We can't all be human encyclopedias, and once in a while, you're bound to stumble upon a conversation on a topic you know absolutely nothing about. To avoid being left out or seeming ignorant, here are a few tips for "tricking" people into thinking you're well informed.
These aren't instructions on how to win an argument or how to one up a troll on the internet. It's merely a guide to "getting by" in a conversation where you feel a little lost, or where you aren't as informed as the other participants. When in doubt, you're better off not saying anything rather than running off at the mouth, but these tips should get you through a conversation without looking like you're just zoning out.
Also note that feigning intelligence it isn't always the best course of action. When it's an option, it's OK to just ask questions (in fact, smart people often do). You're not going to learn anything by always pretending you know what you're talking about. But there are scenarios in which putting up a bit of a front can mean the difference between, say, getting that dream job or not, and sometimes your best bet is to "fake it 'til you make it".
One of the most important things you can do is appear confident. If you act like you know what you're talking about, it's a lot more likely you'll be perceived as knowing what you're talking about. This means avoiding "blank words" such as "like", "um", etc. It's OK to pause and think when you have to, and if you accidentally say one of these blank words, don't freak out, but overall it's a good idea to try to strike them from your vocabulary. Talk slowly, calmly, and think about what you're going to say before you speak, and you'll already have a huge head start.
Know When To Speak
Don't jump at the chance to be the first to speak. Don't try and take over the conversation, either, especially if it's an argument. The last thing you want is to be called out on your knowledge gaps, and the more heated it gets, the more likely the loud people are the ones looking like idiots. Sit back, think about what you do know on the topic, and wait for a chance to jump in with that (don't just yell it out needlessly). Marketing weblog Tribal Seduction makes a good point: true experts don't just blab; they're very careful about what they say:
[Experts]know that people are paying attention to them, and that has two consequences. First of all, they know that their reputation is on the line every time they open their mouth—that everything they say will be subject to scrutiny. Secondly, they also know that people will put a lot of weight into what they say and probably act upon it, so they feel a strong sense of responsibility to provide good information.
Make sure you're not spouting off needless information just to be part of the discussion. Even if you aren't an expert, you'll sound a heck of a lot more like one if you're careful about what comes out of your mouth. If you can't form a coherent thought, then you're better off keeping quiet altogether. Just sit back with a smug grin, like you're silently laughing at the buffoons arguing over such trivialities.
Emphasise What You Know
Over at weblog Nerd Fighters, they recommend you over-exaggerate what you do know to make it seem more important, and to learn from the discussion whenever possible:
In certain cases, you can take what you've already said and apply personal opinion to it to add on to your statement. You can also make inferences from what the other(s) have already said. Agree or disagree with the person in cases where you will not need to present a reason why. Certain things that others say will sometimes fill in pieces of what you know, and that's probably your best chance at gaining knowledge to present.
If you can learn and synthesise information as the discussion is going on, you can jump in with points and act like you've had them forever, even though you formulated them mere seconds ago.
Don't Worry About Proving Others Wrong
You're a lot less likely to come off as intelligent when you get in an argument and someone's poking holes in everything you say. If the group is arguing, you can take a side, but try to stress agreement with one side rather than disagreement with the other, if that makes sense. That way, you don't get stuck having to present evidence you don't have, but you're still taking part in the discussion and sharing your opinion (which, hopefully, you can present in an intelligent way using the other tips here).
This tip really comes into play when you can make a point that people may not agree with, or may not have thought about, but can easily understand. Weblog Less Wrong explains this idea best:
At another point in the discussion, a man spoke of some benefit X of death, I don't recall exactly what. And I said: "You know, given human nature, if people got hit on the head by a baseball bat every week, pretty soon they would invent reasons why getting hit on the head with a baseball bat was a good thing. But if you took someone who wasn't being hit on the head with a baseball bat, and you asked them if they wanted it, they would say no. I think that if you took someone who was immortal, and asked them if they wanted to die for benefit X, they would say no."
. . . [It was crucial]that my listeners could see immediately that my reply made sense. They might or might not have agreed with the thought, but it was not a complete non-sequitur unto them. . . If you want to sound deep, you can never say anything that is more than a single step of inferential distance away from your listener's current mental state. That's just the way it is.
The thinking applies to "appearing deep", but you can use it in a number of different types of conversations. The more common ground you can find—even in a heated argument—the more the other person is inclined to find you wise, intelligent, and respect you—and, often, stop the argument right there. And if you don't know what you're talking about, you probably don't have a strong opinion on the subject, so finding common ground with everyone should be pretty easy.
Steer The Discussion To Related Topics
In the end, you'll probably exhaust your cache of knowledge pretty quickly, and won't have much else to say in the discussion. Unless it's a very heated argument, it's likely the topic itself isn't that important to those involved, so you can get out of it pretty quickly. Take part in what you can, then try to steer the discussion toward something related. Your friends talking about
Get In A Good Last Word
As things start to dial down in a given discussion, you have a good opportunity to be remembered and sound like you know what you're talking about. Weblog Productivity 501 explains the value of getting the last word:
If you have the final word and simply summarize the good points made by everyone else, people will remember your contribution more than the people who really came up with the idea. I'm not suggesting that you steal others ideas, but restating the best ideas (even when giving others credit) will make you look smarter.
Of course, if you've been silent for the rest of the conversation, this will look out of place and it'll probably be pretty obvious what you're trying to do. But if you've followed the above tips—sharing what you do know, learning and responding throughout the conversation, and finding that common ground, this can be a nice finishing move.
Final Thoughts: When Possible, Learn The Material
Of course, all this is great in the heat of the moment, but it wouldn't kill you to actually learn some things beforehand. If you find yourself in this situation a lot, it's likely you get stuck in a discussion about the same topics—perhaps a talked-about political issue, or a a particular interest many of your friends share. If that's true, do some research on those subjects -- even a bit of casual Wikipedia browsing -- to boost your knowledge. This also allows you to do a lot of your thinking ahead of time, so you have well-formed opinions and know exactly how to present them.
Lots of people recommend accumulating random knowledge, and that can get you somewhere too, though only if done right. Memorizing the questions and answers in Trivial Pursuit is just going to make you seem like a weird cache of knowledge, which, while that can be humorous, can also just make you sound like you're trying to appear smart, which is not what you want. Instead, get out of your comfort zone and read things you wouldn't otherwise read. I personally love the previously mentioned web service Send Me a Story—it'll automatically send random long-form nonfiction articles from magazines like the New Yorker, The Atlantic, and other outlets that you otherwise wouldn't have found for yourself.
I also love reading Reddit, and highly recommend you check out some of the other subreddits (beyond /r/fffffffuuuuuuuuuuuu and /r/AskReddit) and checking out things like /r/AskScience, /r/ExplainLikeImFive, and other informative subreddits where people answer questions about complex subjects in plain English. You can also search through those forums for specific questions, in areas where even Wikipedia might be overly complicated.
Remember: in the end, it isn't about sounding like the smartest person in the room. You don't want to come off as arrogant; the goal is just to make it look like you're not the least informed person in the room. With a bit of practice, you should be able to handle most conversations with little difficulty. Got any of your own tips for sounding smarter than you are? Share them with us in the comments.