When you hear the word “vocabulary,” what comes to mind?
For me, the word vocabulary brings me right back to high school when all the vocabulary I needed was provided for me by my teachers.
I spent hours creating flashcards to memorize all the different words I needed to study for my Spanish class.
I’d review words one by one until I felt confident that I understood their meanings.
Vocabulary also makes me think of the pages and pages of academic words I had to memorize for daily quizzes in my English class.
In theory, this language was necessary to prepare us for college-level reading and writing in just a couple of years.
In reality, we practiced the vocabulary so that we could “prove” our high-level language ability on a standardized college admission test.
So you’ll forgive me if I voice an internal groan of annoyance and frustration when I start thinking about vocabulary.
As far as I’m concerned, the way we learned vocabulary as young students actually gave us some bad habits as adults.
For one, we expect our teachers to just give us a master list of essential vocabulary we need to speak English fluently.
We also hope that memorizing lists of vocabulary will eventually enable us to speak a language.
If you do a quick search on the internet, you can find lots of books, articles, and videos teaching you “50 Essential Phrasal Verbs for Business” or “1001 Most Useful English Words.”
But let’s be honest: it doesn’t work like that. Without context, these lists are just words.
There’s no magic bullet or quick and easy solution; learning professional vocabulary takes work.
Using Vocabulary to Sound More Professional in English
Consider this your fair warning: this is NOT a vocabulary lesson.
Instead, I’m going to help you sound more professional when speaking English by leveraging, or better using, the vocabulary you already have. (Did I just hear a sigh of relief?)
I challenge you to think differently about the words you’re using and find the most appropriate language to convey your meaning.
When you learn the vocabulary you personally need, you retain it so much better.
What Professional Language *Isn’t*
When you hear the term “professional vocabulary,” you may think that the language may need to be long, complicated, academic, or pretentious, but I’m happy to tell you that this is NOT the case.
In American English, professional language is conversational and relatable.
We prefer to use clear, simple vocabulary to communicate effectively and engage the other person in what we’re saying.
If you have trouble remembering or pronouncing longer words, this is excellent news.
In most cases, you can actually make do with the vocabulary you already have rather than finding bigger, more complicated words to express your ideas.
Nine Ways to Use Clear, Simple Vocabulary
In this article, I will describe nine ways that you can improve how you use vocabulary in professional, academic, and business settings.
These are tips to keep in mind when speaking, suggestions for simplifying what you’re saying, and reminders to avoid complicating your language.
- Choose a simpler word
- Stop relying on direct translations
- Avoid false friends or cognates
- Master the vocabulary most used in your field
- Be more descriptive and less vague
- Learn to rephrase your ideas
- Use less slang
- Don’t swear
- Learn common, conventional language and transitions
1. Choose a simpler word
Whenever possible in the professional setting, choose a simpler word to communicate your meaning.
Mark Twain, a beloved American writer, once said the following:
A “five-dollar word” is one of those long, complicated words that are sometimes difficult to pronounce.
The idea is that these words are more “expensive” because they supposedly show a higher level of education and knowledge.
Twain’s advice is to use a simpler word whenever possible so that you don’t complicate your language or sound pretentious.
As a non-native speaker, you may feel tempted to “sell” your intelligence or mastery of English with more advanced vocabulary. You don’t need to do this – Americans value simple, direct vocabulary.
For example, the words “use” and “utilize” have the same meaning. You should opt for “use” whenever possible to keep your meaning clear.
The word “utilize” has other connotations and a mechanical feeling, and you don’t want to sound like a robot! 🤖
When you use clear, simple vocabulary, you are more likely to connect to your listener and relate to them in an authentic way.
Avoid the temptation to impress native speakers with your language; focus on your ideas instead.
(If you do need to use longer words because they are the most appropriate words, especially in technical or conceptual fields, be sure to you know how to stress the words correctly and pronounce them well.)
2. Stop relying on direct translations
Non-native speakers at the intermediate level sometimes have the bad habit of relying on a translator, smartphone app, or Google Translate when they realize they don’t have the precise words to express an idea.
I want to encourage you to avoid direct translations. Here are two reasons why:
First, if you are in a professional setting and you need to pull out your smartphone to complete your thought, you actually disrupt the flow of conversation.
This will cause a long pause in a business meeting and can potentially make you look like you’re not capable of expressing your ideas in English.
If you are not able to find different words to clarify what you mean, it seems like you don’t have a strong vocabulary because you’re not able to keep the conversation going.
Native English speakers often forget words too, but we try explaining ourselves in several different ways until we remember the word or clarify our meaning.
The other reason that direct translations are a bad idea is that the translator often provides you with words are not always the most appropriate or most natural way to express your idea. In most cases, they’re the five dollar words I just told you to avoid! 💵
Instead of reaching for your translator the next time you are missing a word, think about how you can describe it using other words.
Explain how it is similar to or like something else, used for a particular activity, found in a specific situation, or used to do or achieve something.
If you are really serious about sounding more professional in English, challenge yourself to describe things you don’t immediately know the word for in different words rather than looking up the correct word in your dictionary.
You can walk around your home and practice describing different objects or find another way to describe certain concepts using feelings or situations when they come up.
Someone who sounds professional can find several ways to express the same idea.
3. Avoid false friends or cognates
Just as you want to avoid relying on direct translations, you also want to avoid “false friends” and cognates.
False friends are words that look or sound very similar in two languages but have very different meanings.
Cognates are words in two different languages that share similar roots and may have a very similar meaning in both languages.
You need to avoid false friends when speaking English because they may be somewhat similar, but they lack the nuances or cultural connotations of a more natural word choice.
You should avoid cognates for the same reason; they may not have exactly the same use in both languages.
For example, we use “actually” for emphasis in English; it does not mean “right now” or “currently” as in many Romance languages.
Moreover, cognates are often the “five-dollar words” you find in your translator and there is usually a a better way to describe the same idea in English.
In many situations, phrasal verbs are more commonly used and more precise than the cognates you may be relying on.
(I talk more about false friends and cognates in the third workshop in this free series on how to improve your vocabulary more naturally.)
4. Master the vocabulary most used in your field
When I work with my accent reduction clients, I often encourage them to start collecting a list of vocabulary words that are most frequently used in their field of work.
This is because you want to be sure you can pronounce the words that are most necessary in your workplace and express them with appropriate word stress.
To sound more professional, you also need to start listening more carefully to conversations that happen in your office, the language your colleagues use in business meetings, and the phrases and expressions that people use to convey certain tones and ideas.
When you pay more attention, you’ll pick up on the language you truly need to express yourself well.
As you gather this vocabulary, learn the meanings of these words and expressions
You’ll likely understand what they mean from context, but you want to verify your understanding before starting to use them.
I also suggest that you listen to podcasts focused on your particular field of study or work in order to start absorbing the language that is most commonly used to express certain ideas and concepts in English.
5. Be more descriptive and less vague
In American culture, we have an expression: “Time is money.” This is just as true in your speech as it is in the way you spend your time.
American professionals prefer precise, clear language to describe ideas and concepts rather than philosophizing on vague topics before getting around to the main point.
Just as in academic writing, you want your speech to follow a clear structure where you identify the direction you’ll go with your explanation, give supporting details, and then summarize what you said.
Being more specific does not mean that you need a perfectly appropriate word to describe an idea.
Instead, you want to describe precisely what you mean using clear images, feelings, actions, and goals rather than broader, more general concepts.
6. Learn to rephrase your ideas
Another way that you can be more clear when speaking English is to learn to rephrase, restate, or repeat your idea using similar words.
This has two purposes: one is to ensure that you listener really understands what you mean, especially if you are using technical words; the other is to emphasize your idea so that it really stays with your listener.
If you think you might have used a false friend or cognate that wasn’t appropriate, or that you may have pronounced a word incorrectly, rephrasing your idea in other words sounds more proactive than waiting for someone to ask you for clarification.
Emphasizing your ideas is a good idea to make sure that your message is incredibly clear.
This is especially useful when you may be discussing various ideas at the same time or when people could get distracted for a moment.
If you’ve watched my videos, you’ve probably noticed that I restate my ideas several times and vary my vocabulary to help guide you through my points.
7. Use less slang
An easy way to sound more professional in English is to use less slang.
Slang is casual, informal language that we use with friends or when meeting people in social environments, and it is generally not appropriate in the business setting.
When you start mastering English, you naturally start incorporating more slang words into your vocabulary.
It can be tempting to use them when you’re in a professional or academic setting, but slang is considered casual language.
You want to focus on conversational language that is relatable, approachable, and friendly, NOT casual language like slang.
Just like complicated, pretentious words, slang can make you sound like you’re trying too hard.
When you use slang inappropriately in the office, it is much more obvious that you’re not sure how to communicate your ideas comfortably.
As a reminder, phrasal verbs and idioms are not necessarily slang. Slang is language that is only used informally.
Some phrasal verbs and idioms are slang, but most phrasal verbs and idioms are perfectly acceptable in the professional setting.
8. Don’t swear
It may seem like native speakers swear all the time based on what you see in movies or on TV, but the reality is that we don’t, especially not in professional settings.
Like slang, swearing (otherwise known as cussing or using bad words) doesn’t sound professional in any circumstances.
Although you may hear a native speaker use a swear word here and there, I encourage you not to do so yourself.
As a non-native speaker, your accent is going to highlight the swear word and make it really stand out.
When I hear non-native speakers swearing, it sounds so much more obvious and affects my perception of the person.
For example, I recently watched a live video workshop on marketing run by two fluent non-native speakers, and although I was trying to focus on the content, I noticed that one of the speakers was swearing every other word.
It seemed like he was swearing for emphasis or to mask the fact that he was missing some more creative, interesting words in his vocabulary.
To be honest, my impression of this person was that he wasn’t professional even though he is a leader in his field, and I turned off the video because I found his constant swearing distracting.
Rather than swearing, find a more interesting adjective to enhance your message.
It’s better to avoid swearing entirely than to look for the very limited situations when it is appropriate.
9. Learn common, conventional language and transitions
Last but not least, an effective way to sound more professional when speaking English is to learn common, conventional words, phrases, and expressions that we use in the professional setting.
You want to learn the key expressions that we use to smoothly transition between topics, handle the flow of conversation, and show respect in business environments.
You can start by learning the transition expressions I describe here, including typical transition words and phrases that you can use in order to organize your ideas.
Since you will likely find yourself giving a presentation or leading a meeting or discussion, you will need to put your ideas in order using clear language.
Here are two common examples of conventional phrases that are important to learn and use:
- Please let me know if you have any questions.
- I look forward to working with you.
These expressions are very clear to native English speakers and signal the end of a conversation or an email as well as generate goodwill for the business relationship.
As you can see, there are several ways that you can improve the way you use vocabulary in order to sound more professional in English.
By learning how to leverage and better use the vocabulary you already have, you’ll make a stronger impact when you speaking.
From there, you can increase your mastery of words and expressions that are frequently used in your field, as well as the language used to achieve certain goals in business discussions.
Now it’s your turn! Which tip was most helpful for you? Where are you going to focus your attention on first? Let me know in the comments!