While we can’t use science to increase our intelligence (at least, not yet) there are certain ways we can make ourselves seem smarter to others. There are physical cheats, like wearing glasses and signing your name with your middle name initialed, and there is the how we talk. How we talk is everything. One has to look no further than television, on which thespians play brain surgeons, to understand that tone and word choice are critical.
Two groups of professionals know this best: psychologists and screenwriters. So we asked them what we could do to make ourselves sound like Dr. Gregory House, Sherlock Holmes, Gus Fring, Dr. Gaius Baltar, Lisa Simpson, Professor Farnsworth, Data, Shawn Spencer, Columbo, Walter Bishop, the Doctor, and the other geniuses who command a national audience. They had pointers.
1. Word Choice
On The Mentalist, flaxen-haired Patrick Jane is not just your regular former fake psychic working as an independent consultant for the California Bureau of Investigation while hunting for the murderer of his wife and children. He’s exceptional and, specifically, he’s exceptional because he can use keen powers of observation to solve some of the trickiest crimes in the business. (Also, he’s very handsome.)
One notable thing about Patrick is that he isn’t regular but he sounds like a regular guy — there’s no overdrawn, jargon-filled explanations of how he solves the case. While this may seem counter-intuitive, that’s how the writers for the show indicate his intelligence. UCLA professor Daniel Oppenheimer has found in his work that using shorter words is often indicative of mental clarity.
“My work shows that gratuitous use of long words can make people look less intelligent,” Oppenheimer tells Inverse. “The use of unnecessarily complex language makes you harder to understand and this disfluency lowers evaluations of intelligence.”
Long words aren’t necessarily bad, but they have to be used at the right time. More often than not people presume that because intelligent people are known to have better vocabularies they should stuff their own vernacular with flowery phrases. This typically backfires because they come off as imprecise and pretentious. When people are capable of processing the information given to them, they credit the giver with more intelligence. It’s that simple.
2. The Ohio/England Paradox
Accents hugely affect how one’s intelligence is perceived. Cornell University psychology professor Katherine Kinzler has discovered in her research that when children are as young as nine or 10 years old they begin to judge people by the way that they sound. In a 2012 study Kinzler found that kids from across the United States stereotyped accents consistently. Children from the north and south both thought northerners sounded smart and southerners sounded nice.
“Accent plays a really big role in [sounding intelligent] — in both my research and in a long tradition of sociolinguistics and psycholinguistic research, it has been shown that people have stereotypes about different kinds of accented speech,” Kinzler tells Inverse. “There are some interesting studies — not my own work — showing how biased the media, including children’s media, can be in terms of portraying negative stereotypes about different groups. So, I definitely think it’s possible that media plays a role [in who we perceive as intelligent].”
This is why southern Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory is such a comedic anomaly — he’s a southerner who’s a genius. He’s funny (well, to some people) precisely because he doesn’t sound like Frasier Crane. He’s a believable genius because he’s an unexpected genius.
But even more so than northern-sounding Americans, the Brits are consistently thought to be smart sounding. Television producers have obviously responded to this, giving fans Tim Roth on the short-lived but very anglo-centric Lie to Me to the impeccably posh-sounding Benedict Cumberbatch on Sherlock.
3. Don’t Be Patient
Brian Davidson, a screenwriter and lecturer in the radio, television, and film department at the University of Texas, at Austin, knows how to create a smart character. Writing against stereotype and sprinkling in specialized vocabulary — think the random scientific phrases thrown into the lines of CSI characters — are quick hacks.
Another trick is called “Columbo-ing”, inspired by the long-running detective program Columbo. A prime example of this sort of paced, impatient inquisition is seen in the language of Dr. Gregory House on House M.D.
“One of the most realistic ways to show intelligence is to have the character ask the right questions and then make the connections to reveal the secret or discover the truth,” Davidson says. “I loved writing bullpen-like scenes with the entire CSI: Miami crew together batting questions back and forth to assemble the idea.”
Writers prefer smart characters to converse at speed, Davidson says. Despite the measured delivery of Spock and the traditional Sherlocks, modern scribes embrace the walk and talk: Think Toby on Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing or Brenda on The Closer.
“I prefer the fast, chaotic delivery when too many thoughts are trying to spill out of their mouth at once,” says Davidson. “When we’re firing on all cylinders, thoughts and associations come fast and furious, creating a more spastic delivery than contemplative. The truly smart people I know talk like this when others want to hear about something they have devoted their life to study.”