I experienced a communication and relationship-building skills lesson that hit me like a one, two punch in a boxing match— all starting with browsing for a podcast to listen to while I did some gardening.

Being Speechworks’ CEO and communications coach, the title of Rough Translation’s “How to Speak Bad English” got my attention – and it was fascinating…and thought-provoking.

After listening to the podcast, I heard myself saying many of the phrases/analogies/idioms they referenced. I saw myself writing them in emails. Many of those that borrow from our collective understanding of “America’s Favorite Pastime” — Baseball – and more:

  • “It was a home run!”
  • “That joke went over my head.”
  • “That came out of left field.”
  • “Step up to the plate.”
  • “I’ll get in touch next week”
  • “We need to move the goalpost on those benchmarks.”

Analogies and idioms- when well explained, and used with the right audience, can be immensely effective and constructive in helping others to understand a complicated topic, BUT, when used out of context, or without the context being clear, can be confusing.

That’s obvious.

What’s not obvious to many of us is how many analogies and idioms we use in our daily vernacular and in business communications — and the impact that word choice has on our business, our relationships, and our ability to connect and understand each other.

While chatting about it with my neighbor while our kids played in the front yard a few days later, the lesson came again – but this time in a different flavor. Still interesting, still provoking – but a little more difficult to swallow.

Being from El Salvador and speaking English as a second language, my neighbor immediately started nodding her head and then went on to describe her own English as “broken” and she felt self-conscious about it.

I was shocked because her English is excellent and in no way “broken”.

She went on to tell me a few stories – one of which was that she learned what “keep me posted” meant from her doctor. That phrase – to her – literally meant to keep him on a sticky note, which made no sense.

She said it was not unusual to be confused by various phrases and idioms used by her American colleagues in conversations, and that she’s often afraid to interrupt and ask for clarity for fear of being judged for speaking English poorly.  And, not only is she afraid, but the fear is accompanied by some element of intimidation that holds her back or even shuts her down altogether.

The lesson got brighter, and I could see it more clearly. And with that lesson, I also realized that I’ve been doing this – unintentionally and without malice – I too freely use idioms and colloquialisms that are so ingrained that I have forgotten that they are analogies or metaphors. And with that, it’s possible – if not probable – that I have also unknowingly caused another to feel less comfortable speaking English with me, or in front of me, or caused them to hold back or shut down.

Since I would never intentionally try to intimidate someone else or discourage someone from engaging in conversation with me, it’s candidly an uncomfortable reality to face. But with this awareness, I can now pivot and improve my own communication skills and build better relationships.

I’m not saying I’ll never use idioms or colloquialisms again – being from the South – they’re too much fun to pack away forever. But, I will be much more thoughtful about my audience in choosing when to use them and which ones to use — because my top priority is to communicate clearly and to help others do the same.

Lauren Marlow, Speechworks CEO and Communication Coach

Lauren MarlowLauren is a dedicated coach and advisor for Speechworks’ clients, helping them to craft concise and persuasive messages, develop an engaging presentation style and cultivate an executive presence. She draws on her 15 years’ experience as a practicing business attorney to help clients refine their communication skills and content for a variety of scenarios, including condensing complicated information into simple and digestible talking points, presenting to boards, running meetings, making a pitch and handling impromptu speaking requests when there is little to no time to prepare.

Lauren is a Georgia native, but she lived in Boston, Germany and Colorado before returning to Atlanta in 2010. Lauren spends her free-time with her family, pottery throwing, studying philosophy and exploring local museums and festivals. She is also a “people person”, loves adventure and embraces diverse cultures, foods, music and customs with an open heart and mind.