there – a far cry from the nervous kid who wanted to run nine years before.

I sent Mack a brief tweet and let him know how great I thought his post was and got an interesting comment back from him, stating that he hesitates to write personal stories because he doesn’t think anyone reads them.

I was absolutely surprised to read this. If you’ve never read Mack’s blog or followed him on Twitter, I’ve always found him to be very personal. His writing style is very open and honest, so I was surprised to hear that he doesn’t usually like to tell personal stories. I am the exact opposite and love to tell personal stories that somehow relate or lead into the points I am about to make.

I wonder why bloggers feel this way. Mack isn’t the first blogger I’ve corresponded with who feels like their personal stories are unwelcome in their posts. For those, like Mack, who feel like personal stories are often pushed to the wayside, I offer, as a reader, two thoughts on storytelling and blogging.

Everyone is a storyteller. No, not everyone is going to be able to sit down and hammer out a novel the likes of Stephen King or Tom Clancy, but everyone has experiences. We have all been in one place or another and had a moment resonate with us, so don’t fool yourself into thinking you don’t have a story to tell.

Everything has a story. Look at this post – what’s the story here? The story is that Mack told me something surprising and it made me think, and this post was born. Those are the kind of things that I love to know when reading a post. Where did your inspiration come from? What made you think that this story was relevant to the topic that you wanted to write about? Those are the things I want to read about, the things I want to know.

What you’re saying about a certain subject is just as important as how you go the place where you had to sit down and write your thoughts out. I want to know that, I want to feel your passion and your feelings on the subject. What do you think? Are you like Mack and feel like no one wants to read your personal stories, or do you write more like me who believes that every story is worth telling?

Why a Follow-Up Email Works

I have done business with a particular insurance company for about seven years now. I’ve never shopped around and I know that there are probably other companies out there who could give me similar coverage for a better rate. With two vehicles and a renter’s policy, our insurance each month is probably on the higher end of average, but I write them a check with a smile on my face.

The other day I was reminded why I stay with that company. I checked my email, just to see this note:

Subj:Hey Girl:

Hey Miss Maranda, {A recent referral to them} name just popped up on my screen and it made me think of you. I hope all is well with you!! We just don’t email and talk like we used to when you were {with another company} so I’m just stopping in to make sure everything is going okay.

Quick, simple, to the point, and it made me smile. She didn’t ask me for additional business, nor did she try to include any additional services or sell me products through this email. She simply asked me how I was doing. This is an excellent follow up email simply because there was no reason for it except that she was reminded of me.

Are you doing that? We all have memorable customers (I know I have) and the human brain will remind us of these people on occasion. When a customer pops into your brain, are you doing anything about it or simply asking yourself Hey, I wonder how they are doing up there? It’s not to sell anything; it’s to establish a relationship with your customer because it’s important to do so. I know that I’m not the only customer my insurance agent deals with, but with this wonderful member of the agents team thinking of me, it makes me feel like I really have made the best choice in my auto and renters insurance.

What does work for them is that the email reminded me I need to get my homeowners insurance quotes from them. So even though she didn’t mean to, she just generated some more business for her company. Are you sending your customers follow up emails when they cross your mind? Do you use them as an opportunity to pitch new ideas or simply as a way to reach out to them and see how they are?

Kaitlyn Interns At AccuConference: Week 3

Third in the series following our summer interns. This week Kaitlyn learned that taking the evelvator up one floor is risky and that we get to do some pretty cool things in the office. 

By: Kaitlyn

Well, it finally happened. Laura Lee and I got judged for riding the elevator up one floor to the AccuConference suite. I believe the judger’s exact words were, “Shame, shame, shame. Elevator foul!” He was kidding (I think), but I still felt ashamed. This occurred on our way back from our celebratory lunch. We were commemorating our one-month anniversary of working for AccuConference. Maybe it wasn’t one month to the exact day, but it was close enough. We just wanted a reason to celebrate and to eat something other than our sandwiches for lunch.

It sure does not feel like a whole month has gone by. Time goes fast when you stay busy. My latest assignment has been editing a collection of books the company hopes to publish. It feels good to know that my input is wanted. It has taken me a lot of time, but it is worth it knowing that my edits might one day appear in a published book. How exciting is that? Plus, this rewriting process has been oddly enjoyable to me. I have always liked writing, but I never knew that I would like editing, too. Perhaps I am learning more about myself than I thought I would while working here.

Another discovery I have made here is that at any moment, you just might answer the phone and a celebrity will be on the line, asking to be connected to a conference. It was pretty cool getting to rub it in my boyfriend’s face that a famous athlete called in to my office that day, although he’s still convinced he saw Roy Williams walk into his workplace once.

Aside from book editing, my agenda has been filled with learning about the tedious process of registering trademarks, writing copy for a new website, and learning about SEO strategy within Facebook. Also on the agenda, July 1st came and went, and Laura Lee and I once again assembled and sent out thank you packages for dozens of AccuConference customers. I feel this solidified my interning here for one whole month, considering I did this same exact activity the very first day I came in to work in June. Even though I have only got to do it twice, this is probably one of my favorite parts of the internship. It’s always nice to remind people that you appreciate them.

Before I know it, another month will go by, and then a few more weeks, and then I’ll be back at school again. Judging from how much I have learned during my short time here, I am sure that I will return to college with a new abundance of knowledge. Come to think of it, I will have learned so much that I’m sure there is nothing more for me to learn in school, right? How about this: I persuade the university that I have learned so much at AccuConference that I don’t need anymore courses, I skip out of my last semester of school, and I graduate even earlier than planned. A girl can dream…