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posted: 6/24/2012 7:41 AM

Work advice: The Pygmalion problem

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Q: A colleague has asked me to mentor her. She works hard and is eager to learn and to advance her career. One of the main obstacles I see for her is her verbal communication. Her grammar and syntax aren't the best, and her tone can sound more aggressive than she intends. This sometimes causes her to come across as unintelligent, which isn't the case. She is hoping to start interviewing for a new job soon, and I am worried that this will hurt her chances. How do I bring this up without sounding like Henry Higgins? (Suggestions to join Toastmasters haven't been very effective.)

A: From rookie-level apostrophe abuse to pompous overcorrections such as "between you and I," lousy grammar afflicts professionals of all levels and backgrounds. If your Eliza Doolittle is sincere about improving her skills, you'll be doing her a favor by helping her see communication as a business skill to be honed.

You can emphasize how polished speakers and writers in any field stand out from the competition. That's more motivating than warning her that a stray "ain't" will torpedo her job prospects. And you can help her within the framework of preparing for her pending job search.

To improve her speech, hold practice interviews. Break down her answers and help her rephrase them more professionally. Work with her to polish a brief "elevator speech" about herself. When she misspeaks in regular conversation, simply restate her comment or question in its proper form in your response.

Coaching her in writing can also help improve her overall verbal skills. Offer to proofread important emails before she sends them, and explain to her why you made any changes. Show her redacted copies of emails you've written and explain why you phrased things as you did.

She may find Toastmasters intimidating or time-consuming. Try suggesting resources she can absorb at leisure, such as Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style" or Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl website

Beyond these gentle nudges, there's not much you can do to sculpt her into a perfect speaker or writer. But a truly motivated pupil may surprise you. Just you wait.

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A number of readers responded to a recent question about a noisy ice-chewer by pointing out that the compulsion to chew ice (pagophagia) is often a treatable symptom of iron deficiency. That could provide the advice-seeker a way to address her co-worker's maddening mastication as a concern, rather than an annoyance: "I've noticed you eat a lot of ice. I was just reading that that's a sign of low iron. It's none of my business, of course, but have you ever had your iron levels checked?"

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• Karla L. Miller has written for and edited tax publications for 16 years, most recently for the accounting firm KPMG's Washington National Tax office.

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