I don't know“I don’t know.” These might be the best three little words you can use as you build your business. And here’s what got me thinking about this:

Ken Mueller’s post a couple days ago was terrific. You should go read it, if you haven’t already, but the gist of it is that when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s far smarter to admit to what you don’t know rather than to pretend you do know what you don’t know.

I’ll give you a couple of seconds to digest that.

And… we’re back.

I think this is a good rule of thumb for anyone. Most of us are honest, decent people, who want to help each other out. And often we say “yes” when we mean “no” or “I don’t know,” either because we got caught up in the excitement of the moment (someone asked us! w00t!), or that we just didn’t want to let the person asking down.

The problem is that once we’ve said we do know ______ (how to do something, or what it will take to _____, and so on), then we’re expected to do it. To know. And in a business situation, we don’t always have the time to learn how to do what we don’t know well enough so as not to fall flat on our face.

And falling flat on our collective face, often enough, is the surest way to dry up the stream of prospects, assuming we have figured out how to turn it on.

Three little stories

There were three separate instances over the past three weeks where saying “I don’t know” helped my business:

1. A new client asked me if I undertook a particular process the way _______ did. I looked her right in the eye and said, “I’m not <a professional of that sort> so I don’t know, but this is how I do it.”

Turns out “how I do it” was enough for the client. And we are off to what I think is a very good beginning.

2. Another new client asked my opinion about a potentially hairy situation. I’d had all of an hour to read the briefing materials (internally they had been discussing the situation for months), so at the time, I gave them my honest opinion.

But enough was said to make me wonder whether I’d given them the right advice. So after a few days of thinking long and hard about the situation (the weekend fell in between), I reversed my opinion and said so, and was willing to shoulder any irritation/blame that might come my way.

It didn’t; in fact, it made the situation a little easier when the client realized that the “expert” was saying, “Hey, I don’t know if what I said earlier was the right thing for you, let’s talk about this some more.”

Once I gave them the revised advice, with the reasoning why, they actually appreciated what I said more. Again, a more comfortable situation all round and, hopefully, one that will culminate well.

3. Someone I absolutely don’t know found me, somehow, and wanted to consult with me on an issue that is not strictly a digital media or social/PR issue, but more of a “personal communication” and perception issue.

Of course I was flattered… but I was confused.

Was I somehow branding myself as a personal or life coach? Because that’s the kind of professional who’d normally be called in to handle such a situation. And if somehow that is how I am coming across, I need to do a much better job of marketing my business!

Turns out, that’s not who the prospect wants, but my advice on certain elements of presentation and inter-personal communication… and certainly, that is something I believe I’m equipped to give.

I highly doubt this prospect will convert into a consulting client, but it’s a great way to evaluate certain elements I plan to incorporate in my business moving forward.

Connecting the dots

I hadn’t connected the dots until I read Ken’s post, and then the penny dropped: by saying “I don’t know” when I truly didn’t know helped me immensely. Because I didn’t pretend to be smarter than I am; because I could empathize with the situation they were in and, ultimately, by doing the absolute best job I can for them without a smoke and mirror show.

And this will help me brand and grow my business the right way, so that I can continue to do the work that’s right for me… at least, more often than not.

I’m not saying that I will answer “I don’t know” every time someone asks me a question – I certainly hope I don’t! – but it is very liberating to admit to when you don’t know something. Heck, where would the fun be if we knew everything all the time?

So thanks to Ken for sparking this post. I don’t know… gotcha!

And now – it’s your turn… what about you? Have you found saying “I don’t know” has helped you more often than not? Are there other words you use as a business mantra? Do share, I’d love to know!

Image: Guudmorning! via Flickr, CC 2.0

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps smart businesses make bank by taking their communications from corporate codswallop to community cool™. She is also the founder of The Social PR Virtuoso®, which provides online, on-demand training that helps you unleash your inner Social PR superhero. Shonali is mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke