In professional life, advancement often depends not on who is smartest, but on who seems smartest. Job interviewers often choose confident candidates over the awkward but skilled. Leadership positions go to those who project confidence rather than those who actually get results. And, as most of us have experienced, meetings tend to be monopolized by those who talk a lot, not those with the most interesting things to say. 

All of which implies that if you want to succeed in business, you don't just need to be smart, you need others to perceive you as smart

A million tips and tricks exist to maximize your intelligence and get the best out of your brain. But how about the other part of the equation: How do you maximize not just what you know but what others think you know? Science offers answers. 

What science has to say about how to seem smarter

California Management Review recently crowned its best article of the year 2022, an award that "recognizes the article published during the preceding year that has made the most important contribution to management practice." The winner is an article by Dana Carney, a psychologist at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, that runs through the most useful, research-validated body language tricks every leader should know. 

"Your behavior has a large effect on others--how they feel about themselves, how well they perform, and whether or not they feel validated and included," Carney insists, before running through 10 incredibly useful lessons in nonverbal behavior. Several of them are worth a quick write-up (and I may cover more in the days to come), but perhaps the most immediately useful section is about how to signal to others that you are smart. 

There is plenty of non-scientific advice out there on how to dress or act to seem smarter, but Carney's advice is both research-backed and dead simple. Both those who are actually smart and look smart to others and those who seem the most engaged, she notes.  

"When we appear engaged with, stimulated by, and connected to what others are saying and doing, it tends to reflect our intelligence and it shapes others' perceptions of how smart we are," Carney explains. So how do you seem more engaged? She offers three tips: 

  1. Lean in. "The more you lean in (literally) to another person as you are talking, the more intelligent you seem (and tend to be)," she notes.

  2. Nod along. "Nodding your head 'yes' as people speak is another indication of your interest and engagement and thus your intelligence," she continues. 

  3. Verbalize your interest. Finally, "affirmative paralinguistic utterances such as 'mm-hmm,' 'yes,' and 'ah-hah' also signal and reflect intelligence," she concludes. 

In short, if you want others to think you're smart, focus less on small details of self-presentation and more on showing others you're listening and thinking about what they're saying. Whether you're wearing glasses or using big or small words matters a lot less than giving the impression that you're deeply interested in the conversation. So if you're aiming to seem smart, focus on seeming engaged.