It might be counterintuitive, but admitting you need to do a little more research can actually help your cause. Here’s how to say “I don’t know” in way that will work in your favor.
You’re leading a workshop or meeting, and you’ve spent hours preparing. You’ve confirmed the time and location. You’ve arrived on time, introduced yourself (or were introduced by those who invited you to lead the session) and you’ve begun sharing the points you planned to cover. Then you get a question from an attendee that you don’t know the answer to. What do you do?
When you’re asked a question you don’t know how to answer in an email or on the phone, you may use technology as a buffer—you can put someone on hold, or even Google the answer quickly. But what happens when you begin to question your authority on the spot or you fear your audience might doubt your credibility?
One way to handle this would be to make an assumption, prediction or educated guess. This approach works only when you acknowledge that you’re doing so—but if you answer without confirming that your answer is accurate, you’re misinforming an audience that trusts you as a leader.
A better option? Actually saying “I don’t know” could help you maintain credibility or even boost it. Here’s why:
1. Your audience will hold you accountable
If you pretend to know the answer without confirming accuracy, the audience may check your facts and prove you wrong (maybe even publicly) during or after the event. You just caused your credibility to decrease, fast.
2. We all want leaders we can trust and who trust in themselves
Being authentic, honest and relatable will help you connect with your audience and retain their respect for you, which is more important than having the right answer. In a recent article on 99u about trusting yourself James Victore writes, “Practice being in the state of not knowing, establishing comfort within trust.” Your audience or team will respect you for acknowledging you don’t know and appreciate your honesty.
3. Seeking the answer or offering to find it shows commitment
Try asking the audience if they’ve had an experience or know the answer to the question after acknowledging that you aren’t certain. This shows you’re open to collaboration and committed to finding an answer even if you didn’t walk in knowing it.
4. Level with your audience as a learner
Showing uncertainty demonstrates that you’re learning from your audience as they learn from you. It also showcases that you’re open to new perspectives and don’t claim to be an all-encompassing expert. Learn from what the audience is asking and incorporate this knowledge as you prepare for your next event or meeting.
In today’s economy, technology advances daily or even hourly, and—while you may know the ins and outs of your own discipline—there could be a new development that occurs while you’re sleeping or preparing for the next presentation. You may find that you earn more respect and credibility by acknowledging that you’re a student of your craft (no matter what level of expertise you master), that you’re open to ideas and collaboration and that you’re human.
Rebecca Otis, the Content/Social Media Manager at Chicago digital marketing agency Digital Third Coast, founded a small business marketing consultancy at the age of 26, was named an Austin Business Journal Women of Influence Profiles in Power Rising Star Finalist in 2012 and speaks for national organizations HP Catalyst and BlogHer. Connect with Rebecca on her site, Google+ and @RebeccaOtis.