by CIO Staff

Million-Dollar Diction: Tips for Expanding Your Vocabulary

Dec 01, 20064 mins

When people want help solving the Sunday crossword puzzle or crafting a sophisticated presentation, they don’t rush over to the IT department. The average information technology worker is so seldom asked for 10-dollar SAT words that he probably doesn’t bother to keep that part of his mental warehouse particularly well stocked.

That could be a problem. Even in IT, you need to cultivate an advanced, nuanced vocabulary if you want to get ahead. Why? First of all, your higher-ups think you should. The Johnson O’Connor Foundation, which researches people’s aptitudes and abilities, asked company presidents and managers if they thought vocabulary building was useful for advancement in the business world and important in executive work. More than 97 percent of the respondents said yes to both questions. Another study, published in 1990, suggests the better one’s vocabulary, the higher the level of job one can attain.

Secondly, with so much of the CIO role today given over to communicating with sundry stakeholders, current and aspiring IT executives need to use words effectively to influence other executives, sell strategies to the board and relate to their staffs. “When you can explain what you do and why it is important,” says Shelly Carlson, manager of Powerful Speech, a Chicago-based executive coaching firm, “your colleagues and clients will listen to you.”

And it’s not because big words make you sound smart. It’s because having a wide variety of words to choose from—in conversation, on paper, in a presentation—means you’re more likely to find exactly the right one to communicate your thought. The more precise you are about what you think, the stronger your message.

Here are a few quick ways to make new words work for you:

Learn how to learn words. Read more, and read a wider variety of sources. Keep a dictionary handy and look up unfamiliar words. Use mnemonic devices to help you remember them. “When you see a new word, connect it to something you know,” says Renee Mazer, creator of Not Too Scary Vocabulary, a CD aimed at helping teens and adults improve their vocabulary skills. Take the word “draconian.” Mazer points out that it looks like Dracula. “Think of someone who’s harsh and severe,” she says. “He wants to suck your blood. He’s a tough guy.”

Think about how you are using language generally, not just individual words. Good words alone won’t help you if you don’t use them to their best advantage. Steve Heckler, a Los Angeles-based executive coach and IT consultant, says he encourages IT executives who make presentations to “think it out, which sometimes means writing it out, and speaking it out loud so you have a sense of, ‘How does it sound, to me? Is it credible, is it accurate, is it complete?’”

Know your audience. Choose words that everyone you are addressing will understand and, more importantly, respond to. How much of a technical background do they have? What kind of information do they need? “Tell them what they need to know using the most concise words,” says Carlson. “Are you talking to the sales staff or fellow engineers?” The most successful executives, she says, do two things well in every meeting: “They know exactly what they want that specific group to do when they leave the meeting, and they inspire them to do it.”

The key to success is credibility, says Heckler, and to be credible you need to be articulate. “Being inarticulate makes you appear sloppy, as if you were a sloppy dresser,” he says. “The inference is that your thinking is sloppy.”