Remember your school days? Remember that smart-ass, who had an intelligent and eloquent answer for every question and was the apple of the teacher’s eye, but was nevertheless at the bottom of the class in the friendships stakes?
You vowed you’d never be like that and probably made an effort to dumb down your own responses to create as much space between you and Miss/Mr Unpopular as possible.
Perhaps that approach to life became so embedded that it’s now your default setting.
Fast forward to adulthood, the world of work, and the inevitable competition between co-workers…
Don’t you just wish you could master that apparently effortless ability to sound as smart as that guy or girl in school?
Let me say right from the start that sounding smart or the reverse has nothing to do with your level of intelligence and everything to do with how good you are at playing the game.
That ‘game’ is largely a verbal one, of course, in having the ability to speak up for yourself with appropriate responses. But it also depends on using confident body language.
Can you learn to play the game by new rules? Yes, it’ll take a bit of work, but stick with it and you’ll be able to reap the rewards.
Here are 13 things you can do to raise your conversation game, sound smarter, and speak more eloquently.
1. It’s A Matter Of Balance
Don’t get carried away with the idea that sounding cleverer is merely a case of using ‘big’ words (in big-word-speak that would be ‘complex vocabulary’).
On the other hand, using ‘lazy’ speech – failing to pronounce words correctly and using slack grammar that’s more suited to the street – isn’t going to do you any favors, either.
As with so much in life, it’s all about moderation and finding a balance.
In this case, learning to moderate your speech to the occasion and to the audience is essential.
You’re clearly not going to speak in the same way with your mates in the bar as you are in a business meeting, at least not if you have your sights set on the top job.
2. You Say It Best When You Say Nothing At All
Don’t feel that you need to barge into a conversation when you don’t really have a clue what’s being discussed.
Take the time to make sure you’re on board with the topic before blurting out something irrelevant that’ll immediately make you look a little foolish.
If you really don’t have much to add because it’s not a subject you’re familiar with, make a real effort to pay attention to what’s being said rather than letting your mind or your eyes wander.
Body language is crucial here to show engagement with the speaker. Keep focused and you should be able to ask some relevant questions that’ll show off your intellectual powers as an intelligent listener.
Chances are you’ll also learn something just by listening; some fact you can file away to wow someone else another time.
While on that topic, if you want to improve your general knowledge, so you really are smarter and not just playing the game, then my top tip is to read more. That’ll take time, but while it’s a work in progress don’t forget that…
3. Reading Feeds The Mind
If you can fill a lull in a conversation with a phrase like “I just read a really interesting book,” you’ll be demonstrating that you’ve got an inquiring mind.
That’s always going to raise your position in the smartness stakes.
You’ll be showing others that you’re working on your intelligence by opening your mind up to a world of ideas and that this makes you worth listening to.
There’s no doubt that reading feeds your intellect, expands your vocabulary, and changes your outlook all at the same time. If you take the time to read more, you’ll be getting plenty of bang for your buck.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have the time to read a whole book with my crazy work schedule!
That’s a shame, but it’s true that our lives these days are crammed pretty much to capacity with things we believe are essential.
OK, so here’s a hack: read the online reviews instead; many of them are pretty comprehensive and include spoilers, so you’ll be able to find out about the most important bits.
This advice, though, comes with a hefty caution: cheating only gets you so far and you’ll always be in danger of getting caught out by someone who’s actually read the book.
Added to which, you won’t get the extra benefits of reading that are listed above.
4. Hearing Is Believing
Another tip for the time-poor is to download audio books. There’s almost no limit to the titles now available in this format for you to enjoy wherever and whenever suits you best.
Letting the information drip into your ears while you’re on your daily commute or on an exercise bike at the gym can be a really pleasurable way to absorb information.
It’s just as effective as reading for expanding your mind and increasing general knowledge.
In terms of getting a vocabulary boost, it’s possibly even more effective than merely reading, because of the strong connection between what enters our ears and comes out of our mouths.
5. Grammar Matters
I have to mention the ‘G’ word here. Sorry.
If your speech is full of grammatical mistakes, not only will it often be nonsensical, it certainly won’t make you look smart in the eyes of your audience.
Just as an example, one of the most common spoken mistakes is the misuse of “must of,” “could of,” and “should of” when you mean “must have,” “could have,” and “should have.”
It’s all in the pronunciation, but if you get it wrong, your credibility will be instantly doubted.
Sorry to bang on about the benefits of reading again, but consuming well written language, through eyes or ears, is a great way to improve your innate understanding of how language works.
You’ll be absorbing ‘good’ grammar by osmosis and, over time, this will show through in your own speech and writing and you’ll sound a whole lot smarter.
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6. Silence Really Is Golden
So far, this piece has been all about words. Never underestimate the value of the well-timed pause, though.
Many world-famous orators have absolutely nailed the ‘pause’ to great and memorable effect.
Dr Martin Luther King is a case in point. Listen to his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech and notice how he uses silence to emphasize his point (check it out here).
In more recent times, Barack Obama is another master of the pause. In fact, as an example of how to sound smart and speak intelligently, whether or not you agree with his politics, he’s one of the very best.
His eloquence stands out, his articulation is near perfect, and he knows how to use the ‘pause.’
That tiny hiccup in the flow of language has two useful purposes: it gives your audience time to consider your (very intelligently made!) point, but it also frees up a valuable nanosecond of thinking time for you.
One of the fundamental errors we all tend to make when speaking is to ‘um’ and ‘er’ and, worse still, follow the trend to pepper our speech with the dreaded and pointless filler: ‘like.’
Try to train yourself not to resort to these meaningless sounds and ‘crutch’ words.
Be like Obama and replace them with an oh-so-effective pause instead. It’ll make you sound wise, as if you’re choosing your words carefully and intelligently.
Instantly, your intellectual standing will go up, believe me.
While on the subject of thinking time, here’s another simple but effective ploy:
7. Answer Questions With Questions
This age-old trick is often used by teachers to encourage students to find their own answers.
When you’re flummoxed by a question, but don’t want to admit that you have no clue what the answer is for fear of seeming unintelligent, you can use this strategy too.
Apart from anything else, while you’re waiting for an answer, you have valuable thinking time to formulate your own opinion.
It’s definitely not a tactic to be overused, as it can easily grate on the ear of the listener. Nevertheless, it’s a useful strategy to have up your sleeve.
8. Avoid Turning A Statement Into A Question
There’s a current trend to raise the intonation of every statement so it ends up sounding like a question.
The intention of this device may be to engage your audience and to check that they’re following your point.
When it’s overused, though, it actually has the opposite effect.
It undermines the value of your point since it sounds as if you doubt your own facts and are asking for confirmation of their validity.
You may not even realize that you do it. Recording yourself speaking and listening to it back will reveal all. Then it’s up to you to try to reprogram your speech pattern. It won’t be easy, but it’s doable.
9. Don’t Underestimate The Power Of Body Language
The animal kingdom is governed not by language but by actions.
Never forget that we’re animals too and we’re programmed deep down to respond to the tiniest of gestures.
If you stand up tall, with a confident demeanor which ‘owns’ the space, while speaking clearly and confidently, you’ll automatically be assumed to be the head of the pack and therefore someone worth listening to.
So, Ella Fitzgerald got it right with her gold-standard classic: “It ain’t what you do but the way that you do it.”
That said, the following is also true:
10. It Ain’t What You Say, It’s The Way That You Say It
If you want to sound smarter, one of the most important things is to enunciate your words clearly.
By this, I mean articulating your words clearly and distinctly, not mumbling, running phrases together, dropping sounds or slurring words.
This will slow your rate of speaking and will instantly help to make you sound smarter.
Rushed speech can make you sound nervous, which belies what you’re saying and undermines your position in the eyes of your audience.
There are limits, though, and clearly slowing your rate of speech too far would have the opposite effect.
A great (and fun) way to improve enunciation is by practicing with tongue twisters.
My personal favorite: I’m not the pheasant plucker; I’m the pheasant plucker’s son; I’m only plucking pheasants till the pheasant plucking’s done.
Give it a go and have a chuckle. Or try one of these instead.
11. Don’t Try To Impress By Using Big Words
Rather than making you sound intelligent, using big, impressive-sounding words rather than smaller, common ones can leave listeners with the impression that you’re pompous and pretentious.
It’s better to talk plain facts using straightforward language.
Added to which, using high-brow vocabulary can lead you into the trap of the ‘malapropism.’
For example, a friend of mine recently stated in all seriousness that an octopus has eight testicles – hilarious at the time, but not the kind of mistake that will boost your perceived IQ level when you want to be taken seriously.
My advice is: know your limits. If you aren’t 100% sure you’ve got the meaning of the fancy-schmancy word completely nailed, go with what you know.
12. Ditch The ‘Biz-blab’
Don’t fall into the jargon trap unless you’re surrounded by those who understand it.
Using words that your audience doesn’t understand, won’t make you look smart, just snobby.
Try to avoid tired clichés such as ‘blue-sky thinking’ which show little imagination and zero eloquence.
At the end of the day (ha! – there I go with a tired cliché!), it’s originality that’ll make you stand out from the crowd and sound super-smart.
13. Eloquence, Engagement, Education
These three words pretty much sum up all these points. They’re all achievable with varying degrees of effort.
Even if it’s only with baby steps, learn to play the game using the new rules and you’ll be on your way not only to being seen as smarter and more intelligent but actually being that way.
Who’s the smart-ass now? Trust me, you won’t be as unpopular as they were and life could get a whole lot more interesting.