Leaders are always looking for inspiring stories to share with their audiences. Sometimes that inspirational story comes in the shape of an acquaintance or a public person who reached his/her goals by overcoming adversity and others it’s about the leader’s own journey. I have used both kinds of narrative as storytelling is always a big part of getting my message across.
But regardless of the topic I’m presenting on, the inescapable truth is that English is my second language. So on many occasions, language itself becomes the topic of the presentation giving me the chance to either turn it into an inspirational story about my overcoming diversity or, allow it to be an obstacle in communicating the message.
As hard as it is to examine your own language abilities in front of hundreds of strangers, I choose to turn my grammatical foibles into an inspirational story. Something that makes me real to the audience and reveals a vulnerable side of me that makes me relatable as a leader while it leverages my background. I here share one of my main language struggles as an example of an effective strategy that you might want to try in your next presentation.
I’ve been an English language learner since I was 6-years-old in my native Argentina. I studied the language in an academic environment, thus my almost perfect fluency. “Almost” being the operative word here.
When I began my career as a writer and public speaker in the U.S., I decided to publicly acknowledge that I am prepositionally challenged. That’s right. On and in – two apparently innocuous monosyllables—have been at the forefront of my ongoing tango with English.
My friend and personal editor, Susan Landon, has had the biggest belly laughs and hair pulling episodes while editing my blogs, columns, books and anything else I throw her way. To help you fully appreciate my grammatical handicap here is one of our hilarious exchanges.
I had sent Susan an Op-Ed I was working on, which I had originally entitled: “Black Woman on the Golf Course.” (Admittedly, I had previously checked via phone with her that it was “on the golf course.”) My subject line, however, read: “Black woman in the golf course.”
Susan – It’s ON the golf course!!!!
Me – Sorry, wrong subject line but the title is correct. Did you notice I used your favorite word “eschew”?
Susan – Yes, I noticed “eschew” and I wondered where ON (not IN) earth that came from!! You are really stretching your wings. 🙂
Me – You are such a great influence in me!
Susan – It’s: influence ON me!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I can’t catch a break.
In my defense (and the defense of many second language learners!) there’s little rhyme or reason for the grammatical rules of these two little devils. You wait in line at the store but you’re online on the Internet. Someone is on your side but in your mind. They are on your team but in your heart. Something is on TV, on the radio and on a website, but it’s in a book. It’s in Manhattan but on Long Island. Come on!
I have repeatedly studied to no avail the many rules that regulate prepositions in an attempt to discover the patterns that elude me. So, I decided to settle for the second best thing besides speaking prepositionally-perfect English: Knowing that being a frequent user of both Spanish and English delays the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, makes me better at multitasking, and allows me to be keenly aware of what’s important and what’s not at every moment.
A while back, in an interview with the New York Times, Ellen Bialystok, a cognitive neuro- scientist who has spent 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind, said that, according to her research, 5 to 6 year-olds who are bilingual “manifest a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.” How does that work? Dr. Bialystok explains: “There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what’s relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.”
After reading this interview, I felt a little bit better about my failures and realized that the smartest way to deal with this would be to make fun of myself, (use it as an “overcoming adversity inspirational story”) and let everyone in on the joke, by asking the audience for help when I stumble upon a set of options that I can’t resolve (“Do you say in your shoes or on your shoes,” I’ve asked in the middle of a keynote speech.)
This strategy has served me well. It never fails to lighten up the mood in the room and it reminds everyone that no matter the obstacles they face, overcoming adversity is part of what makes a leader, a leader.