How to Sound Smart in Work and Life
3 uncommon ways to appear (and become) more intelligent
The easiest way to sound smart is to say nothing at all.
Silence creates an aura of mystery, which people will usually interpret in your favor. They’ll use the time to imagine what you might think and know, to wonder why you remain silent, and, sometimes, to second-guess themselves rather than questioning your abilities.
Silence is powerful because few people dare to employ it. They’re afraid of the initial awkwardness, and so they just keep talking. Of course, the more we speak, the more likely we are to say something stupid, wrong, or offensive. If we stay silent, however, we get to observe, think, and choose our words carefully.
We commend speakers for not filling breaks with “ummm”s and “errrm”s because their silence provides us with time to process what they’ve said. We stare in awe at our screens as TV show characters go quiet to add extra oomph to what they’re about to announce. We can’t fathom how the big boss can keep her mouth shut on a Zoom call for this long, but when she then comes out with a brilliant idea, we at least remember why she does it.
However, even the best silence can only last so long, so the question is: What are you supposed to say when it ends?
Here are a few counterintuitive ideas that’ll help you sound smart at work and in life.
1. Use small words
This is not a post about politics, but there’s no denying Donald Trump sounds smart to many people — that’s why they voted for him, and that’s why he became president. Donald Trump uses small words.
We used to believe jargon and a big vocabulary are signs of intelligence. If you can use them correctly, to some extent, they are, but today, we appreciate clarity over complexity. Showing off your dictionary does nothing for us.
When you say “preemptively” rather than “in advance,” you might have to explain what “preemptively” means. That’s a 30-second roadblock to a conversation that might otherwise have flown along with ease.
It’s a noisy, information-overloaded world, so most of the time, we don’t have time for big words. If you have a large vocabulary and understand complex topics, that’s wonderful. If you can break them down using simple, everyday language, that’s even better.
We appreciate people who respect our time. Your ability to do so by being concise shows that you’ve understood a difficult matter well enough to explain it to us in simple terms, which, in turn, reveals that you’re smart.
2. Acknowledge opinions you don’t have
In the last section, I could have jumped right into “Donald Trump sounds smart to many people.” Instead, I gave you a heads up: “This is not a post about politics.”
How did that make you feel? Did it slightly mellow your pro- or contra-Trump stance? That was the point: Acknowledgement opens our mind to new ideas.
When information is everywhere, so is misinformation. Data isn’t always our friend and often becomes our enemy. Naturally, we’re permanently on guard.
If you want people to listen to you, you have to show them you’re aware of your limitations. When you admit that your point of view is limited, it helps us let our guard down and admit — if only to ourselves — that we too don’t know everything. In turn, we’ll be more likely to entertain your idea, and we’ll think you’re smart for acknowledging the other side in the first place. It shows you can see “beyond your own plate,” as we say in Germany.
When I gave you a heads up, I said: “Look, I know this is a controversial individual, and you’re likely to have a strong opinion about him. For now, let’s just focus on the objective outcome he achieved and what it implies.” That’s a lot of trust wrapped into seven words. It’s efficient but also necessary.
It’s true that you must have a strong, clear, focused message to be heard, but if you can’t contrast said opinion with the many others out there, you’ll look stupid rather than smart. An idiot and a sage often have remarkably similar ideas. The difference is the sage presents her ideas as some of many, whereas the idiot insists his ideas are the only valid ones.
When you tell your friends why the new donut shop is much better than the old one, say, “I know the frosting at Richard’s is great, but they can’t beat the freshness of Billy’s.” When you want people to focus on an objective aspect of a divisive, two-sided issue, say, “Without judging whether it’s good or bad, universal basic income sure shows up in the news a lot these days, doesn’t it?”
Good writers do this too. In a piece about reading, Zat Rana criticizes people who read only to memorize or to critique, but then, before presenting us with a new way to do it, he acknowledges there’s a time and place for the two:
Now, having the focus to absorb what you need is critical and so is having a filter in place to detect if what you’re reading is factually wrong.
That said, anytime you read something with the mindset that you are there to extract what is right and what is wrong, you are by default limiting how much you can get out of a particular piece of writing. You’re boxing an experience that has many dimensions into just two.
Zat’s second paragraph hits much harder because of his first — and it makes him look and sound incredibly smart.
Acknowledge opinions you don’t have. Give an honorary mention to the other side of an argument you’re trying to make. Show us you can make room for our ideas and beliefs, even if they’re different from yours, and we won’t just listen to you, we’ll think you’re a balanced, intelligent person.
3. Only use quotes when they come to you
Joe Rogan’s podcast with Naval Ravikant is one of his most popular. A comment reads: “He‘s shooting quotable nuggets like a machine gun.” It’s true. After 13 years on Twitter, Naval is a master of pithy one-liners.
However, Naval also quotes others during the interview. A lot. “Specialization is for insects,” he shares less than two minutes in — a line from a friend. He also talks about Bruce Lee, Elon Musk, Madonna, Paul Simon, U2, the ancient Romans, and beginner’s mind, a zen concept, before we even hit ten minutes.
Many of us want to be like Naval. We’d love to shoot quotes left and right, dropping our own wisdom and that of others as casually as others drop $2 on a coffee. The problem is we often try too hard, and it makes us look sleazy rather than intelligent.
Naval doesn’t have a quote collection he looks at every morning. He doesn’t even take notes when he reads: “I think taking notes is the same as taking photos when you’re on a trip. All it’s doing is taking you out of the moment,” he says in another interview.
Naval’s quotes flow into the conversation as an organic extension of his thoughts. They just happen to be what he remembers in the moment. That’s why they feel flawless — and he sounds smart as a result.
This is the best — and I think the only — way to sound smart when quoting others: The quote has to be genuine. It can’t be forced. Don’t rack your brain for a quote to tack on to a conversation. Don’t try too hard to show off.
Humans have strong guts. We know when statements feel forced. We can tell when you’re faking it. If you naturally remember something related, that’s great. Share it. But if you don’t, don’t worry. You’ll have something to contribute soon enough.
Naval happens to remember lots of quotes because he spends a lot of time reading. If you don’t, you’ll remember other things, maybe not quotes but stories or facts. Those can be just as useful, but whatever you share, make sure it’s genuine — otherwise, it’ll never sound smart.
You want to sound smart because you’re not sure if you really are. Trust me: You are. We’re all actors on the great stage of life, and it’s normal to get cold feet from time to time.
In this case, looking for a few tricks to address our needless worry comes with a beautiful side effect: Practicing the above tips won’t just make you sound smarter, you’ll actually become smarter over time.
To use small words to explain big things, you have to understand them. To acknowledge the other side of an argument, you have to know it’s there. You can only share quotes you actually remember.
And when all of those fail you, you can always go back to being silent. After all — and I know ending on a quote is cliché — Epictetus already noticed 2,000 years ago: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we may listen twice as much as we speak.”