If you want to sound smarter at work and in life, here is what you need to know – and I promise, it isn’t about using large words or wearing glasses (though goggles can help 😉 👔 👓).
A Bit of My History
Growing up, I was heavily influenced by Beverly Hills 90210, Clueless (still one of my favourite movies) and shows that highlighted the ‘valley girl’ lifestyle. While it was really fun and perfectly acceptable to speak that way growing up (I used “whatever” as my answer for just about everything), today I know I need to be more articulate if I want to be taken seriously.
When I was 24 I started my first business, Clean My Space services here in Toronto. I had very little confidence prior to this, let alone zero management skills. I needed to figure out a way to be able to sell my service confidently, even though I didn’t know how to clean. I had to hire and train staff, despite my lack of HR experience. I needed network to try and earn new business, even though my business was brand new. I had to act confident – act like I knew how to clean – and act like a boss to become one. One way I needed to change in order to be taken seriously was to start speaking professionally…like a boss.
I learned quickly that your choice of words influences how certain someone is about you and your intelligence, and I believe the smarter you sound, the more comes your way. There is some finessing to this change though, because you don’t want to sound like a bossy know it all. Find balance; be a good listener. Think about exactly how you want to sound. Professional and all business? Smart but approachable? Casual yet bright? Think about this first.
Let’s get into some specific ways to adjust your manner of speech in order to sound more confident and intelligent.
Remember, it takes practice to change habits and the rewards are well worth the efforts. It won’t be perfect all at once, but you’ll build up to it and you’ll become that newer, more confident person you’ve been dreaming of.
Drop Filler Words
While it may be your first instinct to start using larger words in order to sound more intelligent, it may not be the right approach. Rather than adding large words into your vocabulary which can intimidate people, start to take words out that make you sound young. Be an active observer of yourself and see how often you drop an um, uh, yeah, so, so yeah, literally, actually, really, whatever, and my personal nemesis, like 👎🏻. Pay attention to how you speak and begin to leave these words out.
If you are struggling to drop these words, think of alternative phrases you can lean on instead.
- If you say “like” often, say “for example” instead. It’s what you really mean, so say it.
- If you feel an “um” or “uh” coming on, take a pause instead. We say “um” to let people know we are still thinking, but taking a pause is just as effective and makes you sound smarter, more thoughtful, and composed.
- If “he/she was like” is a common turn of phrase for you, try and say “they said” instead, as it sounds more formal, and once again, it’s what you mean.
- If you want to start a sentence with “so”, stop yourself and think of another way to begin. Often, you can cut out the “so” entirely. “So, I was going to the mall”, is the same as “I was going to the mall”.
- If you want to use the word “whatever” improperly, as in to answer a question, instead use a full phrase such as “I am indifferent” or “either works for me”. But keep in mind that smart people are typically decisive, so try to avoid providing a non-answer like this one.
Skip the Prefaces and Apologies
Often at the beginning of phrases we say introductions to our thoughts which mitigate our personal power. These may include “You may have heard this but…” or “I just think that…” or a Melissa Maker special “I feel like…”. Instead, go straight into your idea or thought without downgrading it first. Even more so, cut out the word sorry. If you need to apologize for an error, apologize, but don’t preface your phrases with “Sorry but…” or end them with “sorry that’s just what I think”. Your thoughts are valuable! No need to apologize.
Improve Your Emphasis
Using proper and interesting words to provide emphasis rather than repetitive ones can greatly improve your speech – but is something I struggle with in particular. “Really” and “literally” are killers for me, especially when I am filming. Sometimes I will pause and ask to re-take something because I have said “literally” or “great” multiple times. What I am trying to do is emphasize a point. I have been challenging myself to come up with other words, and have gone so far as to read the thesaurus to look up alternative words I can use instead. Remember, these filler words are typically associated with immaturity and self-doubt.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
Imitation is a great tool to improve your speech. I like to listen to people speak whom I admire and try to recognize why I admire them. Look at, for example, Michelle Obama. She’s thoughtful, powerful and well-respected. One of the reasons I admire her is because she is always confident in what she says, speaks with utter conviction and an equal dose of heart, and never reveals self-doubt. Try to find speakers who amaze you and see what they do, and once you distill that, try to bring that into your own everyday practice.
Physicality is Important
One of the most important aspects of coming across as more intelligent is physicality. By looking more confident in addition to sounding more confident, people will have more faith in your words and in turn, you! Physicality has been known to influence your mental state as well. It’s why power poses work. Power posing is when you stand in a powerful pose, like the ‘Superman’ pose, for five minutes before an important event. It’s said this powerful pose will actually give you more confidence and help you perform better. Check out this powerful TED Talk by Amy Cuddy for more on power posing. Embodying confidence physically will help you feel more confident mentally.
- Sit up straight. Our mothers told us to do it for a reason (not just because it’s good for your back) but it also portrays confidence.
- Chin up. Having your head tilted down and your eyes up implies innocence and youth, which are two things you do not want when you are trying to sound smart.
- Keeping eye contact. Keeping eye contact with those you are speaking to, rather than looking at the ground or table while you are talking, implies confidence. The same goes for looking sideways.
In general, portraying confidence physically implies mental ability.
Focus and Listen
Listening to what those around you are saying, and I mean really listening, will help you answer their questions and comments properly and intelligently. Instead of stressing about whether you will be able to answer a question and getting caught in the downward spiral that is your scared inner voice, be in the moment and just listen. Trust that you are smart enough to come up with a concise answer, but you will need to listen to the question to do so. If you need to, take a moment and pause before you respond. I find that when I am listening to someone and they pause for a moment, I become more interested and I want to know what they are going to say. It builds anticipation.
The best way to show confidence is to be competent. But these strategies will certainly help.
How to Practice
An easy way to practice these skills is by implementing them while telling a story you know well, or tell often. Practice telling the story, but only use proper phrases, remove filler words, and emphasize with something more interesting than “very”. Note that while these substitutes will feel awkward at first (and you will have to tell the story slowly), if you practice they will come more naturally, and you will sound better overall. If you can get over the weirdness of it, recording yourself and listening to it can be a great learning tool. Actors do it all the time! When you play it back you will hear all those speech mistakes and be in a position to correct them. Practicing anecdotes is also a tool that can be used for sounding smarter. While you might sound silly saying them to yourself, you won’t sound silly when the moment comes and you tell a well-thought out story with a good punch line.
Questions From You:
How can you sound smarter without sounding like a know it all?
When you speak, how you come across is all about your intent. Are you speaking from a genuine place of sharing and communicating your thoughts? Or with the aim of proving you are smarter than those around you? If so, you are more likely to end up intimidating (and annoying!) people than impressing them. If you know a lot on the topic, let the conversation flow naturally and if the opportunity arises to share more and the participants are willing, by all means go for it. Remember too, not everything needs excessive details and over-explaining. Don’t share too much information unless asked or prompted. It’s great that you know a lot about a subject, but sometimes over-sharing can lead into condescension. Be sure to read the room, and if people start tuning out or look annoyed, pass the talking stick to the next person and give them their time to shine.
What are your thoughts on using an advanced vocabulary and being in a position of having to explain definitions?
Having a large vocabulary is definitely a sign of intelligence, so kudos. I think it’s great to learn new words and integrate them into your vocabulary. However, using heavy jargon, overly-technical or uncommon words in everyday conversation can garner you a raised eyebrow (at the very least).
It’s helpful to know your audience – if you are among people who enjoy that kind of challenging conversation or like to learn new words, by all means, use large words. But if you are in a casual setting, it might make others uncomfortable. Especially because some people are too shy or embarrassed to ask for clarification, and they’ll just smile and nod and your point will be lost on them. I am not saying to dumb anything down, but speak to people at a level that you know is clear and easy to understand and whip out a biggie every now and then to test the waters.
There are so many more things you can do, but I thought this was a great starting point! Let me know your thoughts on this topic and what you do to sound smarter in the comments!