“Never tell people you don’t know an answer to a question.”
This advice was given to me in the early 1990s when, unfortunately, there were many questions to which I did not know the answers. The advice was given – or rather commanded – by a boss attempting to prepare me for my first big presentation.
More than one hundred people had gathered in a hall to hear a presentation about a research project I had spent the better part of a year completing. I took great pride in the project but was petrified about speaking publicly. Although several years of reporting for a daily newspaper had hardened me to public scrutiny, it had not prepared me for speaking to a room full of people all seasoned in their field.
I was a charlatan and I knew it. They would see straight through me. I would shame the company (which, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been too worried about). They would laugh at my presumption that I could possibly offer them any information of value on a subject they had cut their teeth on years, if not decades, ago.
Droplets of sweat weaved paths along my scalp and down the back of my neck. Halitosis ratcheted up to an all-time level of putrescence. Consonants and vowels slurred together in an unintelligible blend of nonsense as I bulled through the 20-minute presentation.
Slides clicked in evil progression through the projector as I tried not to vomit, sick at the fear that I might not have my notes in synch with the graphics.
No noise came from the audience while I spoke, which I took to mean that they hated my presentation, hated my hairstyle, hated my tie, hated the way I slouched, hated the way I overcorrected for my slouch, hated my acne that had flared that morning, hated the background color of the slides, hated the uncomfortable chairs in the hall, hated the people around them, hated they way I spoke, hated my dog, hated their own dogs, hated my car, and hated, hated, hated me.
The second hand on the oversized cafeteria-style clock at the back of the hall tocked along as if dragging a lead weight. As the last slide appeared on the screen, my brain and body turned to jelly. The last few words sputtered out at the audience.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
A kindly looking gentlemen near the front of the room stood and, in a voice as calming and soothing as the sound of the ocean surf, asked the simplest of all possible questions. He had offered the kindness of a slow-pitched softball and in the matter of seconds I grew to love that man like a grandfather.
Relaxed now beyond the point of reason, I stared at him and smiled. After several seconds, I realized I was still staring and smiling. Smiling stupidly and staring blankly at that grandfatherly old man, a single thought came echoing through the cavernous void of my skull.
“I have no idea what that man just said."
Having not heard his question at all, I had no foundation from which to build an answer, correct or otherwise. I might have asked him to repeat his question, I don't remember. Fortunately, a coworker stepped forward and took over the Q&A. I shrunk into my suit and stood silently behind him, trying to blend into the screen. If another question found its way to me, I don’t recall.
The lesson learned from this adventure in public speaking was, of course, not the lesson the boss had tried to teach me. His lesson of never letting on that you don’t know the answer to a question I have since discovered is not worth learning unless you aspire to sell used cars.
The lesson I learned instead has served me much better: Never speak in public.