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.
Loved the last line of that column!
Question: When you do get that “no, I want a number” question and you don’t know the number, is it better just to say, “I don’t know, but …” or is it better to say (assuming you can ethically say), “No one knows the exact number, but …” or “It’s impossible to say for sure, but …”?
I remember watching the Tomorrow show one night. (The old Tomorrow show that came on after the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.) Tom Snyder asked the guest a question and he gave a general answer. (Don’t remember the guest or the subject, but it wasn’t a hostile interview.) Tom then said, “Well, how many xyz’s are we talking about?” The guy gave another general answer. Snyder, in typical Snyder fashion, totally unaware that the guest is giving a general answer because he doesn’t have a specific number to give, asks, “Well, give me a ballpark number.” The guest then gives a number. To which Snyder then proclaims, “That many!” The guest then immediately says, “Well, I don’t know if there were that many, but it was a lot, I don’t know the exact number, but …”
Ok. (Not worth it yet, I know.) So, the interview goes on, but the above exchange happens again! This time though the finally-given number is low. “Only 20 people …!” to which the guest again immediately says, “Well, I don’t know if there were only 20, but you asked for a number and it wasn’t very many, I don’t know the exact number, but …”
About the fifth time this happened in the interview, I was rolling on the floor and laughing so hard I was crying! I’m sure it was unscripted, but it couldn’t have been funnier if it had been scripted.
Lesson learned: If you don’t have a number, don’t give a number. Other lesson learned: It used to be fun to stay up late and watch television.
Hope you enjoyed the story.
I LOVE that story – thanks for the chuckle and for leaving it on the blog!
I, too, remember watching Tom Snyder. I can hear him asking us to “fire up the colortinis” and to “catch the pictures as they fly through the air.” He was an interesting interviewer – at times thoroughly engaged and “Charlie Rose-like,” and at other times completely removed from the conversation. If you ever happen to come upon a video of that clip, please share it on the blog – would really enjoy watching that.
As to your question, yes – it’s always a good idea to admit that you don’t know a specific number. I generally encourage our trainees to say, “I don’t know the specific number, but here’s what I can tell you…”