How to Be a Better Liar
To get good at bending the truth, you have to first know why most people are terrible at it
In theory, lying isn’t good — it can breed distrust, harm your family, and infuse your life with chaos. But in practice, there are times when it would be convenient to be good at lying. Like when your boss wants you to give up a whole weekend for a conference, but you really need a break. Or when that not-really-a-friend asks you to be in their bridal party.
When you find yourself in one of these situations, backed into a corner with only a good lie to get you out, you want to make sure it’s a good one. And there are, in fact, some strategies you can use to make your lies more believable.
One recent study attempted to decode deception by surveying people on their self-reported ability to lie. The study authors found that those who consider themselves good liars used a mix of four verbal tactics: “keeping the statement clear and simple,” “telling a plausible story,” “using avoidance/being vague about details,” and “embedding the lie into an otherwise truthful story.” Essentially, the best liars tell clear, realistic lies without a lot of detail, and they try to work the untruth into a story that is already true.
Of course, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. To tell a good lie, you’ll also need to match your behavior to your words. This is hard to do effectively, which is why the shady, obviously lying car salesman has become such a trope. Even if we don’t realize it, we can sense the dissonance between his words — “You’ll love this one. It’s a great deal!” — and his demeanor, which might be aggressive and predatory, with furrowed brows and pursed lips.
Getting away with a lie involves not deviating from your normal behavior — what lie spotters call a baseline — when telling it. Pamela Meyer, author of Liespotting and a TED Talk speaker, says that when interrogating potential criminals, lie spotters observe the person’s body language. “If someone’s a foot tapper and you ask them a hard question and they start tapping their foot [again], that doesn’t mean anything,” she says. “It’s when they shift from their norm.”
And often, when someone does deviate from their baseline, they’ll follow one of several common body language patterns: “Oftentimes liars will freeze their upper body. They may rub or touch their eyes. They may curl their feet inwards. They may fiddle with objects on their desk. Sometimes they speak with a slightly higher pitch. They may exhibit excessive eye contact to overcompensate for the myth that truth tellers look you in the eye,” she says.
Even avoiding all those giveaways, though, doesn’t guarantee that whatever you say will be believable, in part because your most deeply ingrained nature is working against you. According to Robin Dreeke, retired head of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Program and author of Sizing People Up, we’re wired to be terrible liars.
“It’s exceptionally difficult to actually lie effectively unless you don’t have empathy,” Dreeke says. “If you have empathy towards people that you’re interacting with, where you actually care about their thoughts, opinions, and ideas, it’s very challenging to deceive. We don’t like doing it as human beings.”
But stretching the truth, he adds, is a lot easier for most people to do. The key to doing it well is to reframe your statements in a more altruistic light: “If you just make the conversation about them, and make it so that the reason you’re making your decisions actually is in terms of them and you’re taking care of their needs, then you can come up with whatever excuse you want.”
According to Dreeke, this means using one or more of four tactics: “You seek their thoughts and opinions, you talk in terms of their priorities, you validate them, and you give them choices.”
For example, let’s say your colleague invites you to after-work drinks. You don’t feel comfortable admitting you just don’t want to, but it’s possible that maybe you’ve had a bit of a sore throat today. Instead of trying to come up with an elaborate lie explaining why you can’t attend, it’s easier to tell them that you’re worried you’re getting sick and wouldn’t want to risk giving them your cold. While it may involve some exaggeration, it’s a lot easier to go this route — and convince someone you’re telling the truth — than to tell an outright falsehood.
Of course, use these techniques sparingly. To be clear, this isn’t a story about using your powers for evil. Almost any deception carries the risk that you’ll lose someone’s trust.
But if you bend the truth judiciously and on a small scale, you’ll be able to pull off deceptions ranging from good (a surprise party!) to harmless (getting out of plans). As a side effect, you might even get better at catching a liar in their tracks.