In 2002, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was widely ridiculed for his “what we do not know” convolution that tended to confound his critics.
But when analyzed, his succinct turn of phrase showed that his critics had much to learn.
Just as we have much to learn about business presentations.
What We Don’t Know . . .
Rumsfeld said this:
Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
Without going too deeply into the philosophy behind it all, let’s simply note that this construction dates back to Confucius . . . and perhaps earlier.
Broken down, it can be stated this way:
There are things we know.
There are things we do not know.
There are things we know we do not know.
There are things we do not know we do not know.
Much insight is bound up in this matrushka doll of logic.
In fact, lurking within this formula is a key to our business success, to our differentiation, to our personal brand. Understanding what we don’t know.
Rumsfeld’s trope is simply a call for humility and recognition that false certitude can be far more harmful than healthy skepticism. No, we don’t know at all.
In fact, there may be a great deal of what we know that isn’t so.
Take, for example, the following two experiences of people who have a fundamental misunderstanding of their own abilities.
“These Pictures Just Didn’t Come Out”
Photography – good photography – is a skill. The framing and composition of superb photographs is not “natural” or intuitive.
And yet, the vast majority of us believe that we can take spectacular photos. A professional photographer who worked for me years ago was tickled by a co-worker who believed he was an excellent photographer, even as evidence to the contrary was abundant.
She told how he repeatedly engaged in a fantasy.
His latest batch of photos of a reception would come in, and his coworkers would gather ’round him. He would thumb through the photos one at a time, and he would cast many of them aside peevishly.
“These pictures just didn’t come out,” he’d say with a shake of the head. “They just didn’t come out,” and he would invariably imply that some mechanical malfunction had ruined his photos.
Or hazy weather.
Or bad karma.
Anything but his own lack of skill.
Through it all was his inability to actually see and understand that the “picture did not come out” because of the most obvious reason in the world:
He did not know how to take photographs.
In fact, he was terrible.
But he claimed that out-of-focus, poorly framed, underexposed, overexposed photos were the result of some external problem, not his own lack of skill. This type of hubris borne of blissful ignorance has its counterpart in the innocence of children.
Who’s the teacher? That depends on your perspective . . .
A tennis instructor friend of mine tells the story of working with a six-year-old child.
You have to admire the chutzpuh of children, who, in their innocence, are unaware of the larger world and oftentimes unaware of their role as students in this world, subject to the instruction of teachers.
Upon starting the first tennis lesson, the child quietly watched the tennis pro demonstrate the basic forehand. Then, the child boasted to her: “This is how I hit the ball.”
And the youngster proceeded to demonstrate the proper technique to the tennis instructor, as if the two of them were accomplished tennis pros simply sharing pointers with each other.
The child was blissfully ignorant of the depth and breadth of the game of tennis. So the child speaks with a confidence and easiness that betrays that ignorance.
Honest ignorance in this case.
And what a wonderful confidence it is, the confidence of a child. A superb tennis instructor works with this raw confidence and molds into it an actual expertise and respect for the game without destroying it.
When you hear people dismiss public speaking as “easy” or a “cinch” or something that they’ll “wing” in their next class, remember the phrases . . .
“These pictures just didn’t come out.”
“This is the way I hit the ball.”
Many folks are simply ignorant of the depth and breadth of the public speaking domain.
So they wax eloquently and ignorantly about it, believing it to be something that it is not. Easier than it is.
Especially Powerful Presenting – What we don’t know
Powerful presenting is actually the judicious application of high-order skills of gesture, voice, movement, style, focus, elocution, and even intuition. This concept is alien to the “Easy Presenting” group.
Moreover, the very nature of these skills is foreign to them.
The skill set of the advanced and effective presenter is much akin to that of the actor, and these skills would seem irrelevant to someone with only a superficial understanding of the art of presenting.
After all, business is serious, right? Wheareas mere “acting” is . . . well, frivolous.
Acting is talent-based, right, with no role for learned techniques? Hardly. Acting coach Anita Jesse zeroes-in on the basic skills necessary to powerful acting, and they are as easily applied to the art of powerful presenting:
Almost any proficient actor will tell you that expertise [in acting] depends upon a short list of basic skills. Those building blocks are concentration, imagination, access to emotions, listening, observation, and relaxation.
Concentration, imagination, access to emotions, listening, observation, and relaxation. These are the qualities necessary to an actor’s powerful performances, and these are likewise qualities essential to the power presenter.
They are elements of Personal Presence, and they are essential to the delivery of an especially powerful presentation.
For more on learning what we don’t know we do not know about especially powerful presenting, consult The Complete Guide to Business School Presenting.