Talk smart, augment your remuneration

Research shows there's a high correlation between vocabulary and corporate success. So get cracking.

By Nadira A. Hira, Fortune writer-reporter

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- If you're looking for that next big job or promotion, you might want to forgo your next resume workshop for a trip to the nearest library.

Because as it turns out, when it comes to climbing the corporate ladder, one of your best assets may actually be your very big vocabulary.

And before you start worrying about workbooks and study sessions, look no further than Renee Mazer, the self-proclaimed "Vocab Vixen." Building a better vocabulary can be fun, she says (especially if you're using her "Not Too Scary Vocabulary" CD series).

The importance of vocabulary is something scientist Johnson O'Connor began exploring in the 1930s. From studies he did in 1935 and 1940, he concluded, according to Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation New York Director Steve Greene, that, "a relationship exists between an extensive vocabulary and executive success."

Later studies in 1984 and 1990 by the foundation, which is primarily an aptitude testing foundation (, showed that 88.3% of Fortune 1000 executives scored well above the vocabulary average established by the foundation's control group (most of whom had a college degree or higher, already placing them well above the general population).

And 71% of managers scored above that average, meaning they had better vocabularies than the control group, but not as good as the executives.

As O'Connor once put it, "...words are the instruments by means of which men and women grasp the thoughts of others, and with which they do most of their own thinking. They are the tools of thought."

But as we all know, the tools of thought are sometimes hard to come by, particularly in fast-paced work environments where most communication is via e-mail or instant message - forms that hardly lend themselves to punctuation and proper grammar, let alone high diction. Never mind that hard-working professionals are so busy all the time that finding a few minutes to read something good - long acknowledged as the best way to build vocabulary - is a luxury.

Not to worry, says Mazer, a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton and Law Schools and a former Environmental Protection Agency attorney and college professor. Since beginning a lucrative secondary career in her 20s as an SAT tutor and starting her test prep company, High Score, she's found that you can learn great new words just sitting in front of the television.

"Just watch The Daily Show," she says. "Comedy helps you learn faster, and Jon Stewart manages to use words like 'jingoistic' and 'salacious' in the same sentence like he's talking about his house or something. He just throws words in, and it makes him a much better communicator because he's able to use different words to show nuance. He's doing 'vocabulary cool.'"

And if Stewart's a little too much for you, even sitcoms like "Frasier" will do the trick, both by teaching new words and showing how to sprinkle them into everyday language with ease (and without coming off like an obnoxious know-it-all).

Once you read or hear a new word, commit it to memory by hitching it to something you already know. Creating that word association in your mind will help you retain the new word by attaching it to your established store of knowledge. "It's called chunking in psychology," says Mazer. "In order to remember new information, you need to connect it to something that's already in long-term memory, and it sticks there."

That's why just telling your teenager the meaning of a new word often has no effect, while learning it from a song he loves might make all the difference.

Take the word "choleric," for example. It means to anger easily, and derives from the Medieval belief that disposition was linked to bodily fluids, but that probably won't help most people. Instead, Mazer says, "think about how much it sounds like the word, 'collar,' then think, 'hot under the collar,' which of course is someone who angers easily."

Rhymes are also a big help, says Mazer, who often makes up little ditties for her students so they can remember multiple new words at a time.

Mazer's somewhat less than literary, example:

"If in her Prada pants,

your boss looks like an elephant,

you should say, 'Love the pants!

For those I have a penchant!'

Yes, an efficacious way to enchant

is to become a sycophant."

And finally, as impractical as it can sometimes be, when you come across a new word in your reading, look it up. In this age of handheld devices, many PDAs (or personal digital assistants, for the technophobes) feature a dictionary, so use it.

For those who want more, Mazer is close to releasing a new adult version of "Not Too Scary Vocabulary," one that will feature many more great vocab words, but with a somewhat more risqué take on the stories and poems she uses to teach them, as well as more etymology and history.

Her original "Not Too Scary Vocabulary: For the SAT & Other Standardized Tests," and "Success in Life" is widely available at major bookstores for $49.95 or less. (Visit to learn more.)

Might not sound like a good time, but according to one reviewer of the current version enlisted by this reporter - namely, a 17-year-old younger brother - "I'm learning a lot from Renee, though I'm a little abashed listening to her."

So there won't be any mother-and-son study sessions any time soon, but he for one was already putting his new vocabulary skills to good use.


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