Why You Shouldn’t Say "I Don’t Know"

I recently posted a YouTube video that taught spokespersons how to answer questions to which they didn’t know the answer.

A few people wrote in and told me they thought my advice to avoid the words “I don’t know” was wrong. They maintained that saying “I don’t know” would play well with the audience, which appreciates a straight shooter.

A new Harvard study suggests they’re wrong. First, the original video:

According to an article about the Harvard study in Canada’s The Globe and Mail:

“Those who answered the questions honestly but hesitantly were rated an average of 25 per cent less credible and likeable than those who evaded in an eloquent way….As many as half of the students in the study could not even remember what question was originally asked after hearing an artfully evasive answer.”

So, is my advice is to gracefully evade a reporter’s questions? Not at all. Evading questions will cause the reporter and the audience to question your sincerity.

But I maintain that the “Peter Jennings Technique” described in the video doesn’t evade questions. Rather, it answers questions directly, albeit in a broader context than the question itself.

This technique works best in interviews that aren’t adversarial. If you’re on local radio with a friendly host, for example, it’s safe – moreover, preferable – to use this technique.

To be clear, there are times you should say “I don’t know.” You should say “I don’t know” during a crisis. You should say it during a decidedly negative interview when your credibility would otherwise be compromised. You should say it when asked a follow-up question that asks you to offer the specifics you didn’t mention in your first answer.

But for everyday media interviews, stick with my original advice: tell them what you know, not what you don’t.
So, now that Harvard has backed up my original advice, did I change the minds of the e-mailers who originally disagreed with my advice?

I don’t know.