Your Boss Hates Fancy Words

How many words are there in the English language? EnglishAccording to the Global Language Monitor’s estimate on January 1, 2014, there were 1,025,109. That’s a big number, but we don’t use nearly that many. A study by The Guardian newspaper claimed most native-born English speakers learn only 12,000 words by age 12, and get by with those 12,000 for the rest of their lives.

How do we square this finding with the long-held value we place on a big vocabulary? Our education system teaches us to learn more words, and the usual wisdom we get at work sounds something like this:

“When writing to an executive, use bigger words to sound more impressive.” 

If you still follow this advice, you’re wasting a lot of time writing corporate gibberish that nobody wants to read. I’ve interviewed hundreds of senior level managers over the past ten years, and I haven’t found even one who’s impressed by big words.

The disconnect may come in part from books like the 1971 bestselling 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary by Norman Lewis, a leading authority on English-language skills. The book promised professional success to anyone who spent just 15 minutes a day building up his or her stock of big words.

Lewis’s concept made sense at the time, but it’s seriously out-of-date for today’s diverse population and digital landscape. People now are busier and more distracted than ever. Most of us don’t want to think or read more than we have to, and we certainly don’t want to get bogged down by people trying to prove how smart they are.

If you want to impress your boss, be clear and concise. Use plain, conversational language that expresses your ideas, and stop showing off.

This is good news for busy people, but also for anyone learning English. All you have to do is put down the thesaurus and read the daily newspaper. The Guardian writer estimated that most popular papers use about 12,000 words – just enough for you to show your boss that you know your stuff.


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Why Cross-Cultural Communication Is So Hard


We used to call it a melting pot

When I went to school as a young boy, I often heard people use the term ‘Melting Pot’ to describe North America. The concept refers to the blending of many cultures into one. The risk is that people will give up their uniqueness in an attempt to fit in. In other words, we mix everyone together so they sound and act the same. It reminds me of the famous line from Star Trek Next Generation: “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile”. But the beauty of a diverse culture is found in the very differences that set us apart. Instead of trying to melt all the crayons into a big amorphous blob of wax, we should be celebrating what each culture brings to the table. But all too often, our false assumptions and prejudices get in the way.

This is the first in a series that unpacks some of the challenges we face. My hope is that a higher level of cultural awareness will make you a stronger communicator.

Challenge #1: You see the world from your perspective

We’re not always selfish on purpose, but we’re all good at protecting our own interests. This video clip from the classic comedy The Honeymooners (cue to 11:30) shows Ralph Kramden cheating at a coin toss with his best friend Ed Norton. The winner gets to keep the new TV set. The scene is only about a minute long – it’s good for a laugh, but it also reveals a deep truth.

We all want to win the coin toss.

I’m not judging – we can’t help it. Think of the typical disconnect between Men and Women, Boomers and Gen Y’s, Executives and Hourly Employees, etc. When you put two or more groups of people together, communication can easily break down. And it gets even more complicated when we compare the communication styles of native English speakers with the habits of people who have learned English as a second language. It’s a huge gap, and we don’t talk about it much, probably because we don’t understand it. Here’s the starting point:

It’s not about you!

Communication is ALWAYS about the other person…their needs, their style, their preferences. Take a look at some of the recent messages you’ve sent to others. Have you been writing for them, or for yourself? Did you consider their needs, or yours? Did you speak a common language, or did you throw in the same old jargon? To break down cultural barriers, we need to be willing to give up our own positions. This is the first step, and you won’t make it very far if you keep pushing your own agenda. You need to have an open mind to jump into someone else’s reality.


Next time we’ll tackle challenge #2, which looks at the very different ways cultures view and handle conflict.

Geoff Weinstein






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How grade 3 math gets people to read your email

How grade 3 math gets people to read your email

With back-to-school right around the corner, I thought I’d share a basic grade 3 fraction lesson that will increase readership of your emails and other communications. It’s simple, and you can use it right away. It’s called the Fraction of Selection, a formula created by communication scholar Wilbur Schramm in the mid-1900’s. I’ve adapted his work for modern times.

The Fraction of Selection

Fraction of Selection

To increase readership, increase the visibility of the reward…

Boost Reward

…or reduce the effort required to get the reward…

Reduce Effort

…or both!

Boost Reward Reduce Effort

Visible reward and minimal effort


I love this formula because it hits two of the most common problems in communication:

Problem: We tend to focus on ourselves and ignore what the other person cares about. Solution: Place their reward front and centre so they’ll know right away why they should pay attention. When they see that your message is for them, they’ll be engaged instantly.

Problem: A lot of messages are poorly designed and chock full of irrelevant information. Solution: Make it easy for them. Cut the fluff and design it for busy mobile users (see: Design your email for mobile…or else!).


This entire post is an example of the Fraction of Selection: I placed the reward in the title, and instead of wordy paragraphs I used images (created quickly in PowerPoint) to explain the concept. If you’ve gotten this far, you’re living proof that the concept works. For more on the Fraction of Selection, read Chapter 4 – Cut The Fluff in my book Buried Alive:Digging Your Way Out To Clear Communication.


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Your communication style can make, or break, your personal brand

Your communication style can make, or break, your personal brand

I recently came across this TedTalk by Julian Treasure, who studies sound and advises businesses on how to best use it. He lists seven deadly habits of speaking that will destroy your personal brand and undermine your ability to influence others. He then flips it around and presents four cornerstones of powerful communication. His point: the world will be a better place if we avoid the deadly habits and communicate using the four cornerstones.

How to speak so that people want to listen – TEDGlobal 2013, stomach Julian Treasure

Here are Julian’s seven deadly habits of speaking:

  1. Gossiping – speaking ill of someone not present
  2. Judging – creating a barrier of self-righteousness
  3. Negativity – bringing people down and stealing their joy
  4. Complaining – spreading misery in the world
  5. Excuses/blaming – not taking responsibility for actions
  6. Exaggeration/lying – distorting the truth about things and events
  7. Dogmatism – pushing hard for “my way or the highway”

And the four cornerstones of powerful communication:

  1. Honesty – be clear and straight
  2. Authenticity – be yourself
  3. Integrity – be your word
  4. Love – wish people well (not romantic love)


Every time you send a message, you make a statement about your brand. You want a stronger brand? First, get rid of any deadly habits in your style. Then, build a solid foundation on the four cornerstones. In my book “Buried Alive: Digging your way out to clear communication“, I included an entire chapter that talks about the importance of managing your personal brand when you communicate. In the end, your brand is your most important asset. Respect it and protect it.Your personal brand is your most important asset. Respect it and protect it. Click To Tweet

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How to Engage a Google Brain

How to Engage a Google Brain

Technology has transformed our world and made us more efficient in many ways. However, people are now busier and more distracted than ever. Cell phones, iPads, email, instant messaging, and social media are all mediums that compete for our attention and take us away from the task at hand. Our brains have developed the ability to function in “sound bites” to avoid deep thinking, reading, and reflection.  I call this phenomenon “the Google Brain”. While the internet and Google supply an endless amount of information, our brains are being re-wired to view most information as trivial.

Our brains have learned to rely on the Internet as our primary information source, rather than our own memory. When everything is available online, your brain no longer needs to store that information. If you can’t recall something, you just Google it. Today’s Google Brain has caused technology to become like an external hard drive, replacing our brains and other people, making us even more dependent on our devices. When your brain grows accustomed to frequent Internet use, it recognizes that most of the information is trivial and should be stored in short-term memory.

So how do we reach people who don’t want to think or read? Here’s a simple, five-step process.

  1. Write a punchy, visual headline or subject line that’s relevant to your reader’s hopes and fears
  2. State your message clearly in the first paragraph
  3. Use bold sub-headings to label the points that sell your idea
  4. Cut the fluff and write using a conversation tone
  5. Before you hit send, ensure that it reads like a story

Conclusion: People are busy and distracted, and they need you to be clear and concise. If you force them to read through irrelevant details, they’re going to move on to something else within a few seconds.


Today’s post is based on my book Buried Alive: Digging your way out to clear communication.

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Design your email for mobile … or else!

Design your email for mobile … or else!

As smartphones continue to improve, more and more people are putting away their PCs and reading email on their devices. A recent study says that 47% of global users are checking messages on the fly (Adestra, May 2015). Another study suggests the number is 53% (Litmus, Jan 2015). In other words, roughly one of every two emails is opened on a device; this is a big number.

We all know that email looks a lot different on a small screen, but many of us are still designing our messages for desktop users and ignoring the needs of the mobile 50%. Think about those busy, distracted people in your company who spend their days in back-to-back meetings. You want them to open your email?

Here’s the good news: you can tweak a few things right away to increase readership:

  1. Your message: Make sure it’s clear and concise, and put it right near the top.
  2. Short paragraphs: 2-3 sentences max. 
  3. White space: Leave a line between each paragraph.
  4. Sub-headings: Add labels so your reader can browse.
  5. Vertical lists: Add bullets and numbers whenever possible.

Follow these simple steps, and people will be more likely to read your messages and do what you ask.


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