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The Art of the Bluff

In business, being able to bluff your way to success can be useful if you know how to use it. 

I bought my first business when I was 18, a SCUBA diving school and retail shop (some 30km from the ocean I might add). I knew how to dive and how to teach other people to dive, but I had absolutely no idea how to run a business.

It didn’t take me long to realise that if I was going to survive I had to learn the art of bluff.

The simplest of tasks were alien to me. I didn’t know how to manage money, stock, staff, customers or any basic business function. On the other hand, I looked the part, I spoke with confidence, and I spent a huge amount of time learning new skills and getting good at finding answers in a hurry.

No matter how insecure and afraid I might have been feeling on the inside, I managed to hide it all behind a super confident, capable, “can do” exterior.

That was some 35 years ago and I always remember people at the time saying how impressive it was that this young man had somehow gotten a loan, bought a business, and was running it successfully. If only they knew how much pedalling my legs were doing under the surface. Yet somehow I survived and moved onto other businesses.

My good friend bluff came along for the ride.

I soon realised that I wasn’t alone. Most of us bluff our way through business in some way. We might know our own area of expertise, but that certainly doesn’t mean we know every aspect of running a business. We have to bluff it or risk that important people will lose faith in us, which of course can spell disaster.

A bluff can make a small business look like a giant corporation. It can open doors and create opportunities.

In many ways, bluffing helps you do what others won’t, which in turn gives you a significant competitive advantage. In the business world of today, we are all desperately looking for a competitive advantage.

In my experience, the best bluffers are hugely passionate about their businesses and are going to do whatever it takes to make them successful. It isn’t just about making money, it is about building something of substance.

So when is it dangerous to bluff? When you know you can’t deliver.

Bluffing without substance is the best way to develop a reputation as someone who can’t deliver. Telling someone that you can deliver a million-dollar project tomorrow, simply to get the job, when there is absolutely no way that you can make it happen, is a sure-fire path to disaster. We all know businesses that fit into this category. They rarely last.

For this reason, it’s important to very clearly identify the line between a bluff and a lie.

Bluffing is not about saying something that isn’t true; it is more about showing that you are more than confident and capable than you actually feel on inside.

Likewise, if there is a time for bluff and bravado, there also is a time to have deeper, more open and transparent conversations. Bluff can get you in the door. But then you have to prove that you can back your claims. To me, this is the winning combination, a healthy dose of bluff combined with real capability.

The moral to the story: Don’t be afraid of getting your bluff on. Even though you might not have all the answers, say yes now and figure them out later — but do it only if you know you can deliver. Stand tall and proud. Just don’t let people see your knees knocking.

First published on INC.com

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  • Rosemary
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    The Bluff is a way of practicing what you didn’t know you could do. The first piece of work I did as a consultant was to write a business plan for someone. I went and bought a book “how to write a business plan’ (not much on the internet in those days). And I wrote it. I bluffed, it worked, I scored some confidence and built some consulting muscle, Since then I’ve learnt to say yes and just do it, unless I know it’s out of my league (or against my ethic).
    Great point, Andrew. Thanks.

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