How and why to expand your vocabulary

Your power to convince and inspire is as boundless as the words you use. Why settle for bland bromides when you can electrify your audience with stirring phraseology?

“You talk to your kids like that?” asked a friend who overheard a conversation I was having with my then 5-year-old son.

I wasn’t bad-mouthing him or saying anything critical. I spoke to him as I would speak to anyone—using the words I would normally use. My friend was baffled, because I didn’t simplify my vocabulary to “speak at his level.”

That’s when I realized that I really had become my parents. Though I felt differently then, today I have a fond appreciation for my parents’ commitment to expand my vocabulary, even when that meant spending summers looking up 10 new words a week and assiduously using them until the next batch of words came up the following week. But I digress …

A vivid vocabulary makes you stand out.

Rather than come across as banal or humdrum, you’re interesting and thought-provoking. People’s ears perk up. They lean in. Curiosity unexpectedly takes over and they want to know more. You’re like hot coffee getting thrown in the face—in a good way (if that’s possible).

The point is, suddenly people listen. Your words wield the power to inform, influence and incite. Those power words:

  • Grab the attention of your listener. An appropriately placed, out-of-the-ordinary word spoken at a key moment can break through the verbal clutter most of us are used to hearing. For example, instead of using the well-worn word “great” try this: “Have you noticed the sagacious financial decisions Joleen makes?”
  • Shift the conversation. Every organization has its own vocabulary—from codified acronyms to words that embody the corporate culture. When you’re sitting in a meeting, it’s hard to avoid office clichés like, “C’mon people! We need an idea that will disrupt the status quo.” Meh. Then one day, someone uses a word that changes the way people feel about the problem or issue, “We already have some nascent ideas on the table. Let’s keep going. We’re close to landing on the idea we want.”
  • Make a favorable first impression. First impressions are made in seconds. Before a single word falls from your lips, you’re being sized up, measured and judged. Then, you speak—demonstrating your strong command of the language—and people see you as both fascinating and intelligent. More important, Seth Godin reminds us that your vocabulary reveals the way you think. First impressions aside, the way you think matters-especially when you’re leading others.

A word of caution

Your goal isn’t to become a verbal machine gun. Don’t allow linguistic hubris to make you into a leader who pompously spews words that no one understands.

As with all communication, use restraint and introduce vivid vocabulary strategically. Otherwise, you risk creating resentment and alienating the people you had hoped to win over.

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What are some of your unexpected words you pepper into your conversations?

Michele Richardson is the founder of Inciteful Communications. A version of this article originally appeared on the Inciteful Communications blog.

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