A Better Way of Saying, “I Don’t Know”

“I begin to speak only when I’m certain what I’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.”

— Cato, Roman Senator

It’s better to stay quiet than blabber endlessly without any logic or coherence. I’m a big proponent of saying, “I don’t know,” whenever I’m forced to play outside my circle of competence.

While this way of thinking definitely helps you grow, it does have some downsides. Downside not in your growth, rather, downside in how others perceive you.

Society rewards the knowledge worker, not the one who doesn’t know, or isn’t sure about what they know. And humility is a very important skill set that helps you grow.

But humility is two-fold. Some may consider your humility as a form of weakness. Especially those people who don’t know you. Or those who are cocksure that they know more than you.

Suppose somebody asks you something, and you don’t know that answer. You might have a tendency to point them towards somebody who knows. Or you’ll tell them that you’ll find out the answer and get back to them. These are good traits, yes, but they see you as somebody without the answers.

We worship gurus and pundits, because we believe they have answers to our questions. If they start saying I don’t know, their aura gets clouded.

Apart of having all the answers, we also want them to be confident about them. There can’t be any sort of confusion about their volition or their conviction. They know the way, and they are sure that it is the right way.

I must say, to garner support and following, you need this confidence. But at the same time, you need to be humble as well. You don’t want to be talking baboon.

You gotta be like a teacher who knows well enough to sound intelligent. But at the same time, you also have to be like a student. One who is always learning new things. Yes, it’s a paradox.

Being smart and appearing to be smart are completely different. The first is about humility, and learning, and constant growth. While the later is more about putting up a show.

So, this is what you should do. Keep your humility personal. Be humble among people who are close to you. People who know you very well—your friends, your close confidants, and your advisors.

But when you are among the masses, be secretly humble, but be openly persuasive. Speak and phrase things in such a way that make you seem above doubt, and well accomplished.

Great persuaders don’t deal in subtleties or grey areas. Everything they do appear to be the best, top of class, and world leading. When they toot their own horns, they do it without making it very obvious.

They rarely begin sentences with, “In my humble opinion…” or “According to my thinking…”. For example, “According to me, this plan won’t work because…” becomes, “This plan won’t work because…”

This subtle omission makes what they say sound absolute. If you start with, “This is what I think we should do,” you invite criticism. Instead, if you say, “This is what we should do,” you display conviction.

This is what startup founders do. Think of yourself as a startup founder pitching your idea to a group of investors. You can’t have even a shadow of doubt.

More than often, the quality of the idea persuades less. Rather, it is the quality of the pitch that persuade more. That’s an ugly truth, yes, but it is the truth, and you gotta live with it.

Along with that, you also have to make sure that everything opposing it is the worst. Not bad; the worst! Those are disasters, tragedies, crippling blows, non-functioning, and terrible.

Steve Jobs did exactly that. During the iPad presentation, he said, “The problem is Netbooks aren’t better at anything. They are slow. They have low-quality displays. And they run clunky old PC software.” At that time, Netbooks were selling like hot cakes. He brought the whole industry down after bringing the iPad to the market. Because, it was the best.

Instead of a debate about its features and benefits, he controlled the conversation. He turned it into a black and white option, with only one real choice that any sane person would choose.

For the iPad to be the best of the best, all other products in that domain have to be the worst. There were no grey areas.

Human brains process black and white or absolute information better. Adding “I think,” “In my opinion” only adds clutter, and makes you a bad communicator. We think in absolutes, not in probabilities. You gotta tune into this to make yourself persuasive.

Good communication is persuasive communication. People will judge your credibility by the quality of your communication. And you need credibility to be persuasive.

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