Published: September 3, 2010
Jennifer Selby Long, Selby Group
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How to Sound as Smart as You Really Are

In my many conversations with well-educated professionals, I often find that those who have the best use of language enjoy an advantage over others. This takes effort, and has little to do with natural talent.

Be sure to look up what phrases mean before you use them, seek out new words to help your vocabulary become more robust and precise, and avoid using the same phrase over and over. An example would be always stating your conclusions by saying, “At the end of the day…” which adds no value whatsoever.

Mind your “but’s” and “and’s” along the way. Sloppy conversationalists use the word “but” when they really mean “and.” The word “but” should be used to contrast or show opposition, not to link. The word “and” should be used to link. If there’s no reason to contrast the two thoughts, use “and.”

For example, “I want to make a difference, but the company is big.” Those two thoughts aren’t in contrast to one another, unless no one has ever made a difference at a big company. More accurate: I want to make a difference and the company is big.”

Oh, So That's How it WorksBy accurately using language, you would now also notice a gap in your thinking, because you’ve unearthed your assumption that no person has ever made a difference at a big company.

In fact, the deconstruction of language is one of the handiest tools in my toolkit. It provides me with insights into assumptions that the speakers often don’t realize they are making. I learned how to do this in graduate school, but rest assured that you do not need a graduate degree to do this accurately. Just start doing it. Listen closely and ask questions about what the speaker means.

Lastly, be sure you understand and accurately use these commonly butchered colloquialisms:

  • When referring to bringing in new people with fresh ideas, we are not seeking fresh blood, we are seeking new blood. Fresh blood implies a lioness eating her kill, or a vampire. Gross.
  • Businesspeople should rarely flush out anything. Besides the obvious allusion to a toilet, this phrase is a hunting term (there's that fresh blood again). It's what hunters do to scare birds out of their hiding places. Unless you're doing an investigation into corporate corruption, don't use the term flush out. The term you probably want is "flesh out," which means to add more depth and detail.
  • One never has a brainstorm. It's a verb. One has ideas while brainstorming, but the ideas themselves are just ideas, not brainstorms of their very own. Eventually this word will make it into the vernacular as a noun, but for the time being, business people should use it only as a verb.


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