Monthly Archives: June 2013

Colouring Communication

Boring communications don’t! A fundamental prerequisite for a communication to be effective is the listeners listen – if they become bored and stop listening, the communication process stops. Certainly you can keep speaking or presenting but if no-one’s listening is there any point?

One of the key skills in communicating is making what you have to say interesting and dynamic by using a range of techniques that attract and keep the audience’s attention. Two of our White Papers deal with various aspects of writing and presenting effectively:
WP1009 Presentation Skills
WP1010 Writing Documentation
This blog is going to look at the use (and risks) associated with idioms and clichés.

Business clichés are those well-worn phrases and expressions that seem to dominate so many business conversations these days:


If business clichés didn’t have value, they wouldn’t still be around, would they? Some of the reasons why we use business clichés include:

  1. You Can Say a Whole Lot with Just a Few Words. A cliché is nothing more than a picture that is being called into our minds with just a few words. We all know the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In other words, a cliché sums up (in five words or less) what is otherwise communicated by a thousand.
  2. It Lets People Know You’ve Been Around – you know the in-speak.
  3. It Gives Others a Sense of Comfort – everyone’s speaking the same comfortable language…..

In short a judicious use of clichés can be beneficial and enliven a presentation. But there are problems…

As a starting point, clichés, jargon and TLAs (three letter acronyms) can be as effective at excluding people from ‘the club’ you are in as any other discriminatory behaviours. Good communicator’s use these options sparingly and for effect, but also make sure there appropriate options to explain to outsiders what they are saying. Poor communicators simply exclude ‘outsiders’.

The challenge gets harder when different languages become involved. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent remark “It’s like shearing a pig, you get a lot of squealing for little result” does translate from the Russian but this is not always the case.

Idioms are closely related to their respective cultures and don’t automatically translate. UK translation business Tongue Tied (Manchester) Ltd, have compiled an interesting collection of these obscure expressions:
• To seize the moon by the teeth: to try the impossible (French).
• To reheat cabbage: to rekindle an old flame (Italian).
• When the crayfish sings in the mountain: never (Russian).
• Cleaner than a frog’s armpit: to be poor, broke (Spanish).
• To think one is the last suck of the mango: to be conceited (South American Spanish).

Each language is a living substance, which continuously evolves under the influence of different factors, constantly enriching its vocabulary with words invented by the respective speakers and making it more colourful with new idiomatic expressions. For example, many cultures have a colourful way of saying it is raining:
• In English, it would be “raining cats and dogs”
• In some African countries, people might say “it’s raining old women with clubs”
• In Norway it’s on the other hand “raining female trolls”
• and in Ireland you would say “it’s throwing cobblers knives”

The Tongue Tied (Manchester) Ltd team have put together some common idiomatic expressions in English, German, French and Spanish and explained their actual meaning. A brief extract of their full list is below:

Language: Expression = Literal Meaning

English: To make a mountain out of a molehill
German: Aus einer Mücke einen Elefanten machen = To make an elephant out of a mosquito
French: Ne pas en faire tout un fromage = Not to make a cheese out of it
Spanish: Hacer una montaña de un grano de arena = To make a mountain out of a grain of sand

English: Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.
German: Du sollst den Tag nicht vor dem Abend loben = Don’t praise the day before the evening
French: Il ne faut pas chanter victoire avant la bataille = Don’t cheer before the battle
Spanish: Vender la piel del oso antes de cazarlo = Sell the bear’s skin before the hunt

English: Don’t judge a book by its cover
German: Der Schein kann trügen = Everything is not as it seems
French: l’habit ne fait pas le moine = Clothes don’t make a monk
Spanish: Las apariencias engañan = Everything is not as it seems

English: Pull someone’s leg
German: Jemanden einen Bären aufbinden = To tie a bear onto someone
French: Mener quelqu’un en bateau = To take someone on a boat
Spanish : Tomar el pelo a alguien = Pull someone’s hair

English: The early bird catches the worm
German: Morgenstund hat Gold im Mund = Morning hours has gold in its mouth
French: Le monde appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt = The world belongs to them who get up early
Spanish: A quien madruga, Dios le ayuda. = Who gets up early, God will help

This challenge extends to many ‘normal’ words as well; for example, there is no single word or phrase in Spanish for ‘stakeholder’ and ‘execute’ translates to ‘kill’ in Japanese. Effective translation is more than just converting words!

The challenge of effective presentation and communication is to balance between being simple, easy to understand and translate, and boring (ie, not listened to) and colourful and dynamic by using idioms, jargon and TLAs and risk losing your audience because they don’t understand you.

The solution lays in careful design of the whole communication. First understand your audience, then make use of options such as written notes for handouts and simple words on PowerPoint slides to counterbalance colourful expressions used to enliven your speaking. Finally, check back regularly to make sure your audience is still with you and adapt to the circumstances. If in doubt opt for simple over colourful.

For more on the art of oration see: The role of Oration in Communication – a lost art?