This quote came to mind today as I was conducting a personal coaching session for presentation skills. My client, who is an engineer by training who manages teams of engineers in disparate disciplines, and in presenting to them or to senior managers (almost all of whom are also highly technical by background), he gets nervous because he knows he’s going to face some detailed technical questions that he can’t answer satisfactorily. In effect, he’s afraid of seeming ignorant.
I reminded him that everyone in that room is ignorant, only about different things. The days are long gone when anyone can be an expert in everything, so there’s no shame in admitting ignorance. If you go into a presentation or a meeting determined not to show ignorance, you will be called out. There’s no shame in saying “I don’t know”, and then either offering to find out (unless it’s an irrelevant question that was only posed by the questioner to show how smart he is), or passing it on to a team member for an answer.
Before your presentation, plan ahead for the knowledge level and particular interests of audience members so that you can bring support for questions outside your area. You might also find it helpful to set some ground rules up front, letting your audience know the boundaries of your expertise.
The key is to be totally honest about your own ignorance. This starts with being honest with yourself, which is not as easy as it sounds. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”
It’s nice to be self-confident, but remember that most people overrate their own abilities, and the most ignorant are least aware of it. It’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and its corollary is that people with high competence tend to underestimate their ability, because they know how complicated the topic really is.
So if you’re afraid of seeming ignorant, you probably have less to fear than you think, and those who think they have it locked maybe should be a little more afraid!