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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Ross

Three Little Words

Firstly, a confession: I try (quite hard) not to watch the news on television. I'd rather watch a film than the news, rather read a book than a newspaper, and I prefer podcasts or music to radio news or current affairs programmes. Not because ignorance is bliss (although that is perhaps a spin-off benefit), but rather for the simple reason that listening to politicians and 'experts' (whether anointed or self-proclaimed) failing to give concise or reasoned or useful responses to questions just irritates me.

But occasionally, accidentally, I catch a couple of minutes of news. This happened earlier in the week, when a Government minister (which Government, incidentally, is... incidental) was responding to what seemed like reasonable challenges (noteworthy in itself) from a news anchor with what sounded - to me - like utter contempt for the intelligence of the audience. Evasive to the point of condescending obnoxiousness, my first instinct was "Does this person really think we're all that stupid?"

Reflecting on the performance, it dawned on me that the circular responses and ludicrous comebacks to what was fundamentally a simple question - with a quantitative answer - were not the result of actual incompetence on the part of the interviewee, nor (at least directly) down purely to Governmental contempt for the electorate. They were a result of fear. Deep-rooted, almost primal terror of three little words. The three little words which combine to give an answer which continues to serve me well in professional situations, and the use of which I directly attribute my success in more than one job interview.

"I don't know."

In my previous post, ("Who Wants to Be a Business Analyst" I wrote about the need for a Business Analyst to be comfortable being the "least well-informed person in any given meeting".

I meant that the Business Analyst is required to know enough about the business, their challenges and the range and constraints of any solutions available to solve them and deliver change - but accepts that their knowledge of any of the areas which are required to knit together is going to be (unavoidably) less deep than that of the specialists in the room.

In practical terms, this means that - in most meetings - there will be a question directed at you to which you don't know the answer. Perhaps you have an inkling - but cannot say for certain. Maybe it's something you haven't thought about - either because it concerns a component of the problem being solved that nobody has thought to mention before now -or because it has no relevance to the matter at hand.

Regardless - at almost no time does an honest "I don't know" lessen your proficiency in the eyes of the audience.

I mean, it usually helps to dress up the response, to book-end it with "That's an interesting question; I hadn't thought of that, but...", or ".... I suspect the answer is x, but I will find out and come back to this group".

But most people are reasonable, and - unless the question you are professing not to know the answer to is one you are supposed to be presenting the exact answer to in this meeting - then you will gain kudos, over time, for being honest - and for following up actively where it is relevant and useful to do so.

As I said above - there are multiple occasions where saying "I don't know" was, I believe, a strong contributing factor to being offered the job I was being grilled for. I used that phrase multiple times during one particular interview, when the hiring manager had thought to have a couple of investment analysts quiz me as part of the selection process for a Business Analyst role. It's not that you say "I don't know"; it's how you say it. Pointing out that you can't, off the cuff, give the investment strategy you'd recommend to increase the duration on a government debt portfolio that was long Gilts but short the float leg on GBP Libor swaps seemed like a pretty reasonable response, to me ("I mean - I've done my IMC and so could probably work it out, with a pen and paper and referring back to my notes - but you are busy people. And i'm interviewing for a BA role - not a Fund Manager, so...").

Perhaps we should pity the politician, who - it would appear - lives in such mortal fear of simple honesty, even when being verbally waterboarded on TV by some Paxmanian Devil - that they just can't say those three little words, for fear of whatever Malcom Tuckerism would await them afterwards. Should we cut them some slack, perhaps? Or should we insist the interviewers who are failing to get a straight answer instead aim to elicit an honest admission?

I don't know.

(Originally published on LinkedIn, February 2021)

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