IT Employment

10 things you can do to keep from looking stupid

You might be the brightest person in the world, but you can still come across as a bit dim. Calvin Sun shares 10 tips for making a smarter impression.

Like it or not, your co-workers, clients, and bosses form an impression of you based on what you say and do. And if you come across as stupid, your career is likely to suffer. Here are a few tips to help keep that from happening.

1: Know the material

As obvious as it sounds, nothing does more to prevent problems than knowing the subject you are discussing. The more you know, and the more insight you can provide based on your own experience, the less likelihood that you will misspeak or state an incorrect position. Even more important, knowing the material will give you confidence, and that confidence will show in the tone of your voice and in your body language. Do you know how to reduce the chances of being burned while working with a particular product? Don't be afraid to share that knowledge.

2: Think three steps ahead of the other person(s)

This point relates to the first one. Not only must you know what you're talking about, you also must anticipate the most likely questions you will get and prepare answers. In other words, you must do more than simply repeat information. You must be able to analyze it and show how it relates to the objectives and concerns of your listeners. If you are talking about a software implementation, what are the most likely areas where a problem will occur? What combination of hardware and software will be the most difficult to troubleshoot? If you have these answers, your listeners will appreciate your information more.

3: Don't fake an answer

No matter how much you prepare, you might get a question for which you don't know the answer. In such a case, resist the urge to guess. You might be right, but the chances are greater that you will be wrong, and an initial wrong answer followed by a correction will be worse than stating that you do not know the answer. Of course, if the question involves a complicated situation, people will be more understanding of your inability to answer than if you lack an answer to a basic question.

At the same time, try to answer what you can. If the question involves the interaction of multiple software products, for example, answer what you can about the individual products, then simply state that explaining the way they interact would take additional analysis.

4: Put a positive spin on lack of knowledge

Even though you might not know the answer, try to avoid saying so. Instead, try the old standard "That's a good question." Then explain the issues involved. If the answer will vary depending on different sets of circumstances or system configurations, you could talk about one specific circumstance or configuration and explain that one in detail. Then caution your listener that the results might be different in other circumstances.

5: Mention what steps you already took

Let's say that you are a level one help desk analyst and you are escalating an issue to level two or beyond. When discussing the issue with the next analyst, make it clear what initial troubleshooting steps you already took and that they failed to work. If you don't, that level two person might think that you neglected those steps and will think that you are incompetent. Better to be in front of the situation and explain what you already did than to have to react to the other analyst's questions.

6: Incorporate alternatives when you ask a confirming question

If you are unclear about something you heard, incorporate into your question the possible alternatives. The person who is explaining might not be aware of those other alternatives and mistakenly believe your question is stupid.

For instance, suppose someone is explaining that a supplier is based in Arlington, and that person is aware of only the Arlington in Virginia. If you were to ask, "Do you mean Arlington, VA?" that person, and possibly others, might consider it a stupid question. If you instead ask, "Do you mean Arlington, Virginia, Texas, or Massachusetts?" you subtly make it clear that your question is not stupid at all. In the same way, rather than asking, "Do we need PowerPoint to run the presentation?" consider instead "Do we really need PowerPoint or just the viewer?"

7: Be clear in your answer about assumptions and limitations

Any answer you give will depend on specific facts and circumstances. Therefore, be clear about them, because in other cases the answer might be different.

For example, let's say that you are vendor management person for your IT organization, and an issue has arisen with a vendor. Suppose someone in the organization asks you about the timeframe your company has in which to sue a vendor, and you know the answer. In giving it, you probably would want to qualify your answer to say, "In state X, the time limit to sue is y years, but in other states it might be different."

8: Remember that "definitely [not]" can come back to haunt you

As soon as you say something "definitely" will or won't happen, events will prove you wrong. As a result, you will end up with the proverbial egg on your face. A better alternative to "definitely will happen" is a response such as, "It might not happen, but the chances of that are really small." An alternative to "definitely won't happen," might be, "It's possible but extremely unlikely."

9: Consider the Captain Renault "would be shocked" response

In the immortal movie Casablanca, Captain Renault declared that he was, "shocked, shocked I tell you" to find that gambling was occurring at Rick's Café. You can use this dialog yourself to avoid looking foolish.

While the previous answers of "possible but unlikely" are better than the "definitely" or "definitely not," they still carry an element of uncertainty. For that reason, my own preference is to answer so that the answer does have certainty. However, the certainty is not about the result, but about my reaction if the result is different. It also lets people know that you're already aware that you might get egg on your face, so if you're wrong, you don't look quite as foolish.

So, for example, in response to the question "Does this Microsoft product have security issues?" I might answer, "If it doesn't, I would be shocked." If I am positive that a project will be late, I might say, "If this project comes in on time, I will be shocked."

10:  Have data and citations in writing

If you are using data to support your points, have that data with you in writing or least have a citation to it. That way, you are not seen as making up numbers. Furthermore, people who disagree with you also have to disagree with data that came from someone other than you. Having the data and the citations gives you added credibility.

Other tips?

What strategies do you use to make the best impression on your colleagues, bosses, and clients? Share your advice with fellow TechRepublic members.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

18 comments
p309_
p309_

I agree with many of the above comments. But, even within one's specialty, it's impossible to know the answer to every variable or every question. IT has become so specialized, that it's comparable to the auto repair industry wherein there are different areas of expertise: the paint and body man, the transmission mechanic, and so on. In my position as desktop support, I am continually asked how to perform tasks in software. How do I do this task in AutoCAD, for instance is a common one. My answer is always a humorous "If I knew how to do that, I'd be an engineer, and not in IT". My point is, sometimes its just not our job to know the answer.

mrjohnpro2
mrjohnpro2

Once your spiel is headed my this clanger you tend to loose any credibility . Jp

gscratchtr
gscratchtr

how to handle the situation where you don't know (or aren't sure) an answer. In addition to all the good thoughts here, I always end the meeting with ".. and, according to my notes, I owe you the answer to (whatever the question was)" That way they know I havn't forgotten about it, and it allows them to qualify the question, or add another question, or to tell you that subsequent discussion during the meeting answered it.

www.indigotea.com
www.indigotea.com

Thanks for reiterating that response; all too often, a request for clarification between multiple available options can be construed as an overall lack of knowledge.

justin.donie
justin.donie

What attorneys tell us to do and what works in the real world are almost always different, because an attorney's job is to protect their client from a purely legal point of view, which is rarely what turns the wheels of our day to day lives. And while this sort of approach might work well in a court room, I'm with those who have stated here that handling yourself with clients this way will pretty quickly get them questioning your integrity. The one exception? Working with attorneys. :)

puppadave
puppadave

if you tell "someone" that you don't know and you will get back to them, make sure that you do!!!! In a timely fashion!!! Otherwise your credibility goes "down the tube"!!! Also, strive for two courses of action to every problem... AND NEVER use the phrase "I assume, or, We can assume....

sandy99.anderson
sandy99.anderson

Listen to what your client believes to be the problem, listen to what they need and especially listen to the constraints on the solution. And verify it all.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Be careful with this one. Be sure you still listen to what the other person is saying. Otherwise you may wind up answering the questions you anticipated hearing instead of the ones asked, or jumping to a solution that fits your prediction but not the actual circumstances.

simbasounds
simbasounds

More than actually not knowing, the fear of defending one's position ranks higher.. well for me anyway. Computers I don't fear - it's why I'm in IT.. But trying to explain to a client the complexity of their device - the most versatile and customizable object in their possession, which is seemingly so simple, and getting simpler on the outside is actually accumulating layers and layers of complexity under the hood that is the end-product of millions of specialist man-hours.. years.. of work multiplied by the complexity of another system / device / app that is failing to integrate.. explaining becomes an art unto itself. When a client takes the stance that one should hold that complexity in one's head is where diplomacy and a sense of humor are essential.. maybe just to buy time to Google the particular proprietary solution and add yet another piece of useless information to one's already over-stocked arsenal.. inevitably forgotten when the next issue comes up, but bound to resurface again, just when you thought you'd never see it again. It's why we have contracts that include diagnosis as a chargeable expense.

dennis
dennis

dcolbert's last line, "When you try do distract from the fact that you've got a knowledge gap - that is when you can get yourself into trouble." is well said.

skobina
skobina

Thanks bro, that's good submission. Keep it up

dcolbert
dcolbert

I disagree with the advice to "put a positive spin on a lack of knowledge" - at least as it relates to "try to avoid admitting that you *don't* know". When I'm asked a question that I don't know the answer to, I say so - clearly. "I don't know the answer to that. I'll have to research it and get back to you". This sets up clear expectations. The expectations on IT professionals to know every detail about EVERYTHING is set too high. It is too high among people outside of the profession, but we hold and judge each other too accountable inside the industry when someone doesn't know something, also. This creates a culture of paranoia where IT professionals fret too much over not knowing the answer to a question. We constantly worry about embarrassing ourselves among our peers by not knowing something that we should. I think it is somewhat of a legacy of geek culture - where individuals pride themselves on arguing obscure trivia about Dr. Who or D&D rules variations by edition. You'll see mainstream media mocking this aspect of geek culture constantly - like the Comic Book dude from The Simpsons. Within your area of expertise you should be well-read and knowledgeable - but there are caveats. I've known people that could tell you verbatim the steps to answer any Microsoft certification exam, but who couldn't actually apply that knowledge in a meaningful way in a production environment. I'm the reverse of this. I can't tell you a lot of how I do what I do - but throw me into a production environment, and I have an intuitive ability to isolate and resolve the difficult challenges that elude other engineers. I believe that honesty is the best policy. If you drop a buzzword or acronym that I don't know - I'll ask you to elaborate and explain. My confidence lies in the fact that if I don't know, I can *learn* quickly and implement expertly. When you try do distract from the fact that you've got a knowledge gap - that is when you can get yourself into trouble.

Suresh Mukhi
Suresh Mukhi

If I don't know, I will say I don't know. If I am asked about something that has just been released in the market such as the "New Ipad" or the Samsung Galaxy whatever. I will say with all honesty that I haven't checked it out yet but refer them to the website of the product.

sperry532
sperry532

I've found the best answer for my lack of knowledge is "I don't know, but I'll find out". Putting a "positive spin" on it is just another way of lying to the client. And when they find out you don't know, AND you lied to them, your stock goes way down.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

What about omitting the "I don't know," and simply saying "I'll find out"? How does this differ from what I suggested? How is it lying to say "I'l find out" instead of "I don't know"?

speterson
speterson

... whenever I hear someone trying to tap dance around having an answer or not, my BS meter goes past "pegged" into gross overdrive. And any future interactions with that person lose points for "probable BS". If you think it's a problem to say that you don't know, use some of the tips here, including perhaps setting a deadline for when you will have the answer, AND THEN GET BACK TO THE PEOPLE as soon as possible with the answer (and assumptions, alternatives, mitigations, etc.)

JJFitz
JJFitz

It is fine to admit that you do not know all of the answers but as you point out, follow up with the whole group when you do have the answers. I usually follow up with an email summary of the meeting on the same day as the meeting. I lay out the outstanding questions and PUT A DATE on when I expect to have them answered.

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