If you were under the impression that cramming for the SATs was the last time you'd ever have to worry about vocabulary, you're mistaken. In interviews, the words you use are often viewed as related to your level of education and general aptitude.
Whether you're applying for your first postcollege job or trying to break into the executive ranks, it may be your vocabulary -- the subject you first encountered somewhere back around third grade -- that seals your fate.
Why Vocabulary Matters
"I think it's one of the major reasons why an individual gets hired or not," says Tom Defillipo, a 15-year veteran of a recruiting business that places IT candidates. "Very often, clients will ask us to qualify people on their ability to communicate verbally."
This doesn't mean you should try to grandstand by using fancy words for the mere sake of demonstrating your intelligence. "Some people use highbrow, academic vocabulary words, where you have to almost build a sentence around the word," says Greg Ragland, cofounder of Executive Vocabulary. "Then a lot of people give you a blank stare when you use it, and you have to explain what it means. That's not going to get you anywhere. You can be called out really easily if you use a word you're not comfortable using. You have to be really comfortable using a word and feel comfortable other people will understand it."
Improve Your Vocabulary
Ragland suggests focusing on "power words." He and his partner spent years compiling a list of power words they had heard executives use effectively during meetings. Ragland says there are many powerful expressions and words people have in their passive vocabularies, or the pool of words people know and understand but tend not to actually use themselves. He suggests trying to make the leap to incorporating these words into your active vocabulary -- words you can use comfortably and confidently.
"If you're using words that are in most people's passive vocabularies or can be understood when used in context by most business professionals, people will take note of the word and be impressed," says Ragland. He says the intellectual imprint you make on an interviewer through your vocabulary happens both on a conscious and subliminal level.
Ragland suggests that when job seekers are prepping for an interview, they should "look at words they think will describe their experience or their desire for the job and find ways to lace them into anecdotes about their past experience, schooling or whatever value they're going to bring to the position."
Ted Corcoran, former president of Toastmasters International, agrees a person's vocabulary serves as an informal barometer of that person's intelligence. "Certainly, the more educated you are, the better constructed the sentence, the more descriptive the words you use, the less verbal crutches you use, like ‘like', ‘you know' and ‘um,'" he says.
"People with a wide range of words can find the right word at the right time," Corcoran says. "And they can more succinctly make their arguments. There's nothing worse than people trying to explain something and not finding the words or the grammar to do it."