6 Ways to Look Smarter

In life, many opportunities are tied to what other people think of you. If the people around you think you are smart, you are more likely to get asked to participate in projects that will enhance your career. If people think you are dumb, you’ll probably be passed over. Looking smart is just as important as being smart.

Assuming that you are actually smart you don’t have to fake anything. Your goal is to make people think of you as a smart person. Humans aren’t particularly good at judging the intelligence of other humans. Here are six things you can do that will help enhance people’s perception of your intelligence.

1. Look Smarter by Asking  More Questions

question.pngMost people try to show how smart they are by telling others what they know. This often backfires. It is easy to appear arrogant. In addition, the person who always acts like an expert on every subject is likely to be regarded with some suspicion.

Asking intelligent questions can showcase your intelligence much more effectively than showing everyone how much you know. There are several reasons for this. The first reason is that most truly intelligent people are extremely teachable–that is how they became so intelligent. If you are trying to act smart without exhibiting teachable behavior people will think you are a fake.

The second reason asking questions is effective is because almost everyone thinks of themselves as smart. By asking questions you give them a chance to showcase their knowledge–something most everyone loves to do. Since they consider themselves to be intelligent and you are asking questions about the areas where they consider themselves to be experts, you must be intelligent as well–after all you are interested in the things that they consider to be important.

Obviously you can’t go around asking extremely stupid questions. You want to show what you know in a way that allows them to talk. Consider the following question when talking to someone who deals with furnaces and air conditioning units:

I was reading about geothermal heat pumps. What do you think about them? Are they really as efficient as people say?

You’ve displayed your knowledge, but left room for them to be the expert. This will make you appear far smarter than simply giving a monologue that tries to illustrate how much you know.

2. Be the Last to Speak

Don’t be quick to talk. If a matter is being discussed let others speak first. Taking the extra time to refine your thoughts can make a big difference in how you are perceived. If you have the final word and simply summarize the good points made by everyone else, people will remember your contribution more than the people who really came up with the idea. I’m not suggesting that you steal others ideas, but restating the best ideas (even when giving others credit) will make you look smarter.

3. Look Smart by Citing Your Sources

Random information seems suspect. Referencing your source can be very valuable in how you are perceived. I’ve been around some people who act like they are an expert on everything. After a while they start to appear like a know-it-all, and people suspect that they are just making things up.

Citing your sources can be as easy as saying “I read a newspaper article that said…” or “If I remember the paper correctly, some scientists say…”. Citing your sources will make you appear more credible, humble, and it gives you a way out if you are wrong.

4. Enjoy the Arts

arts.pngIn a culture where most people’s entertainment consists of movies and television, you can set yourself apart by going to the ballet, opera, museums, etc. For example, assume you are talking to two coworkers of similar esteem. You ask one what he did over the weekend and he says, “I watched Simpson reruns.” You ask the other and he says, “I went to see the opera.” Who will seem more intelligent?

Obviously the person who keeps harping on the fact that they went to the opera is going to be considered annoying. But diverse cultural experiences are often mistaken for intelligence. As long as you aren’t trying to flaunt your experience it can make you appear smarter.

5. Take a Contrary View

This has to be done delicately. Simply disagreeing with everyone around you will not help. However, having a well reasoned position that is different than others shows you are capable of independent thought. You must be careful not to insult the people. Keep in mind that you are probably not aware of all the relationships that exist. Taking the position that the CEO of your company is doing a poor job while talking to his daughter will not make you look intelligent.

Here is an example: I personally feel that The Nutcracker has single handedly done more damage to ballet in this country than anything else. Most people’s exposure to ballet is seeing The Nutcracker around Christmas time and the plot is so incredibly boring that Americans as a whole have formed an unnecessarily low opinion of how stories can be conveyed through classical dance.

This opinion is probably contrary to most people’s views, but it provides an excellent starting point for a conversation (assuming I’m talking with someone who is at least slightly familiar with ballet). Even if you disagree with me, as long as I’m not presenting my ideas in an arrogant manner, the conversation has a reasonable chance of helping establish me as someone willing to think differently than the average person.

6. Carry Reading Material You Make You Look Smart

study.pngIt is better if you actually read the material, but since we started with the assumption that you are smart we can probably also assume that you regularly read “smart” things. You could carry around a copy of the Harvard Business Review or the Wall Street Journal. You are simply managing perceptions and trying to make sure people associate you with sources of information that they think are intelligent.

And there you have it. Six things you can do that will make you appear smarter. If you are a total idiot these tips probably won’t help you. If you are reasonably smart they may help people take a bit more notice of your intelligence. The real value of this list is becoming aware of how your actions and conversation help shape people’s perception.

Executive Summary Of How to Look Smarter

  • Since people consider themselves smart, asking questions about their areas of expertise will make them think you are smart as well.
  • Restating the best ideas of a conversation will make you look smarter.
  • Citing your sources makes you appear more credible and gives you a way out.
  • Diverse cultural experiences are often mistaken for intelligence.
  • A well reasoned contrary position shows you are capable of independent thought.
  • Make sure people associate you with sources of information that they consider intelligent.


    • Bob says

      This article appears to be aimed at a superficial corporate types – carry a WSJ, how silly. That’s a game.

      Substance begets substance.

      • says

        Bob – I think you missed the point of the entire article. If you don’t agree with the suggestions, I’d be very interested in how you would appear more intelligent.

  1. says

    Smart list of tips! I think there is a big difference between Looking smart and actually being smart though, like you hinted at. Your #2 for example, makes you look smart but actually being smart would be to have the original idea in the first place. A person with unique ideas always looks smart and shows they are thoughtful creative people. That is smart…

  2. Mark Shead says

    @Steve – There are many people who put a great deal of effort into learning without appearing smarter. I’m not trying to suggest that you avoid actually doing things to develop your intelligence. I am suggesting that you have to manage both parts separately. Just because you are getting smarter doesn’t mean anyone will notice. You have to work at appearing smarter. These tips can help you get the most out of your current intelligence.

    Sometimes the smarter people are passed over for individuals who know how to look smart. If you aren’t actively managing other’s perceptions, you are missing out on potential opportunities.

    @Mike – Most smart people will look smarter by waiting to speak. In a lot of situations people will mentally credit not the person who had the original idea, but the person who made them see the value of that idea. If nothing else, waiting to speak allows you to integrates other’s ideas which can help you gain buy-in for your idea. It also helps make sure you have seen the problem from everyone else’s perspective so you don’t overlook something important.

    • says

      I agree with Mark 100%. A person could be very smart but if he isn’t PERCEIVED as being smart or if the “smart side” of his demeanor doesn’t show to employers the person could miss out on many opportunities just because his “smart side” didn’t shine through :0)

      Great Posts Mark!

      Chris G. Campbell

  3. ellipsisknits says

    I’ve got a few thoughts on your first point. I would suggest not trying to ask ‘smart’ questions, but trying to ask ‘stupid’ ones instead.

    Assuming you are the less informed party in the exchange, a question you think is ‘smart’ is probably based on buzzwords you know just a little about – and what you do know is likely marketing hype, which the real professional has to fight people’s misconceptions on day in and day out.

    Instead, pick a question you think is ‘stupid’ – a general concept you’re pretty sure you know the answer to. Two things can happen, either the answer will surprise you, and you’ll actually learn something, or the answer will be what you thought, but the other person will probably expound into details that you hadn’t considered.

    Since you’re not expected to be a subject matter expert, it’s better to come across as someone carefully considering than basic principles than one easily sucked in by whatever they hear on t.v. This also follows Steve’s point that the best way to look smarter is to be smarter.

    The rest of the points sound good, and some of them (following the arts, reiterating good ideas, arguing contrary positions) might end up tricking you into getting smarter too.

  4. says

    I know a great deal of people who ARE smart, but don’t appear that way. Sometimes, even I interject in conversations before I should, and later on… I notice it made me look ignorant.

    Good post!

  5. Amy says

    I don’t think seeing someone with a copy of the Harvard Business Review or the Wall Street Journal would make me think they’re smarter. Maybe if it were Nature…

  6. says

    Great post! Although I do know people who are super smart yet refuse to show it. They say people aren’t so guarded when they don’t appear to smart. I think to some extent, it’s true.

    Cheers people! :)


  7. Mark Shead says

    @Amy – Obviously it depends on the work setting. Either way HBR or WSJ probably rank above the latest paper back fiction or the Sunday comics. :)

    @ellipsisknits – I think the point is that it is difficult to “fake” intelligent questions. However, showing that you know enough about someone’s area of expertise to have questions is usually a positive thing. If you are asking the question just to look intelligent, you’ll probably fail. If you actually know enough about a different field to have a genuine interest, it will be easy to ask intelligent questions.

  8. says

    I like your ideas here. Still, i think the best way to appear smarter is to *be* smarter. What i love about your list is – if you follow the advice here, you actually have a shot of doing that.

    Ask Questions? You learn. You listen.
    Be the last to speak? Again, listen, observe before jumping in half-cocked.
    Smart reading materials? Hey, if you read it in the john, again you’re probably going to learn something.

    Good stuff. I enjoyed the post.

  9. Mark Shead says

    @Kelly – I definitely agree. However there are a lot of people who are intelligent, but don’t know how to convey it. I’m not suggesting these items as something to do INSTEAD of increasing your intellect. But it is important to recognize the just becoming smarter may not give you the opportunities you are looking for.

  10. Lisa says

    smart people: all people are smart in their own way.
    Some are smart in some ways whereas some others are smart in Other ways. In keeping with that their is no dumb people.
    Stop Labeling PEOPLE ! by labeling people you compare 1 to the Other.You are say , you are Judge me cause of YOU ! Teachers are WRONG To compare 1 child to another child. Teachers grade system allows teacher to destroy children Self Esteem and label them as unachievers be losers ! we have to stop this ugly madness of labeling People !People of all over the world should like themself. Not hate themself. We can see error in our ways but not to be condemn , accused and blamed for it , as well as labeling allows someone to say i am better than you -i can JUDGE you – I can put you down – criiticise you -cut you down ! this should stop ! Just like cut a person down what say , how type it or grammar or anything at all !

  11. Mark Shead says

    @Lisa – I don’t agree that “all people are smart in their own way” or that “there is no dumb people”.

    In the US, there is a popular idea that students shouldn’t be allowed to fail because it will hurt their self-esteem. However, when compared with the rest of the world this has created some interesting problems. Kids in the US are much more likely to rate themselves as being good at math than kids in other countries. However, they are much less likely to actually be capable in mathematics. So the kids with the high self esteem perform worse than the other kids in the world.

    And yes, someone with extremely poor grammar will automatically make themselves look stupid. In most developed countries, basic writing skills are taught to everyone at an early age. You would have to put a lot of effort into NOT learning basic grammar. So it stands to reason that someone without the ability to write proper sentences is either dealing with a second language, unwilling to put even a little effort into communicating, or of below average IQ.

  12. Brandon Velee Schofield says

    I belive that a truly wise, smart, enlightend individual is someone with higher understanding than other people.I belive that if you try to seem smart people will think more highly of you but, when it comes down to it and say they ask somthing of you and you cant do it because you dont have the knowlege then how do you think they are going to think of you?(btw im 14 and i am probably smarter than most people i know)

    • says

      Brandon if you really think you are smarter than the people you know then I suggest you find some new friends or hangout with people that are smarter than you. Because hanging out with people that you are smarter than doesn’t do you any good. All it does is give you an ego problem which is already apparent you have by your last comment post. But really no one here believes that you are smarter than all the people you know.


  13. Brandon Velee Schofield says

    “I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
    -Abraham Lincoln

  14. Kristie says

    Thank you for the interesting article. I find it sad but true, that perceptions, however misguided, often rule the outcome of the situation.

    By not managing perceptions you are doing yourself a disservice. Throughout my life I have encountered this issue with perception. As an undergraduate student I was a young, silly and vivacious blonde…no one took me seriously, I enjoyed life, partied on the social scene and participated in many activities while pursuing an education in the sciences. No one wanted to be my lab partner, but when the first exam results came in, I left my exam out for everyone to see…104% (thanks to the extra-credit)…The mean was a 68% and this was in physics…I didn’t change my ways, and those that overcame the perception of the dumb blonde were truly in awe that I was so “good at science”. The professors loved me and by my senior year, other students respected me. But, I feel I was still fighting an uphill battle. I was still jealous that the more “serious” students got all the attention even though I routinely scored higher than them on all the exams. I felt that even if I acted “dumb” or seemed dumb, just by being myself, that people would be even more shocked at how intelligent I actually was.

    I went to graduate school and refined my attitude as well as my appearance, so I could be taken seriously sooner rather than later. I am still silly and unguarded, but typically with only those I know and trust.

    I now work as a scientist, and I have gained more maturity and understanding of how other people view me, and how I am responsible for managing their perceptions of me.

    After all this “growth” I am still saddened by the unfair promotion of individuals who I feel bluff their way, or in other words “fake it till they make it”. It seems that they are excellent at managing the perceptions of others but when you find one of them suddenly managing you, and realize that they have no technical or scientific knowledge to back up their actions, it is a sad day.

    My new boss has probably read your article, because from my view he follows your suggestions to the “T”! I am just waiting for the day when his supervisors realize that there is no substance, knowledge or understanding of the issues behind his actions.

    I intend to continue to refine my appearance regarding how others perceive my intellectual contribution, and I see how your tips could be used to further such a perception. However, I feel somewhat guilty that I am selling myself out. However, I take comfort knowing that I am a vibrant silly individual capable of not taking myself too seriously and that I have substance and character to back up what others perceive as intelligence.

    • Beth says

      You were the first person to mention appearance. I believe that it is important also to appear appropriately turned out. In fact, some authors advise that one should dress appropriately for the position they wish to obtain, rather than for the position they are presently in.
      When my son went for his first business interviews, he brought all his clothes in garbage bags over to his older sister’s so that she could advise him on every piece, what went with what, what he needed to purchase to fill in gaps and the like. He looks like a CA, not the student that he actually is, and I can’t think that that harms him.

  15. Ms T says

    Too right. I’m a 27 year old asian woman with a Masters degree but thanks to my ‘baby face’ , it’s really difficult to get others to take me seriously.

    It was only recently that I decided that I have to change the way people see me because first impression counts. So I started dressing up. I traded casual for smart casual, backpacks for handbags, sneakers for heels, barefaced for light make up. And as Mark mentioned in the article, I started to pay attention to how I speak. More “yes” and less “yeah”.

    It’s only in the early days, so I can’t say that it has worked or not. But I certainly feel different and I’m sure it shows.

  16. anon says

    Found this article after searching for ‘why do people keep telling me I seem intelligent’, as this is something that’s been bothering me recently (new people I meet assuming I’m clever and telling me so) and I wanted to know why I give that impression.

    This article helped a lot and also gave some tips on how to not be obnoxious with it.

    I don’t really know how to react when people I’ve just met tell me I’m ‘obviously intelligent’, and it makes me uncomfortable.

  17. Soul says

    Hi im 19 years old and had a time to think if its smart to act dumb .I came to the conclusion it is, for example it is better to ask a question if you know about it already. People may think You appear as stupid when really your not, if you think about it you will be able to get more information when that you previously knew about which in return makes you smarter. Then just being in the moment wanting to ask a question to just make yourself appear smarter…wich I think seperates dumb people to the smart ones.

  18. Soul says

    For the people who took this article the wrong way. You are probably stupid. thank you for the article for better understandings. Ill apply this for myself now.

  19. Duncan says

    I think this article could be improved by stressing a little more the fact that one should wait to speak. Specifically in a one-on-one conversation, a pause for thought collection not only makes one look smarter because they are thinking, but also adds weight to the resulting words. Since everyone thinks they are smart, pausing makes them feel like their words are worthy of thought, suggesting to them that you, let’s say, ‘understand their intelligence.’ Not only will people think you’re smarter, but also find you more likeable.

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