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Why I never say “I don’t know”

June 14, 2011 - Presentations, Professional Development

There are a few words and phrases I refuse to utter at work, such as roflcopter (too few people would get it), Barack Obama (no politics, thank you very much), and socialize (that corporate buzzword needs to die).

But perhaps a more unexpected phrase I refuse to say at work is “I don’t know.”

Specifically, there are two situations in which I’ve seen this phrase take a turn for the worse:

1. A presentation

The thing about public speaking that probably gets my heart to flutter most is thinking about the potential barrage of questions from the audience.  It’s good to know your audience well enough to anticipate some possible questions, but it’s impossible to be prepared for anything and everything they may ask.

I dont knowOne of the greatest bits of feedback I received from my manager after my first presentation as a summer intern was, “The next time someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t just say, ‘I don’t know.’  Say, ‘I don’t know, but that’s a great question. I’ll find out and let you know.'”  Not only does it demonstrate your ownership of the topic at hand, but it provides a good opportunity for follow-up after your presentation with a colleague.

2. A job interview

One of the most common job interview questions, especially for recent college graduates is, “What kind of career are you pursuing?” or “What are you looking for in a job?”  And I’ve heard really sharp, desirable job candidates say, “I don’t know.”  Interview over.

The thinking by the candidates that say that dastardly phrase is they don’t want to limit their job options.  They don’t want to say they’re interested in a job that the interviewing company may not have open.

I promise that “I don’t know” is worse.  It’s worse to give the interviewer the impression that you don’t have some kind of idea of what you’d be interested in doing 8 – 10 hours a day for the foreseeable future.  It’s worse to pretend that you haven’t given enough thought during 4 – 6 years of college — learning and preparing for the rest of your life’s work — to at least give a brief answer to the question.

“I don’t know” is worse.


Agree?  Disagree?

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