How to talk about confidential projects in English

Shh! Don't tell anyone I told you, but...

Ben Franklin once said that the only way for three people to keep a secret is to kill two of them. Unfortunately, murder is not the best way to maintain confidentiality. Even worse, people will ask you about what you did and probably discover your secrets!

If you are a consultant or a lawyer or a banker, your work is highly confidential. While you know that, the people you speak with might not know it. They will probably ask you questions about the work you do and the companies you work with. 

How do you maintain confidentiality without being rude?

There are two ways to handle those kinds of questions: a bad way and a good way.

The bad way

Some people respond like this:

I cannot tell you. It is confidential.

This is bad. Why?

People ask about your work to make conversation. Answering like this dismisses the question. It kills the conversation. That's not good if you want to build a relationship or just be a nice conversation partner.

Furthermore, it makes the person who asked you feel bad. They may feel that they asked a sensitive question and put you in a difficult position, and they would feel guilty.

Worse still, you could give the impression that you think that the person is being nosy or spying, or that you are not interested in speaking with them.

You should choose a better way.

The good way

Let's assume that the person asking is not a spy. Rather, they might be your teacher, or a friend, or a decent person you've just met.

Most of them will ask you about your work to make conversation. With that in mind, you should try to answer the question somehow, without saying anything that will get you into trouble!

So what should you say? You can talk about the following:

  1. the theme of the work you are doing;
  2. the industry that the client is in; or
  3. your specific tasks.

Let's imagine that you are working on a branding project for a well-known company. If someone asks about your client, following the three strategies above, you can say something vague like:

  1. I'm working on a branding project at the moment. Our client wants to revitalize their corporate image.
  2. I'm working for a client in the (electronics/automotive/pharmaceuticals... etc.) industry.
  3. I'm researching brand revitalization and trying to find some successful and unsuccessful examples of rebranding.

These are good ways to talk about your work without being specific or getting into trouble. You can also direct the conversation towards something you can discuss (the industry or theme).

Dealing with direct and follow-up questions

Once you engage the person in conversation, they are likely to ask you more questions on the topic.

They could ask you a follow-up question or a direct question that you cannot avoid. If they ask directly, then you can answer directly.

Actually, I am afraid I cannot say.

But do not leave the conversation there. There is one important tactic you can use to keep the conversation going and avoid an uncomfortable silence: ask them a question.

But how about you? What are you working on these days?

At The English Farm, we will always ask you tough questions so you can practice answering them politely and professionally. Try these techniques in class with your teachers!

I am sure there are other approaches you can use. Do have any other ideas? Leave a comment below if you do.

Note: I.A.N.A.L. (I am not a lawyer), so please use caution & common sense when speaking about confidential information.