On January 14th  the New York Times published an interesting article by Sue  Shellenbarger about appearing to be an intelligent person. I was once again struck by the fact of how powerful our impressions are and even more than our rational analysis. The article  discussed research about how people form an impression about how intelligent another person might be. It turns out things we do to  promote an impression of intelligence  may do that or they may do the opposite of what we intended. In general, things that promote intelligence include showing self-confidence, speaking clearly and smoothly, and responding thoughtfully to what others are saying.

Not surprising, one of the strongest signs of intelligence is looking at others when speaking to them or when listening to them speak.  Yes, that is pretty obvious, but have you watched lawyers in jury selection looking down at their notes while the juror is speaking to them? It is far too common.  The  reaction of the juror is the same reaction you have when you are talking to someone at a social function and they are looking over your shoulder while you are talking.

In 2007 a psychology study at at a university in Los Angeles involved videos of participants acting out efforts to be seen as intelligent. The videos were then watched by others who evaluated how intelligent they thought the subject in the video was.  People who were trying to look intelligent used some common behaviors. These included looking at others while listening or speaking, sitting up straight, putting on a serious face and avoiding gestures, such as touching their hair or face. But the study showed that only the first two were really effective in creating  an impression of high intelligence from the people watching the videos. The primary factors were looking at others while listening or speaking and sitting up straight.

The people watching the videos also gave higher IQ ratings to those who appeared more relaxed and confident. Having a self assured expression rather than a poker face, speaking clearly in a pleasant, expressive voice, with gesturing, nodding and being engaged in the conversation resulted in higher IQ ratings by observers of the videos. Note, that these are all signs of focusing on the other other person and really listening to them.

Other stereotypes about intelligence had an impact on impressions as well. Wearing eyeglasses gives an impression of being more intelligent according to a 2011 study. Using a middle initial makes people expect a more intelligent person. In another study middle initials were linked in many people’s minds to higher social status and education.

What about lawyers who love to use big words and pretentious language to show how intelligent they are? In a 2006 study it was found that people who use long, complicated sentences and big words are seen as less intelligent, not more intelligent. In fact,  as  soon as pretentious language begins to  interfere with the other person’s ability to understand and communicate with you, the listener has an impression you are less intelligent according to research. Lawyers should ve keenly aware of this fact. Too many lawyers like to use legal jargon, medical terms or big words to show off how bright they are or how well they know the subject. However, when a lawyer or a witness does a poor job of making things simple and clear to the jury, the jurors do not blame themselves for not understanding, they blame the speaker. First, they make an effort to struggle to understand what is being said, then become frustrated and give up. At that point they stop trying to understand and become very annoyed with the speaker whether the lawyer or a witness. They never blame themselves for not understanding. They blame you because if it is the  witness they don’t understand they blame you for making it too complicated.

What about the most characteristic thing lawyers do: talk too much? People who talk too much and too loudly are seen as someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about and hope that no one will notice. It is also seen as a sign of insecurity. Lawyers talk too much and too loudly most of the time. You can pick  a lawyer out at a resturant or social setting because they are talking loudly and talking too much. In trial, they talk far too much  and in the process are seen  as not knowing what they are talking about.

Appearing calm and confident demonstrates intelligence. The 2007 study indicated that people who move around faster than others are rapid in their speech or reaction to events are seen as less intelligent. The cool calm lawyer in the courtroom is seen as more intelligent than the lawyer who is frantically reacting to everything. One year when I was teaching at the Spence Trial College, Gerry  Spence had a wonderful expression for how a lawyer should act in the courtroom. He called it “watchful waiting.” When someone  is excitedly talking,  you pause, wait calmly and watch until it is over. Then you calmly respond. That’s watchful waiting.

When we compare these studies to the principles outlined by Dale Carnegie in the 1930s about “how to Win friends and influence people” we see that  his principles are as valid today as they were when he promoted them:

  1. don’t criticize, condemn or complain.
  2. Give honest, sincere appreciation
  3. arouse in the other person and eager want
  4. Become genuinely interested in people
  5. smile
  6. remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language
  7. be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves
  8. talk in terms of the other person’s interests.
  9. Make the other person feel important but do it sincerely

Apply these principles and you will be a better trial lawyer.

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