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Looking Smart for Dummies

Here's a question: Would you rather look smart or look good? If you answered “look good,” then all I can say is — good luck. To look good, you'd have to lose 30 pounds, increase your wardrobe spending by 500 percent and settle in for a long, painful stay at the nearest branch of Plastic-Surgery-Is-Us.

Let's be brutally honest here — looking good is not something that you are going to be able to pull off.

But looking smart, that is within the realm of possibility. Or so I have come to believe after reading a recent Sue Shellenbarger column in “The Wall Street Journal.” Shellenbarger was smart enough to title her screed, “How to Look Smarter,” which sounds pretty helpful until you read the subtitle, “The Tactics People Use to Look Intelligent Often Backfire; Fancy Words Don't Work.”

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And what are those tactics that don't work? According to Shellenbarger, “people use big words or put on a poker face — tactics that can backfire, studies show.” I'm sure you don't need to be told that it is useless to try to use big words if you are trying to impress someone, so I do think Shellenbarger could have omitted it from her prolegomenon. [I can't tell you if putting on a poker face indicates intelligence; no one has ever accused me of being a brainiac when I show my own poker face.]

Apparently, what does work is “showing self-confidence, speaking clearly and smoothly and responding thoughtfully to what others are saying.” Obviously, you are not going to be able to do any of these things. You have the self-confidence of a guppy. The words that come out of your mouth are as jangled and jarring as the thoughts in your head. You probably could respond thoughtfully, but that would require that you actually listen thoughtfully to what someone else is saying, and we know that isn't going to happen.

Does this mean you are doomed to impress everyone you meet as the numbnuts you actually are? Not necessarily. But if you want to look smart, you'll have to be sneaky.

One sneaky technique that does impart an aura of intelligence is wearing glasses. “Wearing glasses can lead strangers to regard you as more intelligent, says a 2011 study in the Swiss Journal of Psychology.” Of course, if you already wear glasses, it's going to be difficult to make this tactic work, unless you buy and wear a second pair at the same time. Wear three pairs and everyone will think you're Stephen Hawking.

Using a middle initial is another sneaky way to impart intelligence. That's because “middle initials are linked in many people's minds to higher social status and education.” I can't personally testify to this outcome, since I come from a lower social status. My parents wanted to give me a middle initial, but they couldn't afford it. If you have the same problem, why not make up your own middle initial? Just don't be too fanciful and use an “X” or a “Q.” The only name that would work with “X” is “X-Ray.” There are no words in the English language that begin with Q.

Another take on the big, fancy word strategy comes from Dianna Booher, a business communication consultant, who tells the sad tale of a manager who “tried to impress others by learning a new word every day and using it all day.” The manager managed to use his word of the day — “ubiquitous” in the example given — whether it fit the conversation or not. “Rather than burnishing his image,” Booher explains, “he became a laughing stock.”

Clearly the manager made a big mistake in using a word like ubiquitous. No one knows what it means, and, frankly, I'm not even sure ubiquitous is a word. On the other hand, it is clearly a much better word choice than “burnishing.” Sorry Booher, you can't fool us with a made-up word that obvious.

If these tactics won't work for you, don't give up hope. According to William Arruda, a personal-branding consultant, “those who do the best job of projecting intelligence are those who are able to say 'I don't know.'”

JACKPOT! Since you honestly and truly can respond to almost any question with “I don't know,” it will not take long for you to establish yourself as the smartest person in the company, in the country, in the world!

Will this mean you will become successful and rich and famous?

All I can say is — I don't know.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@bgplanning.com.

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