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Watch What You Say

When you open your mouth, do you drive away business?

Ask any English professor or business communicator, and you'll receive the same answer: Whether you're speaking to the public or chatting with an investor or vendor over lunch, the quality of your vocabulary affects your company's bottom line.

It's not surprising that grammarians and business experts don't recommend botching the language to the point where you interchange the words good and well. "It isn't uncommon, even at fairly high levels of business, to find people who have never been told they're using improper grammar," says Suzanne Bates, president and CEO of Bates Communications, a consulting firm that helps executives and professionals improve their speaking style. "Even if people aren't telling you you're using incorrect grammar, people are evaluating you, and often concluding you're not intelligent," says Bates, author of Speak Like a CEO: Secrets to Commanding Attention and Getting Results.If you consider yourself educated and articulate, you have cause for concern, too. People can come to the same conclusion--that you're an idiot--if your vocabulary comes off as too erudite.

"Amazingly, many otherwise sharp professionals are unaware of the need for down-home language," laments Bill Lampton, author of The Complete Communicator: Change Your Communication , Change Your Life! and founder of Championship Communication in Gainesville, Georgia. "They use 75-cent words when their customers would prefer 10-cent words that get the meaning across without confusing or annoying listeners."

Another frequent offense is sprinkling conversation with industry jargon that consumers or other laypeople can't understand. "Simple words work best," says Lampton.

Imagery is also important, says Alan Fox, whose vocabulary novel, The Seeker in Forever, is being released this May. "Communication that fires imagination is best," says Fox. "The best business talkers speak in plain talk that arouses one image after another." For instance, he points out that the word assault is loaded with imagery. Then try imagining the visual cues after using the word implementation.

Worried that you're an offender? There are warning signs, says Bates. If you deliver a speech, and people don't ask questions or come up to you afterward to talk, you may be using vocabulary that's jargon-heavy, stilted or too academic. Bates says, "When you speak plainly and people get it, they consider you smarter than a person who speaks with jargon."

If you have a problem, realizing it is half the battle. The other half is fixing it, and Bates recommends finding a trusted advisor who can take you aside and point out places where you're losing people because of too much industry jargon, inane business-speak or bad grammar. It can be tough to fix, especially if it's a case of bad grammar, concedes Bates, "because that's ingrained in us." But she says if you really want to change, you can.

"It's important to adapt, but you need to be authentic," she adds. "If you're from Boston, you don't want to start throwing out 'y'all' to someone you meet from Charleston, [but] if you're from the South, there's nothing wrong with saying 'y'all.' It's a colloquialism, it's authentic, and people know the difference. You have to remain true to yourself."

But one thing is for sure: No matter what people tell you, talk isn't cheap.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the March 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Let's Talk Shop.

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