Cryptic metaphors, analogies and banal facts will help you to blag it.
Excruciating, idiotic, shameful and hilarious – some of the words that have been used to describe CNBC host Joe Kernen’s on-air grilling of Martin Shanahan, chief executive of development agency IDA Ireland, this week. “You have euros in Ireland?”, Kernen boomed, before going on to ask a series of questions hinting that he didn’t realise the country is separate from the UK: “it is sort of the same — the same island, isn’t it?”
It’s easy to laugh, but we’re all likely to be in a situation where gaping holes in our knowledge are brutally exposed at some point in our working lives. Confessing to your ignorance is surely the most honourable path, but it’s not always the easiest thing to do in a presentation or interview. Here’s how to avoid looking as silly as Kernen.
THE ART OF MISDIRECTION
A favourite of politicians, this strategy involves blinding the audience or interviewer with a barrage of almost-relevant facts to conveniently move the subject on. One City-based senior market commentator tells me that this is something of a trade secret for those who make regular broadcast appearances. “Always come armed with historical facts about the company or the subject, and attempt to turn the interview to your strengths.” It’s surprisingly easy, he says, to avoid getting to the kernel of an issue that you’re being pressed on by painting a convincing background picture.
If this fails, another option is go full politician and talk about something else. Whitson Gordon of the website Lifehacker.com suggests segueing into a field you know more about, pointing out that it’s easy to exhaust your cache of knowledge on a specific topic. If this doesn’t work, you could also talk in cryptic metaphors or proverbs – no one will care enough to press you on them.
When speaking on an unfamiliar subject, time is your enemy. Think of it as an equation. The likelihood of saying something stupid can be expressed as your level of unfamiliarity with the topic multiplied by the amount of time that you’re speaking for. Once your store of banal facts and humorous anecdotes is exhausted, the priority should be finding ways to cut down on the amount of words you actually have to say.
One technique could be to follow US President Barack Obama by liberally sprinkling your sentences with extended “uhs” and “errs”. In a two-minute clip of a recent interview about IS, he used “uh” nine times, according to the Daily Mail’s count – a rate of roughly one every 13 seconds. You can even download a soundboard of 22 assorted Obama “err” and “uh” noises from soundboard.com for inspiration – it’s called the Barack Obama Uh Board.
It’s probably unfair to say that he’s doing this to cover up gaps in knowledge (to “err” is human, after all). It’s been speculated that Obama uses the pauses to give him extra time to choose his words carefully, minimising the risk of a gaffe.
But John West of New York Speech Coaching pointed out to Business Insider last year that leaving pauses between sentences (another Obama favourite) can be an equally effective technique. It’s one of the best-used tricks of great speakers, he says, and is easier on the ear that “um”.
Crack the business jargon code
Another secret to sounding like you know what you’re talking about is to use the same language as your audience. In some cases, this is likely to mean wheeling out the business jargon. Corporate Slang can help. It’s loaded with around 100 examples of some of the most common buzzwords and phrases that you’ll need to get by. It’s not the most comprehensive guide out there, but Corporate Slang is easy to use and includes acronyms – for those who don’t know their CYAs from a CLM.