How to hack your English – 10 ways to make your language learning more effective

What is a lifehack?

gordian knot

The Gordian knot – impossible to untie

Life hacking refers to any trick, shortcut, or method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all areas of life. Like Alexander the Great’s idea of chopping the Gordian Knot with his sword, a hack is anything that solves an everyday problem in an inspired, ingenious manner.

Whether you embrace lifehacking as a philosophy is a matter of personal choice. I am all in favour of labour-saving tricks – unless they’re less fun and enjoyable than the way I currently do them. I remember once getting into an argument about the way I was peeling an apple. My friend wanted me to do it more efficiently, whereas I wanted to get the peel off all in one piece. Tim Ferris of The Four Hour Work Week fame seems to have replaced the stress of doing things the normal, inefficient way with the stress of doing a million different things more efficiently.

Do shortcuts exist for language learning?

Here are the fruits of my research into this question, arranged for your viewing/reading pleasure in order of the length of time the authors claim it can take to learn a language.

Improve the process

What these people are actually talking about are ways of

  • minimising attention deficit, energy expenditure and the cost of learning a language
  • making the process of learning a language more motivating and enjoyable
  • preventing you from giving up and abandoning your efforts to learn a language

Learning a language – like going to the gym

going to the gymBecause what we need to remember about language learning is that as a challenge, it’s very similar to going to the gym. In other words, it involves a lot of discomfort and risk, special equipment and conditions, effort and discipline. And time and money.

Language learning is more about building muscle memory than creating a database.

If you are someone who is required by your company or business to work in English, your second or third language, you may find some comfort from the fact that native English speakers are realising that their careers will not progress if English is the only language they speak.

So the tips in this post apply to everyone who has to work in an international environment. And I have focussed on tips that apply to language learners who already have a good level of English as well as to beginner levels.

Time flies when you’re having fun

Anthony Lauder, in his YouTube post, “Become a Polyglot in Minutes, not Years” shows the most insight into learning processes. In spite of the wildly optimistic title of his video, he starts by pointing out that

  • high frequency languagemany skills take a long time to master: playing a musical instrument, playing chess, learning a second language, etc.
  • mastery takes 10,000 hours = 3 hours of focussed study a day for 10 years. Claims that mastery can be achieved by immersing yourself in a culture to learn the language for a short period are exaggerated. You will learn the language quite well, you won’t speak it like a native speaker.
  • the Pareto Principle, or 80:20 rule, states that 80% of rewards and benefits come from 20% effort and investment. In language terms, you are 80% effective in a new language after 2 years, and mastery takes another eight years, and adds only 20% communicative competence.

But most importantly, he says this:

The famous jazz musician Michel Betucciani said “Every hour I am at the piano feels like a minute. Every minute I am away from the piano feels like an hour.” – so the only secret to being able to achieve mastery in minutes rather than decades is to really enjoy the process.

So, are there any hacks for language learning?

First of all, the good news is that all the language learning experts above seem to agree that what you DON’T need to learn a language is

  1. talent or genetic predisposition
  2. immersion in another culture
  3. youth
  4. an excellent memory

10 winning principles, attitudes and actions for effective and efficient language learning

Here are 10 of the best tips taken from the resources listed above:

  1. learning english cartoonFocus what is relevant to you – What do you need English for? Concentrate on learning the language that will allow you to do what you need to do.
  2. Urgency is a great motivator: you will learn the language quickly if you actually need to use it. Is the language already a necessary tool in your life?
  3. Listen a lot – Chris Lonsdale calls this “brain soaking” – expose yourself to the sound of the language as much as possible. What are you interested in that you can read about/ listen to in English? Watch your favourite TV series in English with English subtitles; listen to BBC 6 minute English (with the transcript if necessary); listen to TED talks with English subtitles.
  4. Tolerate ambiguity: be satisfied with the general sense of what you’re hearing or reading. When you UNDERSTAND the message, you will unconsciously ACQUIRE the language. Language learning is not about accumulating vocabulary and grammar rules. Focus on meaning not quantity. Understanding every word, expression or sentence is completely unnecessary for comprehension. While watching programmes in English, focus on getting the meaning first from body language, then from what they’re saying.
  5. Are you “English deaf?” To understand the sounds native speakers make in the language you’re learning and to pronounce them correctly, you might need physiological (pronunciation) training. You need to retrain the 43 muscles we have in our faces to produce the strange grunts and bat squeaks required. If your face is hurting you’re doing it right! If you’re trying to learn from watching and listening to a native speaker, copy their face, don’t listen and repeat.
  6. Your physical and mental state matters (like in sports). If you’re tense, stressed, sick, you’re not going to learn or perform. You need to feel well, relaxed and focussed to engage in language learning.
  7. readingReading is the best way to learn new vocabulary. CEO David Bailey, in describing how he taught himself French in only 17 days, managed to read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, a book he’d read as a child, in French. Reading books in the language you’re learning that you’ve already read in your mother tongue is a great hack to learning new languages. Knowing the story helps you to guess the meaning of new words and avoid using a dictionary.
  8. Writing things out by hand is the best way to memorize things. Write down the language you want to remember in a notebook. You don’t need to alphabetize it or do anything fancy. Write new words and expressions in sentences that provide context, so you can see what they mean when you read them again. Write difficult-to-pronounce words phonetically, underlining the accented or stressed part of the word.
  9. Listen and sing along to English songs. If you like listening to music in the car, shower or while running, listen to songs with lyrics that make you feel like singing along to them.  Music is a great way to learn the intonation of a language and train your facial muscles as you sing along. Beware: it’s more difficult to understand sung than spoken English, so you probably want to do it karaoke style the first time, and look up the lyrics and read along as you sing along.
  10. Learn the filler words. These are the words and phrases people say then all the time between sentences (well, actually, I mean, let’s see, etc.) but have no real meaning; allowing you to buy time in a conversation and increase your confidence.

This is the third in a series of posts on English language learning.


How to understand the sounds English speakers make – The Mysterious Case of the Disappearing “R”

10 fun facts about phonemes for Italian speakers of English

How to seduce the girl, kingdom or nation of your dreams – lessons from Shakespeare’s Richard III

It’s the summer of 2016, of Brexit and Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate. How did this happen?

If you know anything about combining a knowledge of human psychological weaknesses (our cognitive biases), with the darker arts of hypnosis and persuasion (like Scott Adams) – or you’re Italian, and have lived through 20 years of Berlusconi – you’ll be laughing at all the shocked expressions around you. In a knowing and pitying way rather than a happy way.

Shakespeare would not have been surprised, as he could have taken a PhD in “Human Nature, and How to Manipulate it”. To understand how the most unlikely characters can rise to power out of nowhere, look no further than Shakespeare’s Richard III, which describes the rise and fall of a ruthless, amoral despot.

Shakespeare’s Richard III – a complete work of fiction

richard iii

The real non-murdering, law-abiding Richard III

When Shakespeare wrote Richard III he took relatively recent historical events, (it was Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII, who took over the English crown from Richard III), and completely changed them to gain favour with Elizabeth I, and boost the legitimacy of the Tudor reign.

First of all, he turned Richard III into a psychotic supervillain. Richard III introduces himself in the play by confessing to the audience that he has just personally murdered King Henry VI and his son Prince Edward, and intends to make Prince Edward’s hot widow, Lady Anne, his wife. And this is all part of his plan to usurp the throne.

When Richard’s eldest brother, Edward IV becomes king, Richard has their brother, Clarence, falsely accused of treason. He has Clarence assassinated, and the King dies of a broken heart. Two-for-one result!

shakespeare's richard iii

Shakespeare’s Richard III

After marrying Lady Anne, Richard poisons her so he can focus on marrying his niece, Princess Elizabeth. And just in case they turn out to be a nuisance in the future, he has Elizabeth’s two young brothers, King Edward V and Prince Richard, killed. He also offs his allies and faithful minions, whenever they so much as hesitate to do Richard’s bidding.

And just in case Shakespeare’s Richard III’s actions weren’t abominable enough, Shakespeare made him ugly and physically deformed.

And how do we, the audience, react to Shakespeare’s Richard III?

We are enthralled. We laugh with him, applaud his can-do attitude, cheer his daring and thrill in the accomplishment of every dastardly deed. (Think Frank Underwood in House of Cards, or Walter White in Breaking Bad). We don’t mourn him when he dies, but, by God, he went down guns blazing, and he certainly got things done! There is obviously more to this character than just murdering anyone who gets in his way.

How Richard III gets away with murder

In the second scene of the play, Richard III shows us what he can do and why he gets away with it when he seduces Lady Anne, whose father and husband he has just murdered.

Richard III seduces Lady Anne:

  • by lying to her: he tells her he didn’t kill her husband and father, it was someone else, it was King Edward’s fault, ok, it was him;
  • by putting his moves on her when she is half out of her mind with grief, (this all happens in front of her husband’s fresh corpse). When she tells him he belongs in hell, he agrees with her but also that he belongs in her bed; when she spits in his face, he treats this like erotic foreplay (“Never came poison from so sweet a place”);
  • by blaming her for being so beautiful that he killed her husband and father out of love for her, then by pretending to cry, threatening to kill himself, challenging her to kill him, and, when she refuses, demanding that she wears his ring.

When you read this scene, you are in no doubt that she hates his guts for 97% of the exchange.

So how does Richard III take Lady Anne in the space of 15 minutes from “grieving, furious and physically repelled” to “betrothed”?

What he does is deliver a series of psychological slaps to the brain that would leave anyone reeling, defenceless and willing to agree with anything. Leon Festinger in 1956 defined cognitive dissonanceas the intolerable feeling – like mental asthma – we experience when we try and process conflicting thoughts. Our need for relief from the intense discomfort of cognitive dissonance makes us vulnerable to making stupid decisions, to holding onto factually disprovable opinions and to self-destructive behaviour [see how my mother made me gave up smoking].

the emperor's new clothes

The Emperor’s New Clothes – a tale of cognitive dissonance

Marketing and Sales people have long understood how to provoke and exploit the mental stress of cognitive dissonance to get us to make decisions we otherwise absolutely would not make. There’s a whole advertising and after-sales-care industry devoted to helping us manage our buyer’s remorse whenever we spend more than we can afford on luxury items (“Now I can’t afford to go on holiday, but my Dolce & Gabbana/ BMW/ gigantic iPad/ [insert overpriced/ obsolescent/ high-maintenance status-symbol here] makes me feel so badass!”).

What did Shakespeare know about cognitive dissonance?

He knew all about it, and here are some of the ways Richard III bamboozles Lady Anne into submission:

Lying to someone’s face, when there’s a mountain of evidence against you, produces cognitive dissonance:

Richard III: I did not kill your husband.

Lady Anne. Why, then he is alive.

Another way of creating cognitive dissonance is to “change the narrative”. We are wired to perceive anything presented in a story structure as the truth. Change the story and you change reality. When Lady Anne tells Richard III that he killed her husband, the best man on earth, he tells her she should be grateful he sent the best man on earth to heaven. That’s obviously where he belongs. And the best man died to make way for an even better man: Richard III.

Being offered two equally unattractive choices leads to cognitive dissonance:

Richard III: Take up the sword again, or take up me. [“Kill me, or marry me.”]

It turns out to be a short step from this manoeuvre to getting engaged. [Lady Anne: “Er … no?” Richard III: “OK. Then you have to wear my ring.”]

At the end of this scene Richard III turns to the audience and says:

Was ever woman in this humour woo’d? Was ever woman in this humour won? I’ll have her; but I will not keep her long.

[i.e. “Guys, bet you’ve never seen a girl pulled like that! She’ll do for now, but I’ve already got my eye on someone else.”]

What do Shakespeare’s Richard III and Donald Trump have in common?

donald trump

He did NOT just say that!

Psychologically, there seems to be a thin line between being appalled and being enthralled. Donald Trump and Richard III both stun their prey into submission by being outrageous – provoking cognitive dissonance. Our reaction to most of what they say is “He did NOT just say that!”. Here are some examples of classic Trumpisms:

  • “I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”
  • “I think the only difference between me and the other candidates is that I’m more honest and my women are more beautiful.”
  • “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!”
  • “My IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”
  • “The point is, you can never be too greedy.”
  • “My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth.”
  • “My fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body.”

Neither Trump nor Richard III make any effort to use reason to win people over, instead bludgeoning them with absurd and shocking affirmations – and then getting them to do what they want: marry them, crown them, vote for them.

How can you protect yourself from people who want to distract and exploit you?


“With great power comes great responsibility – NOT.”

Count to 100. Be the little boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes – a story ALL about cognitive dissonance – call out the outrageousness and break the spell.

Finally, remember that whatever Spiderman says, great power DOES NOT come with great responsibility, and you cannot trust these guys. Don’t wear their ring, make them king or vote for them.

This is the second in a series of posts about Shakespeare. I was asked by the British Council Milan to give a series of talks to mark Shakespeare’s 400th  anniversary, linking Shakespeare and his works to the world of business and to current events.

You can click here to see the first post, “How to give history-changing speeches: top tips from Shakespeare.”

How to understand the sounds English speakers make – the mysterious case of the disappearing “R”

Did you know there are nearly 3 times as many vowel sounds in English as there are in Italian?

Learning English - Lesson 72 - thOr that English has short and long sounds, like in “sit” and “seat”, which are hard for Italians to hear the difference between?

Or that English has diphthongs, like in “ear”, “hair”, and “home” that don’t exist in Italian? But that in the words “fruit”, “could” and “receipt” there are NO diphthong sounds?

Or that until recently it was possible to reach adulthood in Italy without EVER hearing English spoken by a native speaker, either on TV, at the cinema or at school? (Because EVERYTHING is dubbed in Italy …)

If you are an Italian speaker of English you may have problems understanding native English speakers – because English just doesn’t sound AT ALL like it should.

Also, if you pronounce English the way it’s spelled, you make it very difficult for people to understand what you’re saying.

So here is a 4-point checklist for pronouncing English more accurately, and for helping you understand spoken English.

The easiest way to correct your pronunciation assumptions is to listen to English while reading it at the same time, either from subtitles in films and TV shows, or with audiobooks, (some tips below). As you listen and read, watch out for the 4 pronunciation traps below:

Pronunciation trap 1: vowel and consonant clusters in English words

Are you sure you are pronouncing the words “early”, “mountain” and “favourite” correctly? You may be trying to pronounce all the vowel sounds, like you would in Italian.

“Early” is pronounced /’ɜ:li/, “mountain” is /’maun-tin/, “favourite” is /’fei-vrət/. In each case the vowel sound is very different from what you expect from the spelling.

Are you pronouncing the “i” in “fruit”, “suit”, “juice”? Please don’t:  /fru:t/, /su:t/ and /ʤu:s/

What about the words “success”, pronounced /sək-‘ses/, “access”, pronounced /’æk-ses/ “ignore”, pronounced /ig-‘nɔ:/, “scissors”, pronounced /’si-zəz/, and “exclude”, pronounced /iks-‘klu:d/? English pronunciation of consonants doesn’t follow the same rules as Italian.

How about ‘ancient’, pronounced /’ein-ʃənt/, which has both vowel AND consonant clusters?

Pronunciation trap 2: silent letters

Take the word “Wednesday”. This word, like many others in English, has letters that you don’t pronounce. It’s pronounced /’wenz-dei/. “Comfortable” is pronounced /kʌmf-tə-bl/. “Vegetable” is pronounced /’vedȝ– tə-bl/.

You don’t pronounce the /l/ in the words “half”, “calm”, “talk”, “walk”, “salmon”, “could”, “would”, “should”.

There is no /b/ in “climb”, or any /p/ in “cupboard” and “receipt”.

Pronunciation trap 3: intrusive vowel sounds

Can you say “equipment”, /i’kwipmənt/, without inserting a vowel sound between the P and the M, and possibly after the T, making it “equip-a-ment-a”? How about “Appartment”? Does /ə’pa:tmənt/, becomes “apart-a-ment-a”.

It’s difficult for native speakers of English to pronounce all of the consonants in these words as well, but we don’t introduce vowel sounds: native speakers will often not pronounce the consonant before the M, so it will sound like “equi-ment” and “appah-ment”.

This is one of those little things that has an enormous impact on other people’s perception of how well you speak English. If you can remember to eliminate these intrusive vowel sounds, your English will sound twice as good.

Pronunciation trap 4: The disappearing R in standard British English

The R is usually pronounced in some regional British accents, and in many American accents, so it’s fine if you want to pronounce all the R’s in English.

However, in standard British English pronunciation we mostly don’t pronounce the R when it appears after a long vowel sound or diphthong, or at the ends of words. “Warmer” is /’wɔ:mə /, “girl” is /gɜ:l/, “early” is /’ɜ:li/, “more” is /mɔ:/, “or” is /ɔ:/.

You don’t have to sound like a mother-tongue English speaker to speak good English and make yourself understood, but you might have to work with native speakers, and understand the strange, unpredictable noises they make.

And, finally, here are some online resources for listening to, and reading English at the same time. – Home to hundreds of talks on a multitude of topics. Most of the talks come with subtitles and interactive tapescripts. There is an app so you can watch and listen on your phone or tablet. Start with this one:

BBC 6 minute English – home to hundreds of 6 minute programmes about a multitude of topics, broadcast once a week, downloadable from the website, there is also an app. Presented by native English-speaking presenters, who speak clearly, and relatively slowly. There is always a glossary of words from the programme. – a website where you can watch movies and TV series with very good quality subtitles.

In my next post we will be looking at the importance of the stress in English words and sentences. If you liked this post, follow my blog to receive updates.

Read the first post in this series: “10 Fun Facts about Phonemes


How to solve all your problems at once – with Toastmasters

How can you make new friends, meet a life partner, articulate what you want to do, learn to sound like you know what you’re doing (even when you don’t) and start taking regular exercise?

solution to everythingIn 2002 I needed help with all of these things. I had just finished a distance MBA, which had taken me 3 years of non-stop studying while working. The MBA had inspired me to “go it alone” as a management consultant, and I had quit my job with no clear plans, financial resources, (MBAs are not cheap), contacts, or even friends, all the studying and working having turned me into quite the hermit, emerging from my cave pale, blinking, with atrophied muscles, barely able to speak, let alone make eye-contact.

All the things I tried …

I tried various things in Milan. I signed up for three six month evening courses in things like creative writing and life-drawing,  during which I did not learn the name of single co-student.

I joined a political association with about 30  members who met every week or two, to discuss things like how to get a new left-wing mayor elected for Milan (which we were influential in achieving). I learned the names of a dozen of my comrades, but was unable to join in most of the discussions due to a) not knowing what they were talking about most of the time and b) my inability to understand the rules of Italian-style communication (i.e. being too British to just jump in there and risk interrupting someone or repeating something someone had already said.)

music and movement

Now imaagine this with adults …

I did “Biodanza”, which was a bit like “music and  movement” from my primary school days, all pretending to be trees blowing in the wind but with more hugging, plus positive feelings and self-awareness. I learned a few more names at this one, and had an intense one-week serious relationship with a guy, who then became my first real friend in this ‘reconnecting with the human race’ process.


The solution to everything

Then I found Toastmasters, a club for people who want to improve their communication and leadership skills. I went, expecting to find a room full of boardroom-type men, and instead walked into “Shy and Incompetent Communicators Anonymous”. I had found my spiritual home.

Fast-forward to a year later, when I was asked to give a quick talk about Toastmasters to the Milan PWA. This is what I said:

“Toastmasters is a club where you learn to communicate with confidence and to lead responsibly. It was started by Ralph Smedley in 1924 in California, and now there are clubs all over the world.

How does Toastmasters work?

“You meet twice a month, and every meeting follows the same three-stage format: first, three or four people give short, 6-minute speeches, then there’s a part where people can be asked to improvise for one minute on a given topic, and finally there’s a feedback session, first for the speakers regarding their speech objectives, and then feedback for the whole club.

“What do you do, as a member? If you want to develop your public speaking skills, you can follow the 10-speech Competent Communicator programme. Each 6-minute speech practices one aspect of public speaking, for example, organising your speech, body-language, voice or using visual aids. You can follow the programme at your own pace, and with the full support of the other members who are there to give constructive and positive feedback.

A true story

“I’d like to tell you about something that happened to me recently that made me notice how much the Toastmasters programme has helped me. I work as a consultant, and a couple of weeks ago I was working at my client company in the UK, when John, the sponsor of  the change programme we are working on, decided to involve  me at the last

meeting picture

“Uh oh…. Why are they all looking at me?”

minute in a meeting. I didn’t know who the people were at the meeting, what the meeting was about, or what, exactly, I was doing there. I sat there for fifteen minutes and my mind began to wander. Suddenly, I heard, ‘… and it’s crucial that we get started with this as soon as possible, and I’d like to ask our consultant, Elena, what she thinks the next steps should be.’

“I did not panic. I am halfway through the Toastmasters programme, and now I know about sounding organised, and how important voice and body-language are. I breathed deeply, wrote down a few notes, looked everyone in the eye, and spoke. Afterwards John said to me, ‘Good job, Elena. I have no idea what you were talking about, but I liked the way you said it!’

“In conclusion, if you want to sound more confident and competent in challenging situations, Toastmasters can make a big difference.”

And, by the way, at Toastmasters I did solve all of the above-mentioned problems I had in 2002.


How to end your dysfunctional love affair – with cigarettes

smokingDo you believe in change?

I do, because on at least one occasion I have managed to. And in spite of the fact that apparently, however urgent the change that needs to happen is, we have just a one in nine chance of making it happen. In 1995 I managed to end my 15-year love-affair with cigarettes. Because my mother made me.

For the first fifteen years that I smoked my mother’s strategy for getting me to stop smoking was to say every time she saw me “When are you going to give up this disgusting habit? You know it’s going to kill you. And I know you’re just doing it to upset me.” All this achieved was that I stopped smoking around her, but would chain smoke to make up for lost time as soon as I got away from her.

In 1995 I was living in Poland, where a combination of managing an exuberant but inexperienced team of 15 young teachers and my inexperience in doing this had doubled my cigarette consumption, (i.e. I was now on 40 a day).. My mother sent me a couple of articles from The Guardian, one which suggested that people who smoke may have good, valid, rational reasons for smoking, and the other, a book review of Cigarettes are Sublime by Richard Klein. This was surprising, to say the least.

When your mother says smoking is cool …


Cigarettes are sublime

I called my mother, and she said to me, “I can understand why you smoke. You’d never have achieved everything you’ve done if you didn’t.” Then she said, “I’m testing a new theory that smokers should be appreciated, and not criticised, for how they manage their stress and anxiety levels.”

Have you ever heard something that made the neurons in your brain start rewiring themselves on the spot? Wait … what? First of all, my mother had never used the word “achieve” in relation to me, or anyone else.  And, secondly, I totally, SO could have done everything I’d done without cigarettes.

I gave up smoking for two reasons: first of all, I couldn’t tolerate the idea that I wouldn’t have achieved what I had without cigarettes; and secondly, because my mother had suddenly started appreciating my smoking habit and the achievements that came from it. And so, obviously, I had to stop smoking, just to annoy her.

What could be the science behind this?

cognitive dissonanceI remember learning about cognitive dissonance during my psychology degree when we were studying the placebo effect. The placebo effect is when you give a patient a sugar pill, and tell the patient that it will cure their symptoms, and the patient’s symptoms get better. Cognitive dissonance is when you give a patient a sugar pill and you tell them it will make them better, but also that it’s just a sugar pill; in this case patient’s symptoms still get better, in fact, cognitive dissonance makes the placebo effect even stronger. So the patient knows that the pill doesn’t do anything whatsoever, but agrees to take it anyway, and feels better.

How your brain deals with conflicting ideas

calvin cognitive dissonance

Calvin & Hobes from this great article

Holding two conflicting thoughts at the same time, like, “this is a sugar pill” and “the doctor says this will make me better”, or “smoking is bad for me” and “I’m an intelligent person who makes good choices”, creates an unpleasant feeling that Psychologist Leon Festinger in 1956 called cognitive dissonance. And when we have  conflicting ideas, and experience dissonance, we have two options:

  1. we either change our beliefs, attitudes, or behaviours – really, really, really difficult, a 10% chance of doing that
  2. or, 90% more often, we decide to minimise or ignore the information that conflicts with our beliefs.

As the economist, GK Gilbraith, said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

How to give smokers a hand

How does cognitive dissonance work with smoking? When we smoke, we know it’s bad for us and this is in conflict with our need to see ourselves as good, intelligent people who make good choices. So we smoke, obviously. Don’t bother trying to reason with smokers.

So if you want to help someone you love stop smoking, try and imagine the trade-offs they are making to get through the day, and appreciate them for how well they’re managing their complex lives – because they smoke. Appreciating people for who they are and what they’ve accomplished as a result of the choices they’ve made is a powerful way of reducing the unpleasant feeling of cognitive dissonance. And this reduction in stress might be enough to break out of the vicious cycle of feeling bad about smoking, and feeling bad makes you want to smoke, which makes you feel bad for smoking, which makes you want to smoke even more, etc.

What to replace smoking with

Finally, smokers, there are plenty of non-lethal things you can do to self-medicate to get through the challenges of every-day life.

You’ll need to find things that replace all the things cigarettes do for us, which include,



giving us something to do with our hands in social situations, socialising, meditation breaks throughout the day, and relaxing and prolonging pleasurable moments.

The solution: our smartphones. They look cool, give us something to do with our hands, something to talk about so we can break the ice and socialise, we can reclaim our meditation moments with cute baby animal videos (which research shows makes us happy and more productive), and we now we take selfies to commemorate those special moments.

I’d like to leave you with this question: who are you going to appreciate for having a successful life – because of their bad habit?


How to give history-changing speeches: top tips from Shakespeare

Why is “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” one of the most famous quotes of all time?

shakespeare twitterOne reason is that this line is a masterpiece of speech engineering.

Shakespeare is still relevant today, 400 years after his death, because he was a public-speaking genius who knew exactly how to use words to inspire people to do things. Good and bad.

9 Powerful Speech-writing techniques

While researching this idea, I found a checklist of nine techniques that Speechwriters today use to engage, seduce and bamboozle their audiences.

  1. Make your opening dramatic with a challenging question.
  2. Start your sentences with a verb.
  3. Use contrast.
  4. Use repetition.
  5. Use the rule of 3.
  6. Use metaphors and vivid images.
  7. Tell stories.
  8. Make historical and geographical references.
  9. Use humour.

Shakespeare used them all, but “To be or not to be? That is the question.” contains no fewer than  five out of the nine speech-writing techniques:

hamlet teenage tshirtTechnique 1: Make your opening dramatic with a challenging question.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 2.   Start your sentences with a verb.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 3.   Use contrast.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 4.   Repetition.

Repetition can take the form of repeating rhythms, sounds, and even pauses. But simply repeating the same thing, over and over again, is a powerful technique politicians use to make what they are saying sound true.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

Technique 5.  The rule of 3.

You should arrange information in threes (points or beats)  because

  1. We are wired to remember three pieces of information even more easily than one piece of information
  2. Information arranged in a list of 3 sounds like a story, with a beginning a middle and an end.
  3. Arranging what you say in this way has been shown to hypnotise an audience.

“To be, or not to be? That is the question.”

A speech that changed the course of history

hre0009_hi.jpgShakespeare used all 9 of these techniques throughout his plays. But Marc Anthony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius like a textbook demonstration of  three techniques in particular:  the rule of 3, contrast and repetition.

In this scene Brutus and his gang of senators have just assassinated Julius Caesar, because they thought Caesar was becoming too ambitious and a threat to democracy. Brutus has just delivered a competent, but pompous and professorial speech to the Roman people, more or less persuading them that Caesar’s death was in Rome’s best interests.

Then Brutus invites Marc Anthony, one of Caesar’s generals, to show his loyalty to Brutus by telling the Roman people why Julius Caesar had to die. This is in spite of Brutus’ confederates insisting this is a terrible idea (“Are you crazy? You’re inviting Marc “Tony Robbins” to speak after you? This is public speaking – and literal – suicide!”) In fact, Marc Anthony intends to incite the people of Rome to rise up and avenge Caesar’s death. But he has to do this while pretending to support Brutus’ actions.

How does Marc Anthony set about demolishing Brutus’ reputation, without seeming to?

First of all, he grabs the people’s attention with the rule of 3 and a few, well-chosen words: “Friends, Romans, Countrymen. Lend me your ears!”, in stark contrast with Brutus’ ponderous opening: “Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe;…”

Then, he uses contrast again. He reassures Brutus and the Roman people by telling them: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” And then he spends the next fifteen minutes praising Caesar.

Throughout the speech Marc Anthony repeats three main ideas, over and over again.

  1. that he, Marc Anthony, is a simple man, no good at public speaking and is just speaking from the heart, (a beloved technique of politicians like Berlusconi and Trump – the “I’m a man of the people” tactic);
  2. that yes, Caesar was ambitious, but he did many great things for Rome and the Romans, which Marc Anthony illustrates with plenty of examples, saving the best till last – Caesar’s will and bequests to the Roman people;
  3. but 3, that Brutus must have been right to kill Caesar because Brutus is an honourable man. We know Brutus is honourable because Brutus kept going on and on about honour during his speech.


Throughout the speech Mark Anthony repeats “But Brutus is an honourable man” no fewer than 10 times, contrasting Brutus’ honour with the powerful visual aid of Caesar’s still warm, dead body lying there in front of everybody in a pool of his own blood, covered in stab wounds, inflicted by Brutus and friends.

When Mark Anthony finishes his speech, sure enough, the people of Rome riot, civil war breaks out, and Brutus and his followers commit suicide. And we know that Mark Anthony (or Shakespeare) knew exactly what he was doing because at the end of his speech he says, to himself

“Now let it work. Mischief, thou art afoot”

(I have played my trick – now let it work)

So if you want to learn public-speaking techniques for inspiring people  – to do good, or bad – look no further than Shakespeare, the master of verbal manipulation, and especially how he uses the rule of 3, contrast and repetition.

In the next post in this series, we’ll be looking at Shakespeare’s most charismatic supervillain: Richard III, and how he exploits cognitive dissonance to get what he wants.

10 fun facts about phonemes for Italian speakers of English

Phonemic-ChartDo you want to reduce the impact of your Italian accent when you speak in English?

This is the first in a series of posts which aim to a) help you understand the mechanics of pronunciation, and b) give you some quick win strategies for reducing your accent when you speak in English.

In the same way you need to learn grammar to have a common language in which to discuss correct English usage, there is also a grammar of pronunciation to talk about producing the sounds of English.

This grammar of pronunciation can be divided into three main aspects that you need to focus on:

  1. Individual sounds: the individual sounds in a language, phonemes
  2. Connected sounds: e.g. where the stress (or accent) falls in words, the relationship (or lack of) between English spelling and sound, etc.
  3. Connected speech: how we pronounce words when we put them together in sentences

Here are 10 fun facts about phonemes:

Click here to see and hear the British Council’s interactive phonemic chart.

1) There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, but there are 44 sounds in British English. There are 31 sounds in the Italian language.

2) The sounds of a language are represented by symbols, like the normal alphabet. Some of the symbols in the British English phonemic chart are the same as the normal alphabet, like /r/, /s/, /k/, and some are different, like /ɔ:/, /əʊ/ and /θ/. The American English phonemic alphabet is very different from the British English one.

3) In British English there are 20 vowel sounds. In Italian there are 7 vowel sounds.

4) In British English there are 24 consonant sounds. In Italian there are also 24 consonant sounds, but they are often not the same consonant sounds.

5) There are sounds in the English language that don’t exist in Italian, such as /θ/ in “thin”, /ŋ/ in “doing”, /ɔ:/  in “more” and /ɜ:/ in “work”.

6) There are sounds in the Italian language that don’t exist in English, such as /ʎ/  in “aglio”, /ɲ/ in “lasagne”, /ts/ in“forza” and /dz/ in“zero”. If a sound doesn’t exist in your own language it can be hard to hear it.

7) We use about 72 different muscles when we speak. Each phonemic sound requires different muscles. If a sound doesn’t exist in your language, it can feel strange when you try to make that sound. This is because you use different muscle combinations.

8) We make different vowel sounds by varying the shape of our mouth. We make different consonant sounds with our tongue, teeth, lips, palate, nose and vocal chords.

9) Consonants can be voiced or voiceless. The only difference between the sounds /d/, as in “down”, and /t/ as in “town” is that our vocal chords vibrate when we make the sound /d/, and don’t when we make the sound /t/. It’s the same difference between the sounds /v/ and /f/, and /z/ and /s/.

Why is voiced or voiceless important? Because, for example,  in the Italian words “smalto”, “slitta” and “snaturato” you use the voiced /z/. In the English words “snail”, “slow” and “snap” we use the voiceless /s/. Try saying the Italian words and then the English words.

10) There are three types of vowel sounds in English: short, long and diphthongs.

There are  long vowel sounds in the words “car”, “seat”, “word”, “more”, (they have a /:/ after them)


There are short vowel sounds in the words “cat”, “sit”, “men”

Diphthongs are a combination of two vowel sounds: /ɔɪ/ as in “boy”, /eə/ as in “wear”, /ɪə/ as in “near” and /əʊ/ as in “home”.


Quick exercise: use an online dictionary to check your pronunciation

Go to and look up the definitions of the following words:

success, scissors, iron, comfortable, rarely, suit, thorough

success dictionary.jpgWhen you look up a word, at the top of the page you’ll see a phonemic transcription and a loudspeaker icon. Click the loudspeaker icon to hear the correct pronunciation of the word. The tiny ‘ symbol means you stress (or accent) the syllable after the symbol, so in “success” the stress falls on the second syllable.

Were you surprised by the pronunciation of any of the words? Was this helpful?

In my next post, I’ll be talking about the four pronunciation traps for individual sounds.

How to harness the power of superheroes – and supervillains

jamie oliverAre there people in your life, alive or dead, real or fictional, who just thinking about make you feel happy – or enraged?

I recently read “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” by Lindy West, who immediately shot to the top of my hero charts. She is a comic writer and activist, a combination I find irresistible: being a comic performer, journalist or artist requires great courage, perseverance and creativity, and if you can bring that to social issues that tend to make people switch their brains off and give up, and help people to change their minds and then act on those new perspectives, well, you’re my hero. Just thinking about her and the important social changes she has achieved makes me feel happy, energised and inspired.

On the other hand, there was a period 10 years ago when I was flying a lot, when thinking about Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, made me hyperventilate with fury. (This was when he was considering charging to use the toilet, and selling standing room only places on his flights, where passengers were already packed like sardines.)

How to pump up the energy

There’s a problem-solving technique I enjoy using with people who are managing change called Superheroes & Supervillains which involves accessing inner resources you didn’t know or forgot you had by thinking about people you admire – or who are the personification of evil for you. You identify your heroes and supervillains, living or dead, real or fictional, and list each of their characteristics and achievements, being as specific as possible.

For example, I admire Jamie Oliver, specifically, his curiosity, his endless experiementation, his enthusiasm for whatever he turns his attention to, and his cheerful  optimism and perseverance in the face of the many obstacles he encounters as a social activist, (for example, his mission to change the way schoolchildren eat).

My heroes include comedians (including this one), activists and cartoonists, (including this one),  journalists and writers. And Angela Merkel. Hero worship is a personal thing, and you need to identify who gives you that warm feeling.

My supervillains include white collar criminals, sociopathic CEOs (including this guy, and these) and politicians with scary influencing and persuasion skills.

Who are your superheroes and supervillains?

what would satan doIn the second part of this problem-solving exercise, you think of a challenge you are facing and ask yourself “What would [superhero or supervillain] do?” This can give you new ideas and insights into your situation.

This exercise is paricularly powerful with supervillains. I have done this exercise using Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair, whose attitude to customer care made my regular budget business trips a misery for years, but who is also a real out-of-the-box thinker and innovator.  Using supervillains forces you to adopt a point of view which (you assume and hope) is not your own, and this is likely to produce new ideas and insights about your situation.

Some national cultural differences

However, I’ve found the Superheroes part of the technique doesn’t work well with my Italian or French clients, whose cultures don’t not seem to feature hero-worship. My French and Italian clients often find it difficult to come up with people they admire.  This is what happens when I use this technique with French or Italians:

French or Italian client: “I don’t admire anyone.”

Me: “Oh, come on. There must be someone you admire.”

French or Italian client: “…”

Me: “What about, I don’t know, Steve Jobs? You’re a fan of Apple products.”

French or Italian client: “Steve Jobs was arrogant. I don’t admire him. I admire Apple products.”

Me: “Ok. What about Gandhi? Mother Teresa? Were they arrogant?”

French or Italian client: “… No …”

Me: “So, do you admire Gandhi? Mother Teresa?”

French or Italian client: “ … Ok. The person I admire is my mother.”

I swear, I have had this exact conversation on 10 different occasions.


In the end, whether the person you admire most in the world is your mother, Pope Frances or Tony Stark, just thinking about the people and characters you admire is likely to release a cocktail of happy hormones – endorphines, dopamine, seratonin and oxytocin – into your body. So just doing the first part of the exercise, listing your heroes, should bring you rewards. And thinking specifically about what your superheroes or supervillains would do if faced with your problem can produce new thinking and ideas and turn your situation around.