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How Saying “I Don’t Know” Can Boost Your Credibility

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worried young businessman

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.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.careershift.com/ CareerShift

    Very interesting advice. It’s better to own up to your lack of knowledge instead of just winging it. The latter can get you in big trouble, especially if you get too caught up. Instead, ask questions, find mentors, and do your homework. You’ll be in a much better position when you go about a meeting or workshop in this manner than if you lied your way through the situation.

    • Rebecca Otis

      Thanks, CareerShift!

      Definitely great points about gathering as much knowledge as you can about your area of expertise, though there will always be more to learn. Working together to discover the answer can build speaker/audience relationships and help you continue the conversation beyond the event too.

  • Paul Chittenden

    Completely agree. The correct way to handle this is to say, “I’m don’t know… Let me get back to you on that.” Then either take their name (if you have a attendance list), business card or have your assistant do this. The big thing is to follow up, and actually answer their question. You make them happy. You look credible. You’ve learned something new.

    The only thing is if you are leading a meeting and you have to do this multiple times, your credibility will drop. So don’t use this as a crutch, but do not make something up if you don’t know the answer.

    • Rebecca Otis

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks for reading! I absolutely agree – following up with the answer is the most important part. Also, if you can refer the person to someone who will know the answer, that can help too. As long as an answer is given, the audience member will be happy and you will maintain your credibility.

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  • Greg Marcus

    I agree completely that this is the best thing to do. However, it may depend on your company culture. I worked in a company full of BSers, and was told in a performance review that I said “I don’t know” too much – it hurt my credibility. I didn’t realize at the time what a red flag this should have been. I was caught up in corporate idolatry at the time, blindly obeying, without thinking about what was really going on.

    If your company can’t tolerate I don’t know, time to hit LinkedIn!

    • Rebecca Otis

      Great thought, Greg! There’s a fine line between not knowing and seeking the answers to always grow and gain more knowledge in your area, versus knowing what details are okay not to know and consult the experts.