LSP Article: Vocabulary & Executive Success
It is generally recognised that when someone has an extensive vocabulary they are more able to explain themselves and communicate with greater accuracy and clarity. Yet, does this advantage extend to career advancement and earning potential? Does having a richer vocabulary change the way we think and reason, thereby improving our cognition?
Research by Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego, has shown that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently about similar matters. Linguistic relativity is currently a much debated topic in cognitive science; the principle basically holds that the structure of a language shapes and influences a speaker’s world views. Also termed the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, linguistic relativity argues that language is not just an instrument for reproducing ideas or concepts, but in itself shapes and influences ideas and determines our own perception of reality. An increased vocabulary may not impact fluid intelligence, but does crystalline intelligence. An improved vocabulary is correlated with increased general knowledge as it necessitates greater reading and comprehension of matters, whether social, political, factual or aesthetic. Chomsky’s transformational grammar theory is also important in our understanding of vocabulary because it relates to the choice of words. The basis of transformational grammar is simple: changing words changes our feelings and mental state so the order and choice of words is fundamental to message delivery and persuasion.
How we express ourselves shapes our world view and how we evaluate others. Most importantly, it affects our self-esteem. As it takes only a few seconds to make a first impression, what you say and how you say it matter. Therefore, the quality of your vocabulary and its usage in the correct context is a vital element of executive presence and success. The structure, expressivity and fluidity of your language are fundamental to how you are perceived and the impression that you make.
While conducting research into aptitude testing during the 1930s, John O’Connor, an American psychometrician, stumbled across an interesting finding. He found evidence that a person’s vocabulary was the best measure for predicting occupational success. Earl Nightingale, the American motivational speaker and writer, re-visited O’Connor’s work in the 1960s and represented it to a new generation of Americans, focusing on the link between vocabulary and occupational success. This link is still relevant today, especially for those who negotiate, influence and persuade others for a living.
Try and sell directly to someone over the phone or in person and they are likely to recoil in horror or signal that it makes them uncomfortable; the days of door-to-door slick salesmen have gone. Customers want free advice or content that somehow informs them or provides some advantage. Given the demise of the direct sale, more sophisticated, subtle approaches are required in which executives need to persuade and influence someone into action or thinking. This approach requires a more extensive and finer vocabulary that puts the reader/listener at ease and unconsciously nudges them towards making a decision about a product or service. In a Twitter generation, brevity has become the norm so it is vital that the right words are selected for impact.
According to the Global Language Monitor (GLM), there are just over 1 million words in the English language, the corpus of which grows daily. Mark Ettinger of UC Berkeley, however, points out that arguing about the total number of words in the English language is fraught with difficulties because it is very difficult to determine what counts as a word. Whatever the reality, English is the lingua franca of the modern world, especially commerce. Being well-read is one thing, but being able to select the right word that connotes the right sentiment and meaning is what really counts. Words make a difference. For example, describing an argument as “deficient” sounds and impacts more strongly than referring to it as “poor” or “weak”. A richer vocabulary also enables executives to be more diplomatic and subtle during conversation or when communicating through emails, thus improving their social intelligence. In essence, the more extensive your vocabulary, the richer you are likely to be, not just intellectually and socially, but also in pecuniary terms. Multiple exposures to words through reading helps build vocabulary; as vocabulary develops, crystallised intelligence improves, and in effect, you become smarter. So the message for any aspiring executive is simple: one should read not only for knowledge, pleasure and keeping oneself current in politics, geopolitics or business, but also to improve the way one thinks and how one connects ideas and concepts.
Executives should indulge in “deep” reading, whereby one reads in a deliberate manner that enhances comprehension and reflection. When someone is really enjoying or concentrating on a text, an almost trance-like state can be reached whereby external distractions go unnoticed. Many may have experienced reading deeply on a train or bus and as a result missing their stop. Superficial scanning, in which so many us today engage, does not register detail and without attention, full comprehension becomes more difficult. People are reading more, but cursory, web-based reading does not expand vocabulary. This practice may reflect the busy demands of the Twitter generation, but it does not really help executives improve their communications skills. So, executives be warned, trying to communicate in a limited number of words is indeed limiting!
Estimates of an average person’s vocabulary vary considerably from 20,000-35,000. A well-educated and widely read person may have a vocabulary in excess of 50,000 words, but most of the methods used to calculate this figure have their own limitations.
The words that we use day-to-day make up our active vocabulary, whereas our passive vocabulary includes all the words that we have come across over time, but rarely use. There is a critical window of development in acquiring a vocabulary; younger children, especially from the age of five onwards, pick up words daily at an incredible rate and absorb and assimilate them into their cognitive lexicon.
Owing to the neuroplasticity of our brains, adults can keep improving the range of the vocabulary, but usually at a slower rate than children, especially when learning a new language. But adults can still easily learn and assimilate dozens of new words daily through general reading or through deliberately making a point to learn new words from a dictionary or other source. Reading fiction is probably more helpful in improving one’s vocabulary simply because fiction tends to use a wider range of words. The following authors (in no particular order) are not only great novelists, but also display an impressive vocabulary in their works:
- James Joyce
- Thomas Hardy
- Jonathan Swift
- Vladimir Nabokov
- Charles Dickens
Other ways to improve your vocabulary include buying a good dictionary or a thesaurus. The Chambers Dictionary and the Chambers Thesaurus are good practical references to get started. Reading quality newspapers and journals such as the Financial Times, Guardian, Telegraph or the Economist also helps. Technical journals, such as Scientific American or online open-source research papers in social sciences are all useful places to explore new words. When one comes across a new word, it is important to make a note and ensure that you comprehend its full meaning and the context in which it can be properly used.
Benefits of a wider vocabulary
People judge you intellectually by the way you speak and more importantly by the complexity and accuracy of your diction and syntax. One must not only build up a vocabulary, one must also use the right words at the right time and in the right context. A broad spectrum vocabulary has the following advantages:
Communication becomes more accurate and precise, allowing you to select a more appropriate word and improve meaning. Although somewhat counterintuitive, having a more extensive vocabulary makes your communication more concise and accurate, and therefore simpler. Why use a number of words to explain a concept, when one will suffice?
- It enables more subtle and diplomatic communication and message delivery
- It improves the speed at which you construct ideas and allows faster expression of thoughts
- It improves self-confidence and esteem, and vocalisation of ideas
Examples of useful words to add to one’s vocabulary (in no order):
The famous management guru, Peter Drucker, wrote a number of articles about what makes an executive effective. Drucker was clear about the importance of communication and clarity of message. When someone is limited in their lexicon, they can struggle to express themselves in a manner which best conveys the message. The plague of modernity is complexity and, in order to cut through complexity, executives need to be as concise and cogent as possible in their explanations, which requires a broad vocabulary. So, if you want to improve yourself as an executive and want to get noticed, then start reading more widely and make a deliberate effort to learn at least four new words a day. The benefit is that you start to articulate and write in a manner that is simple and fluid yet conveys the essence of an issue with clarity and precision – your lexicon becomes a vital weapon in your armoury of influence and persuasion.