I let my attention wander for just one short second. Unfortunately, one second was all it took for the CEO -- who I’d been trying to get a meeting with for weeks -- to introduce a new topic.
When I snapped back into focus, I realized she was staring at me expectantly.
“Don’t you think?” she prompted.
“Oh, definitely,” I said with enthusiasm.
As it turns out, she’d brought up Visa and Mastercard’s antitrust settlement … which I knew nothing about. But it was too late to ‘fess up, so for the next five minutes, I smiled, nodded, and did my best to engage.
It was awkward.
As a rep, you’re probably familiar with this situation. Salespeople spend a ton of time in conversation -- which means it’s inevitable you’ll wind up discussing brand-new (to you) subjects all the time.
But that doesn’t mean you have to fall back on the ineffective smile-and-nod technique I used. The four strategies below will help you convincingly fake your way through a conversation about virtually anything with virtually anyone.
How to Sound Like You Know What You’re Talking About When You Really Don’t
1) Admit Your Ignorance
When someone launches into a topic they clearly expect you to know something about, it’s understandably hard to shrug and say, “Actually, I’m not familiar with [19th-century watercolor conservation efforts, rising vegetable oil prices in Greenland, the new MLK biopic].”
After all, it can feel like what you’re actually saying is, “I’m too busy watching Game of Thrones to read about important stuff.”
But even admitting you've been binging on Thrones is responsible -- the other person won’t think you’re stupid or lazy for not knowing all about Elon Musk’s billion-dollar campaign to banish high school. None of us can read or know everything, and at one time (probably many times), they’ve been the clueless one.
Contrary to popular belief, admitting your ignorance can actually make you look more impressive. You’re clearly confident in your knowledge and abilities if saying “I don’t know” doesn’t faze you. Plus, you won’t have to worry about putting your foot in your mouth.
There is one exception. If the topic is related to your industry, product, or profession -- in other words, it’s something you should definitely be well-versed in -- honesty isn’t always the best policy.
That brings us to the next technique ...
2) Say You Missed the Latest News
Maybe you’re talking to your prospect about a big industry shake-up, and you can’t confess that you’re in the dark without losing credibility. Or maybe you’re having coffee with a potential referral source, and impressing them means scoring some prime contacts.
When being honest isn’t feasible without you losing face, the next best alternative is saying you “missed the latest news.” You’ll still seem knowledgeable -- but you won’t need to know any specific details. Best of all, this answer allows you to quickly put the ball back in their court.
Here’s how this might play out in conversation:
Prospect: My coworkers and I were just talking about the rise of in-cylinder computational fluid dynamics. How do you think it’ll impact auto OEMs? I’ve heard a couple different opinions.
You: Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to catch the latest update. Which view are you leaning toward?
Prospect: I think we’ll see them be even more stringent toward the regulations …
3) Ask Lots of Questions
As you can see, asking questions is a great way to shift the conversational focus away from you. Plus, people love feeling like they’re in the know, so being inquisitive and asking for their opinion or perspective usually puts the other person in a good mood.
There’s also a (sneaky) bonus: The more they talk, the more information you’ll pick up about the topic. Questions for the win!
However, since you don’t want to turn the conversation into an interrogation, I recommend following a simple formula. Every time they finish their answer, paraphrase it in one to three sentences. Then, ask another question.
To get an idea of how this works in practice, check out this sample exchange:
Prospect: … So that’s why I think we’ll all be working remotely in 10 years.
You: Having a global service team so you can provide 24/7 customer support is definitely a competitive advantage. And I agree, VoIP technology has been a major catalyst. What will be the biggest challenges of an all-remote workforce?
Prospect: Ahh, I’ve thought about that quite a bit …
4) Play Devil’s Advocate
To throw the other person off the scent of your ignorance, introduce a contradictory opinion. Seems risky, but it works extremely well.
Of course, you don’t want the opposing opinion to come from you -- there’s no way you’ll have enough background knowledge to back it up. Instead, say it came from an article you read. The author and publication? Hmm ... you can’t seem to remember right now.
Imagine the other person says, “It’ll be interesting to see if Google’s big data partnership with the UK banking industry will improve customer retention.”
You’re drawing a complete blank, so you respond, “I stumbled across an article that argued customer retention would probably go up a bit … but not enough to justify the investment.”
At this point, either they’ll say, “What? That’s crazy!” and launch into their reasoning, or they’ll say, “Huh, you know, I’m leaning that way myself because … ”
Either way, you’ve contributed to the discussion without really saying anything.
(Oh, and if they ask, “How did the author back that up?”, tell them the specifics are a bit muddy -- and ask what they think the pros and cons of that stance are.)
Add these four strategies to your repertoire, and you’ll be able to navigate conversations about your weekend plans and Iceland’s foreign policy with equal aplomb. Building rapport just got a whole lot easier.
What’s the trickiest conversation you’ve ever gotten through? Would you add any techniques to my list? Let us know in the comments!