How to sound more professional at work

Be mindful of your choice of words in the workplace.
By Dawn Wotapka

While many accountants have traded formal suits for business-casual clothing and hard-set hours for work/life balance, the need for professional workplace language remains constant.

"Words have power," said David Shurtleff, a Seattle communications executive who also teaches management communication remotely at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. "The words you use will change minds for the better or for the worse."

Regardless of how experienced you are, using the wrong diction can hurt your credibility. Here are some words and phrases you should use only sparingly at work, and some ideas for what to say instead:

  • Filler words. "Like" and "um" are among the utterances it is most important to avoid because they add nothing to sentences. Such filler words "come up a lot in today's speech with many younger workers," said Lois Krause, a practice leader in HR compliance at HR consulting firm KardasLarson, based in in Glastonbury, Conn.
  • When you talk, mentally note how many filler words you use. If you use a lot, it is best to craft your response in your head before you speak so you can "self-edit as needed instead of using filler words," Krause said.

  • "I" (when used too often). "I" can be tricky. On one hand, using it too much can make you seem self-centered, Krause pointed out. Yet there will likely be times that you may need to spotlight your achievements or differentiate what you've done from what your co-workers did, said Ilene Marcus, a Manhattan-based workplace consultant and founder of Aligned Workplace.
  • Work to balance showcasing your accomplishments with being seen as a team player. To avoid looking like you're taking credit for joint efforts, say "we" or "the team" instead, which sounds more inclusive, Krause suggested.

  • "I think" or "I believe." These combos may seem like a protective buffer — who can argue with what someone thinks or believes? — but they "give off a subtle hint of insecurity," Shurtleff said.
  • Cutting these phrases can intensify your point, he said. "Speaking and writing with conviction will instantly boost your credibility," he noted.

    When you don't want to be too definitive, say something like "Here's an idea" or "Have we thought of this?" suggested Marcus, who is also the author of Managing Annoying People.

  • "I can't." As soon as you say that you "can't" do something, you risk looking like you don't want to help or that you're not up for the challenge, Krause pointed out.
  • Instead, use phrases such as "'I am quite busy but will try to help where I can' or 'I have never done that before, but would like to give it a try if you can offer some help or direction,'" Krause said.

  • "I don't have time." Some view these words as a morale killer. Using them too often "can adversely impact the relationship between co-workers, said David G. Barbeito, CPA, managing partner at De La Hoz, Perez & Barbeito in Coral Gables, Fla.
  • If someone asks you for something when you're pressed for time, say something like, "Can this wait until the afternoon or tomorrow?" or "I have X, Y, and Z on my plate. Can I finish those and then get started?" he said.

  • "You always" or "you never." Absolute statements like these can be perceived as negative. They "put people on the defensive and can make the communication adversarial," Krause said.
  • Instead, she added, try saying "It seems to me that ...," "I haven't found situations where ...," or "There have been several times when ...."

  • "You know what I mean?" Avoid this phrase. It can sound like filler, and "the person you're speaking with might not, in fact, know what you mean," Marcus said.
  • If you do want to be sure someone understands, Marcus recommended prefacing your words with "'Just to be clear, this is what I mean . . . '"

Being mindful of these words and phrases is a great place to start as you pay more attention to the language you use in the workplace. Improving your diction will help others take your words seriously as you make a professional point.

Dawn Wotapka is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at

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