Language Lab Lessons

As has become our annual habit (a two-year pause during Covid not withstanding), my wife Linda and I are working remotely in Costa Rica for the month of February.

It’s a great way to escape winter – not that it ever showed up in New England this year – and thanks to the legendary degree of Costa Rican friendliness, it’s pretty easy to settle in here.

Spanish, of course, is the native tongue and we do our best not to sound like complete idiots when attempting to communicate. The other day, for example, I mixed up the words for “waiting” and “weary” and effectively told an unsuspecting store clerk, “I am tired of my wife.”

Fortunately, among that very same wife’s many superpowers is an ability to unearth little-known events, places to eat, and things to do when we travel.

Indeed, we had not been here but a few days when she got wind of an informal weekly gathering of locals and nonlocals, during which English and Spanish are spoken in an attempt to improve everyone’s language skills.

Ally, the thoroughly bilingual woman who runs these events, takes questions from all sides and offers language learning tips along the way.

So far, my favorite insight is this: “Behave like a child who is learning to talk. They don’t worry or even think about proper grammar – they just try to communicate.”

Somehow, that opened a big puerta for me.

Now, when I am in a store, ordering food in a restaurant, or talking to an Uber driver, instead of focusing on the absolute correct way to say something, I just think about making myself understood:

If I forget the word for “barn” I might say “cow house.”

If I need to talk about the past, I point back over my shoulder with my thumb.

If I am waiting for my wife, I … well, okay, it doesn’t always work.

The point is, rather than striving for perfection, I strive for effectiveness.

As small professional service firms and independents, we face a similar challenge when it comes to creating and sharing content. Here as well, the objective is communication. But we can get tripped up if we set the bar at perfection.

Of course, better is better.

But I’ve seen too many people never launch the web site, never publish the newsletter, never schedule the webinar … and on and on … because they think it’s not yet “ready.”

So, let’s take a page from Ally and keep a few things in mind about content sharing…

#1. Nobody Ever Died From Bad Marketing*

Surgeons, firefighters, airline pilots … these are people whose jobs literally involve life and death.

Marketing, on the other hand, is about being “vaguely correct.”

About the most damage you and me can cause in this regard is writing “me” when you should have written “I,” or using a preposition to end a sentence with. And even then, many people won’t even notice.

There is one marketing mistake, however, that does tend to be fatal: invisibility.

*New Coke being the exception that proves the rule.

#2. You Know More Than You Realize

Around here, all of our conversations begin in Spanish. But sometimes, the message (in either direction) isn’t getting through.

That’s when many Costa Ricans switch to English.

Once they finish apologizing for their poor language skills, it often turns out that they speak English way better than we speak Spanish. Most people assume they are less capable than they really are.

So, if what’s keeping you from “getting out there” is a lack of belief in your own experti-ness, get over yourself.

You know way more about whatever it is you do than the population at large. Start talking and writing about it and watch what happens.

#3. The Knowing is in the Doing

I’ve had many Spanish lessons, online and off. In those contrived, skill-level-appropriate conversations, it’s not hard to shine.

But when you are standing face-to-face with another person, actually trying to communicate in real time, it’s a whole different ballgame.

This morning, for example, I tried to ask a woman at the farmer’s market if she had any granadilla, a disgusting-looking but incredibly delicious fruit that I’ve never seen back home.

After several failed attempts to explain what I was looking for, she asked, in English, “Are you trying to speak Spanish?” I said, “I’m trying,” and we both had a good laugh.

It’s the same with your content.

You can shape it all you want inside the four walls of your office, but it’s not until you put it out into the world that you get feedback, traction, visibility, and the occasional, wonderful, inbound client lead (that is why you’re doing this, yes?).

Here’s the bottom line.

If you sell a professional service, content – your original, unique, opinionated content – is a critical tool in standing out and separating yourself from the pack.

So let it fly. The cost of failure is no greater than getting laughed at for your feeble Spanish accent.

You’ll get way better, way faster – not to mention feeling more comfortable and seeing concrete results – when you start pushing “send” on a regular basis.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are you tired of my wife?
  2. Did you ever try New Coke?
  3. What’s your best content-sharing suggestion?

Share your answers below…

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13 thoughts on “Language Lab Lessons

  1. Michelle Morris, CFP®, EA

    1. I’ve only met her once, briefly, so no.

    2. Yes, it was terrible! (or should I say no bueno?)

    I was in college at the time and my roommate was a big Coke drinker. To her it was an absolute crisis.

    3. I put my newsletter publish date on my calendar in red. It’s the only red event each month. Every time I look at my calendar it jumps out at me.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      3. That’s a great idea. The squishyness of publication dates brings a lot of newsletters down. Yours goes out like clockwork!

  2. Patti Hermes

    1. Never met her, I’m sure she’s wonderful.
    2. Yes, in an attempt to up the ante on sugar/caffeine. Good thing I had a case of Jolt Cola in the fridge to recover my disappointment.
    3. I keep a personal blog, not advertised, to try out new ideas. A couple friends stop in to rip it apart regularly. It only hurts a little.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      3. Great idea. I can see how removing the public nature of writing from the writing itself would be useful!

  3. Jeremy

    I spent a college year in Spain, and the first / best lesson I learned about speaking Spanish was to quit translating in my head before speaking. Just let it fly. Folks appreciate any effort by outsiders to communicate in the host’s native tongue.

    In business, folks appreciate a genuine effort to understand their situation / challenge. Pushing for greater clarity on the listener’s part often leads to greater clarity for the speaker. Those mistake questions just might prove anything but a mistake!

    Important lesson #2: be able to laugh at yourself when you inevitably screw up repeatedly. Anywhere.

  4. Mary Alice Trumble

    Ilise said this was hilarious and she was write. (LOL) right
    1. I’ll bet your wife is amazing!
    2. No, I never tried New Coke.
    3. I share content on Instagram and LinkedIn (on my newsletter). I need to mark it in red on my calendar! What a great idea.

    1. Michael Katz Post author

      Agreed, marking on a calendar per Michelle’s advice is a great idea (and yes, my wife is quite the catch)!


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