How to communicate confidently when you don’t have all the answers
The opportunity is to come across as credible and trustworthy even as you indicate you don’t have all the answers. Here are 3 ways to do that:
1. Speak powerfully about what you DO know. You might be tempted to react ‘unpowerfully’ by saying “I don’t know” (and criticizing yourself for not knowing). Instead, sort out what do you DO know in the situation and what you DON”T know.
Say with a sense of conviction and authority: “this is what I know” and “this is what I don’t know”. Share confidently what you know. Or state confidently why that information is not ‘know-able now’ and what actions you will do to fill in the blanks over time. Another variation is to say “here’s what I know, and here’s what I would speculate.” You’re communicating what you don’t know in a way that is trustworthy and has authority.
2. Describe the uncertainty with certainty. Say “Here are the 3 risks in the situation.” or “Here are the 3 things we are uncertain about… These are the contingencies we will be on the lookout for, these are the unintended consequences that could happen…”
Or you could say “here’s my educated guess and it’s based on this reasoning”. Then share your reasoning with the group. “If it’s x scenario then the answer would be in the range of ___. If its Y scenario the answer would be in the range of ___.”
You could showcase your experience: “I think that there’s a 50/50 chance that X is going to happen/not happen, or that Y is that answer we’re looking for. I’m basing that conclusion on the following pieces of data: 1, 2, 3.”
3. Give an authentic response. If you don’t know the answer it’s better to be straightforward then to try to fake it and come across as nervous. Say “I don’t know but I’ll find out for you” in a way that emphasizes the specific plan. It’s the plan they will remember and not your lack of knowledge. “We have that information in our x report, I’ll ask IT to pull it and send you an answer after lunch.” or “We’ve been reviewing industry practices on that, let me pull together our conclusions and follow up with you this afternoon”. If you have a team member in the room who would be able to speak to the issue, it might be appropriate to pull them into answering with you as well.
Keep track of and analyze the questions you are asked so you can start to “think like” a senior leader or someone who’s in a position to hire you. You can ‘put on their head’ before you go into your next meeting and be more prepared for the kind of questions they might ask. Build this ‘anticipatory questioning’ into all your meeting preparations.
BONUS: What you can do before you ever walk into the room: Make it a practice to use language that is concrete and evidence-based. Develop a reputation as someone who always has concise information to support assertions. When you do this you train other people to trust you, even when you don’t have all the answers!