Paraphrasing: A Key Speaking Skill

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Having discussed the importance of listening in a previous post, we should also discuss the art of speaking since these two things are the essence of face to face communication. In this post, I would like to deal with the subject of paraphrasing. The ability to paraphrase is a most important speaking skill, so let’s consider what paraphrasing actually is and how we can use it effectively.

If you wanted to obtain an English version of some ancient text, like the Bible or the Koran, at the bookstore you would be faced with the matter of having to choose between purchasing a translation or a paraphrase. So what’s the difference? A translation attempts to choose the best equivalent English words to represent the original text as closely as possible whereas a paraphrase attempts express the meaning of the text as clearly as possible. This might sound like we are splitting hairs, but that small difference in intent often results in very different renditions of the original ideas.

We might say that paraphrasing is making the effort to communicate in the language of the target audience and good communicators always make the effort to do this. Whenever we attempt to communicate something, we should first think about the intended audience and then deliberately make subtle adjustments in the way we use language in order to clarify meaning and give our message the best chance of coming across clearly. The decision as to what terms and style to use should always be dictated by the intended audience; that is the essence of paraphrasing.

So, whilst engaged in conversation, we need to train ourselves to listen to how ideas are being expressed by the other person. We need to notice the way language is being used and do our best to adopt the same style and terms, as far as that is possible. An example of this in practice might be deliberately avoiding technical terms, despite having access to a specialist vocabulary, when dealing with non-technical people in customer service situations. This adjustment of language should not only apply to the avoidance of specialist terms when the other party does not share the vocabulary, it is a general principle that applies to all aspects of language. However, the example is very easy to understand.

Here are a few examples of paraphrasing that I sometimes use in my workshops:

In the absence of the feline, certain small rodents will give themselves up to various pleasurable pastimes. (anon)

Here is a paraphrase of the above text:

While the cat’s away, the mice will play.

Here’s another:

A plethora of culinary specialists vitiate the liquid in which a variety of nutritional substances have been simmered.

And here’s a paraphrase:

Too many cooks spoil the broth.

One last one:

An ignoramus and his lucre are readily disjoined.

And a paraphrase:

A fool and his money are soon parted.

N.B. Unfortunately, I am unable to find out who actually wrote those beautiful pieces of verbose text. They appear in many places across the web but sadly without proper credit. If anyone does know, I would be really grateful if you would leave a comment below.

Of course, those examples are all very good fun, but they do also illustrate what paraphrasing is about. In effect, some people – especially those with a good command of the language – are sometimes tempted to construct their messages in such a way that, whilst their sentences are grammatically correct, they can also be almost impenetrable.

When someone signals that they do not understand what we have said, it is a sound NLP principle to remember that it is our responsibility to help them to understand. Poor communicators do not do this. They simply repeat their messages verbatim, with no adjustment at all, perhaps a little louder or perhaps a little slower, because the other person is obviously thick (such is implied). Poor communicators might ask: what is the problem; don’t you understand English? Good communicators change their approach; they paraphrase their words and they get the message across.

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