08/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Signs of Intelligent Life: Group Smarts


You turn on the radio, and someone is giving an opinion about something that's currently in the news. How long does it take for you decide whether or not that person might have something important to say?

You're in a meeting at work and a person from another department, someone you haven't met before, has joined the meeting. When they finally speak, how long will it take for you to make a judgment about their knowledge, their communication skills, and even their intelligence?

In a previous post we discussed the simple appearance of intelligence. We can give an impression of smarts just by holding ourselves a certain way, and by making steady eye contact. If we're naturals, or if we've been practicing, so far so good.

Now comes the crunch. The time has come for us to speak, to give our insights. Somewhere a tiny voice reminds us (as in Proverbs 18:28) "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise...." If we want to avoid removing all doubt about that assumed wisdom, we must accomplish certain minimums when we speak. First, we must show that we have been listening carefully to others, not just to our own inner thoughts. We need to acknowledge which of the ideas already been put forth we have some agreement with. We don't need to recite or argue with those ideas we disagree with, since that will be demonstrated by our ignoring them.

Once we have pointed out what we like so far we have two choices. We can either step back and reframe the discussion, or we can refine what we agree with. (If we simply agree and add nothing, we won't have done much to augment our reputation.)

Reframing is the most ambitious approach, since it means we really need to have a new fresh view of the whole topic. We might even have a brave new metaphor that will help (or mislead) the discussion. Sports metaphors are at the bottom of fresh thinking, so beware the Hail Mary insight. Take away 5 points from your I.Q. and start over. But a smart and fresh metaphor, especially if it clicks, can powerfully reframe a discussion and win you many points. If you've prepared for the meeting, you might have had your metaphorical insight ready. Just wait for the right moment: "Actually, this whole issue reminds me of a farm." Pause. Wait for those gasps of recognition. Aha! A whole new body of language has opened up. Who are the sheep? Who has left the barn door open? Are the rich fields lying fallow? You're a genius.

Short of reframing by the introduction of a new metaphor, you can also demonstrate your sharp wit by seeing something fresh and important that goes to the heart of the issue. "We're all talking about whether or not to install night lights on the baseball diamond, but have we thought about the impact on our astronomy lab just 50 yards away?"

The secrets to appearing brilliant in a meeting? Be prepared. Have several different scenarios played out and what you would contribute in each instance. Listen carefully, and don't speak until everyone else has staked out their initial position.

And if you're an eyewitness to a major event and someone sticks a camera in your face, just remember these all-purpose words: "Oh, the huge manatee!" And repeat for effect.