Sometimes I make our intern Quinn pose for photos in the alley. Then I remind him Tom Hardy also filmed in that alley. Buckle up, buttercup.

“I don’t know“

Hi. My name is Mike and I run workshops all over the world. I enjoy doing it. A lot. One of my favorite workshops is about teaching people how to present work with confidence. At some point during my favorite workshop I ask my favorite question: What’s the most confident statement that can come out of your mouth?

“I got this.”

“I know what to do.”

“I’m right!”

Then, and this is how I know if the workshop is going well, there’ll be a tentative voice from the back, and it’s usually someone who hasn’t said much all day, someone who was doing more listening than talking. “I don’t know?” And yeah, they usually frame it as a question. But I know they don’t mean it as a question.

“You, in the back! What did you just say?”

“I don’t know.”

“Correct!”

I’ve been teaching this workshop for a couple of years now. The goal of the workshop is to teach people, people like you, how to talk about your work to other people — usually people who pay or can fire you — and to do it like an expert. How to do it with confidence.

I’m betting half of you got a dirty feeling in the pit of their stomach just seeing the word confidence. Dirty, dirty word. So slick. Confidence is gonna save your career.

The point of confidence isn’t to bullshit your way through a presentation. I won’t teach you to lie. (Your babysitters should’ve done that.) And I won’t teach you how to sell crappy work. My target audience is people who do amazing work, but were never taught how to sell it correctly. Thankfully our industry is full of them.

Why is confidence important? It’s important for a few reasons.

Firstly, confidence is a transitive property. People feel confident about work they’re receiving when the person delivering it is doing it confidently. They want to know they hired the right person for the job. Makes them feel smart. And they are smart. They hired you, didn’t they. Show them how smart they are.

Secondly, confidence saves time. Your humility in presenting good work is expensive. It slows things down and it keeps other people from doing their work. If you’re not sure about what you’re showing me why should I be sure about it. Meanwhile the rest of the team is waiting on you.

Thirdly, the words you use to describe your work are the same words the people you present it to will use when they describe it. So if you want your boss to tell her boss the work is awesome, you need to model those words for her. Also, make sure the work is awesome.

Last but not least, and this is where our original point kicks back in, at some point during the presentation, as much as you may have prepared and practiced, the person you’re presenting to will ask you a question that stumps you. (This moment is where careers are made, btw!)

You have a few options here:

  • You can lie. But only assholes lie.
  • You can try to make something up on the fly. But they’ll see right through that, plus it’ll probably be wrong, in which case it’s a lie.
  • You can buy for time with a strategically stretched out series of ummmmmmms until a co-worker bails you out. But every ummmmmmmm that comes out of your mouth is decreasing the room’s confidence in you. Or, or, OR! You can say the most confident thing that has ever come out of your mouth:

“I don’t know.”

Also, you need to follow that up with something like “I’m excited to find out.” or “Give me until the end of the day/week to look into it.” And then follow up.

“‘I don’t know’ has become ‘I don’t know yet.‘“— Bill Gates

It’s easy to look confident when you know what you’re talking about. (And to be clear, you should know what you’re talking about most of the time.) But on that rare occasion that you don’t, letting people know that you’re confident enough to admit that you’re at a loss is when you beat the level boss. No one has all the answers, and pretending you do doesn’t make you look confident, it makes you look a fool.

Being calm and collected while expressing a missing piece of knowledge? Amazing. Confident. If anything people’s confidence in you has grown. Now they trust you. They know you’ll admit when you don’t know something. And that’s huge.

I do these workshops all over the world. They’re great. Everybody comes in nervous and leaves happy. Some of them even email me things like “I totally nailed my presentation this week!” I save every one of those emails. If you’re interested in having me do one at your organization, let me know. Except now I have to come up with a new trick, I gave this one away.