It was a conversation I will never forget. A friend had called me for advice on a house repair. He was asking me if I knew a reputable tradesman who could help him. I then asked him a direct question:
- Me: What is it that needs repair?
- My friend: Well, it started last week. In fact it may have been longer than that to be honest. You see, my mother visited and she was cooking and needed water. When my mother turned on the tap there seemed to be no water pressure. It caused a real problem, as my girlfriend was visiting for dinner, and I wasn't sure what to do about it. But... anyway, I looked under the sink and the cupboard seemed wet, really wet actually. I then said to my mother...
- Me: So, in a nutshell: you have a leak under the kitchen sink?
- My friend: Well, ah... yes.
In the above example, a problem which needed only eight words to explain it, was described with over eighty words.
As we all have less time on our hands, and more distractions than ever – the ability to summarise quickly is a much sought after skill.
Employers are always seeking to keep people who have the ability to sum up a problem or solution in a few words. Voters are also attracted to short political slogans that can sum up the feelings of a nation: 'You're not the only one who cares about your family' is an example slogan which can change the minds of the voting public in just a few seconds.
Dating is also an area where a few words can make all the difference. In England, the words 'chat up line' refers to a phrase of introduction designed to romance someone in a single sentence or two. Sometimes chat up lines work, and if the words chosen are appropriate – they can make a big difference to someone's romantic life. Below are a few examples:
- 'There's something wrong with my phone. It doesn't have your number in it.'
- 'I'm not a photographer, but I can picture you and me together.'
There are also some chat up lines which might best be avoided:
- 'If you were a McDonald's burger... you'd be a McBeautiful.’
- 'You're so lovely – you make me want to get a job.'
So, how can we improve our career and other aspects of our lives by putting things in a nutshell? If you follow the two suggestions in this article, you will be on your way to making your English clearer and more effective.
First of all let's look at the phrase we are trying to emulate.
Where does the phrase 'put it in a nutshell' come from?
'Put it in a nutshell' is a very popular idiom in England. An idiom is a group of words whose meaning is different from the meaning of each individual word in the group. The idiom is said to have been invented in 77AD by the philosopher known as Cicero. At the time, an epic poem known as the 'Iliad' was written on a piece of parchment that was small enough to fit into the shell of a walnut. Since then the phrase has constantly grown in popularity.
How to put it in a nutshell – step one: do not use difficult vocabulary
When talking with people or telling a story, always try to keep your vocabulary simple. Also try to match your vocabulary to the subject matter. As an example, think of when you make small talk with a stranger.
A popular subject used to break the ice when meeting new people is often to discuss the weather, and the conversation may go as follows:
- You: Isn't the weather lovely today? I hope it stays like this all week.
- Stranger: Yes, I hope so too. The weather forecast is for hot sunny weather all week.
Now imagine that conversation with lots of unnecessary jargon and technical vocabulary.
- You: What a lovely chinook that just was. The sky is full of cirrus, and confluence. I hope there's more difluence this week.
- Stranger: I'm sorry, what did you just say?
The above may be an extreme example, but it gives a clear explanation of what to avoid when trying to speak in plain English.
Written English will also benefit by using simpler vocabulary. The popular novel The girl on the train written by Paula Hawkins is clear and easy to read English. I would suggest you read it and notice how there are no overly complicated or unnecessary words in the writing. The book sold two million copies in its first three months of sales, and has been published in forty languages. This shows that putting it in a nutshell can also be very profitable.
As a student of English, you should also worry less about having to learn technical words. You do not need to understand plumbing parts such as 'syphon', 'ballcock', or 'cistern'. It is better to consult an expert such as a plumber rather than becoming stressed about words you will often never need to use.
I would also suggest speaking with a language partner or English teacher about your use of spoken English. Have they noticed you using complicated words which could be easily replaced with something simpler?
How to put it in a nutshell – step two: do not try to impress people
We all want to feel important. We are all human and we want to be noticed and respected. Sometimes this quality can backfire and make us look stupid.
I was once in a meeting where an ex-colleague had become frustrated at their lack of importance and their position in the company. They argued that unlike others, they had a degree. This was not only a foolish outburst but also an incorrect one. It was actually a fact that everyone in the meeting room, that day, also had a degree.
By trying to act important and impress people, we not only insult others but we have a tendency to use longer and more complex vocabulary.
Never underestimate anyone you meet, and always speak to them in clear and plain English. In a report on a news programme, a journalist was telling the audience about the dangers of sunbathing. The journalist was reporting from a beach where several people were sunbathing. The journalist used very technical jargon and came across as very arrogant. Towards the end of his report he walked up to a middle aged man and thrust his microphone towards the sunbathing man. “Don't you know anything about radiation?” demanded the journalist.
“Yes I do, I'm a nuclear physicist”, said the sunbathing man with a smile on his face.
To avoid using complicated vocabulary and to make your sentences clearer – always think before you speak. Even though I am a native English speaker, I always take a moment to think about what I am going to say before I make a phone call.
If I am calling a friend or relative then it is not so important for me to plan out my phone conversation. However, if I am calling an employer, a bank, or calling about a job – I always take a moment to think about what I will say. I do this by considering the following:
- Why am I calling this person?
- How can I quickly summarise why I am calling?
- What do I want to achieve with this phone call?
- Is there information I need to have before calling that the other person may ask for:
- My national insurance number? My passport details? Phone number and contact details for a relative? Always try to have any important information ready for the other person.
If I attend an interview, I will also plan out carefully what I will say and I will always have a few clear answers for questions which may have come up. Consider the following questions which are often asked in interviews:
- Interviewer: Why do you want to work for us?
- Me: You are the leading company in your industry, and I think I could learn a lot by working with you on new housing projects.
- Interviewer: Why should we hire you?
- Me: I am hard working, I have an eye for detail, and I am genuinely passionate about my work. I was also nominated last year for an award for my work.
With constant practice, using simpler vocabulary, and thinking about the message we send will enable people to clearly understand us. Putting it in a nutshell will become second nature to you if you take the time to consider what you are trying to say. A good place to start practising is with text messages and emails you are sending. Consider if your message is clear and if it could also be shorter.
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