8 Ways to Instantly Sound More Professional
Last Updated: Oct 11, 2016
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Whether you’re sending a routine work email or chatting with people at a networking event, you want to appear as polished as possible. Why? When you come off as smart and thoughtful in professional situations you become more of an asset to those around you, making you more likely to land that new gig, encourage your boss to see your point of view or make some important industry connections. Fortunately, sounding more professional isn’t that hard: We consulted the experts to find out some easy tricks for refining both your written and verbal communication skills. Here are eight things you can start doing today that will make you seem more seasoned and sophisticated in work settings and beyond.
KNOW WHEN TO USE ME, MYSELF OR I
Many people tend to replace “me” with “myself” or “I” because they think it sounds smarter. But using the wrong word to try to elevate your language will only backfire. “The one grammar mistake that makes you sound like you’re only pretending to be smart is the misuse of ‘I’ for ‘me,’ says Dr. Marlena Corcoran, founder and CEO of Athena Mentor, who has spent more than a decade advising college and MBA applicants how to sound smarter. “For example, the following sentence is wrong: ‘Vice President Kamali congratulated Susan and I.’ The trick with this grammar rule is to get rid of the first object (in this case Susan) and test it out. You wouldn’t say: “Vice President Kamali congratulated I.” So instead say or write: ‘Vice President Kamali congratulated Susan and me.’” Writer and public relations strategist Drew Plant adds that you should probably stop using “myself” entirely, especially as a replacement for “me.” “It is tough to use correctly, and it almost never is when you do use it,” he says. “You’d do best just to banish it from your personal lexicon.”
USE SPECIFIC, DESCRIPTIVE WORDS
Avoid using adverbs — especially “very” — by using stronger words that more specifically convey what you mean, particularly if you can do so in fewer syllables, advises Igor Kholkin, a senior hiring manager at a large digital agency. “‘Very’ is a lazy adverb that diminishes the writer’s perceived intelligence,” he says. “Professionals should use words that highlight the depth of their vocabulary. For example: Use ‘vulgar’ instead of ‘very rude’ and ‘destitute’ instead of ‘very poor.’” That said, you should never use language you’re not familiar with just for the sake of writing or saying a supposedly more impressive word, warns Colin T. McLetchie, a former HR executive who now owns a leadership, life and career coaching company. “Using bigger words and more complex phrases, especially when they’re not in your everyday vocabulary, may sound either pretentious or like you’re stretching beyond your abilities,” he explains.
Filler words like “amazing” are generic terms that lack imagination, says brand consultant CJ Johnson. Mark Lee Ford, CEO of The Moneo Company, which provides leadership training, agrees, noting that these words tend to crop up a lot in introductions and small talk — and they almost always sound forced. For instance, let’s say you meet someone who mentions that he works in Tokyo. Your instinct might be to respond with something vague like, “Wow! That’s absolutely amazing!” But rather than “filling the air with expressions of contrived interest,” he says, which are insincere and awkward, be genuinely enthusiastic. Refrain from saying something is “amazing, “incredible” or “awesome” — those words tend to be used when you’re nervous or don’t know what else to say. Be more descriptive about why something piques your interest. Revisiting the Tokyo example: Perhaps ask the person why he moved there or what’s his favorite thing about the city instead of dishing out ambiguous praise for his life choice.
USE DECISIVE WORDS
According to decision coach Nell Wuflhart, sounding more professional often depends on using words that won’t leave things open to interpretation. “Using terms that sounds wishy-washy convey that you’re indecisive and unsure of yourself,” she says. To sound smarter and more professional, she recommends using terms that convey decisiveness, such as “absolutely” and “definitely.” Jennifer Thomé, author of “Don’t Smile at the Monkeys: Seven Rules Women Need to Survive and Thrive in the Corporate Jungle,” agrees, advising that people stay away from pejorative prefacing agents, such as “I think” and “I feel.” “These immediately detract from your message, which should be clear and straightforward,” she says. “Your boss might not care what you ‘think,’ but she does want to hear your plan.” The bottom line, as Bruce Harpham, founder of leading career-advice website ProjectManagementHacks.com, puts it, is this: “If you don’t believe in what you’re writing or saying, then you need to do further research.”
INCREASE YOUR IMPACT VIA SENTENCE STRUCTURE
Sentence structure is another place people unconsciously lessen their impact, Thomé says. For instance, most people ask for things by stating that they need something in order to accomplish a task, which can be off-putting. “Instead of saying, ‘I need a 20 percent increase in my budget so I can complete the project,’ state that you will complete the project — the more detailed you can be about the resulting benefits, the better — and that you can accomplish these things with a budget increase of 20 percent,” she says. “Sell them on the idea before asking them to pay for it.”
DON’T BE “SORRY”
Women in particular tend to struggle with apologizing even when the occasion doesn’t call for it — far more often than men do, according to a 2010 study — which can make you appear weak and less polished. Workplace psychologist and executive coach Christine M. Allen, Ph.D., says that, as a general rule for appearing more professional, you should only apologize if you have actually made a mistake. “Don’t use ‘I’m sorry that’ as a general way of speaking,” she advises. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry you were ill,’ it’s better to say, ‘I am so glad you are back on your feet.’”
START AND END EVERY EMAIL THOUGHTFULLY
When you’re writing an email, taking the time to craft a compelling subject line can make you stand out — and keep you out of the recipient’s trash folder, says Rachael Bozsik, CEO and founder of The Brand Girls, which provides confidence-building and personal-branding workshops for college women. “Put yourself in the shoes of the reader: Is this email something you would want to open?” she asks. “One of my clients wanted to work for a social PR agency, so her email subject line [to potential employers] read: ‘How I can help you streamline your social engagement.’ Do not simply say “Job Inquiry.” Make it something attention-grabbing, not one-size-fits-all.” Likewise, it can come off less professional when you always have the same standard end to your emails, McLetchie says. “If your email signoff is ‘All my best,’ and I see that every time you send me an email, then I know that it’s a default and it loses its impact. It begins to feel cheesy,” he explains. Instead, end each email appropriately, based on context and the relationship you have with the person to whom you’re writing.
In the end, trying to sound smarter or more professional could end up making you sound anything but, Plant warns, if you’re outright faking an over-the-top refined persona. “More often than not, trying to sound erudite backfires,” he says. “A faker is only going to fool other fakers, and that’s not who you need to win over.” So, when in doubt, speak — and write — as simply as possible. “This way people will focus on your ideas and reactions and approachability rather than on the fact that you are showing off,” he explains. Spencer X. Smith, a personal branding consultant, also suggests avoiding unnecessarily big words or overly complicated ideas and breaking things down into the most unassuming terms possible — just like really smart people tend to do. “Do you suppose Einstein could have made ‘E = MC2’ into something more difficult? Of course! He’s Einstein,” he says. “Another contemporary example is Neil deGrasse Tyson: People value him because they walk away after listening to him thinking, ‘Wow, I now understand — in plain English — why the universe is always expanding.’”
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Do you have any of the bad habits listed above? Will you be changing the way you communicate with others because of this information? What do you do to sound more professional? Let us know what you think in the comments section!
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