Don’t put your brand storytelling authority at risk. Know your subject matter, your market, your organization, your team – your own strengths and weaknesses. Know what you need to know to be credible in the eyes of those you’re trying to persuade. And if you don’t know, don’t try to lie your way through it.
You’ve Got to Know Your Stuff to Be Credible
Earlier in my career, I worked in high tech business development for Manugistics, then one of the world’s largest supply chain management software companies. At the time, our firm was considered a clear leader in industries like consumer packaged goods, distribution, and transportation, but we were playing a major game of catch up in high tech.
Fortunately, our new CEO saw tremendous opportunity in the tech sector and committed to making it one of the company’s cornerstone industries. To that end, he hired a leading high tech player from one of the world’s largest management consulting firms to head up our group.
This guy had a reputation for being tough, smart, driven – and extremely well-connected throughout the technology industry. Everyone on our team wanted to impress him. None of us wanted to be seen as falling short of expectations.
The first time I ever worked with the CEO’s new recruit – and my new boss – we had joined two other people from our sales team at a hotel on the East Coast to prepare a pitch for a major consumer electronics company. As the clock pushed towards midnight, the four of us were still putting the finishing touches on the presentation we planned to deliver the next morning.
My job would be to pitch the prospect on a supply chain management consulting engagement.
The heart of my discussion revolved around a financial chart we often used to compare a client’s supply chain management performance against its biggest publicly-traded competitors. At each of the five points of this spider chart lay supply chain management key performance indicators (KPIs) such as inventory turns and days sales outstanding. I’d need to walk my audience through each KPI, reviewing how the company measured up against its competitors.
As we were wrapping up our preparations for our sales pitch, my boss turned to me and said, “If the Chief Financial Officer asks you to do a deep dive on one or more of those performance indicators, are you prepared to say how they’re calculated?”
In a panic I realized I had no idea what financial formulas went into those KPIs. But I knew I had the information I needed to bring myself up to speed. So I took a deep breath and replied, “No. But I will by tomorrow morning.”
The next day, I got up early and drilled myself over and over again on the formulas I needed to know until I had them down cold.
As it turned out, the CFO didn’t ask any questions about the spider chart. But the important point here, is that he could have. And I needed to be prepared. Otherwise, I’d have risked undermining not only my own credibility, but that of my entire team.
The moral of this story is this: know your stuff.
Know your industry, know your subject matter, know your company, know your team, know your own personal strengths and weaknesses. Know what you need to know in order to be credible in the eyes of those you wish to persuade.
When You Don’t Know, Say So
And when you don’t know the answer to a question, fess up. Right away.
In an interview a few years back, Jim Collins, author of numerous business bestsellers including Good to Great, recounted how he once forgot this oh-so-crucial rule during his days working as a junior researcher for McKinsey & Co.
His superiors had asked Collins to join a session with one of their clients in case he needed to answer questions about the valuation his team had prepared on a potential acquisition target.
At one point during the meeting, the client – whose imposing personality was legendary – turned to Collins and asked, “Now, Jim, why does the target company have its headquarters in Chicago, when it operates mainly in California?”
Collins wracked his brain for an answer. “Everyone turned to me, and my mind raced,” he said. “I had no idea! I recalled something I’d read in the corporate history about the company being founded near the Chicago World’s Fair. ‘Uh, I think it is because of the World’s Fair in 1893,’ I sputtered.”
The client asked Collins no further questions that day.
On the way home from the meeting, one of the McKinsey partners took him aside and said, “For the future, Jim, ‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer.”
So simple. Yet so hard to remember when you’re the one on the firing line!
In the end, it’s always better to come clean. Admit you don’t know – then promise your audience you’ll get them an answer ASAP.
But whatever you do – Don’t. Lie.
Because there are few more surefire ways to undermine your credibility and brand storytelling authority than to get caught making up an answer.
Share Your Thoughts
What’s one technique you’ve used to learn and remember what you need to know? Share your thoughts in the comments below or on social media.
P.S. If you liked this piece, you might also like How to Read And Win Your Audience With Eye Contact and 6 Secrets to Boosting Your Persuasive Power
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