When presenting work I have a simple rule: never let anyone outflank you with criticism.

I don’t want anyone to be more critical of my work than I am. If I did something wrong I want to be the one to say it. If there is a risk I want to highlight it. If there is conflict I want to expose it. I recall one particular review when someone raised a concern about a bug they had read about. I quickly assured them: “oh no, it is much worse than you think” and proceeded with a litany of related mistakes they hadn’t read about. I adopted this approach early in my career and feel it is a major contributor to the roles I’ve been trusted to take on. Many people have a strong instinct to present their work in a favorable light. It seems like the obvious thing to do to ensure continued support. Unfortunately that introduces an antagonistic dynamic to reviews as people feel compelled to dig to get to the truth. When they discover they were presented an optimistic view, reviewers will inevitably wonder whether you were dissembling or unaware of the challenges. Paradoxically attempts to bolster trust tend to undermine it.

This doesn’t mean my communication about my work is particularly negative. Indeed having dispensed with the challenges I feel more free to highlight the opportunities and moments of genuine progress. I find that when I do share a positive outlook it is more readily accepted having first convinced my audience I understand the risks. There is no buy-in so rich as fully informed buy-in.

I still immensely value getting feedback in reviews. People often see things I missed and find risks I didn’t know about. When that happens to me people know it was an honest oversight and not something I was trying to hide. It may not reflect well on me for having missed something, but it is certainly better than being seen as possibly dishonest. But one advantage of being my own biggest critic is that it gives me the credibility to push back on what I perceive as unfair critiques. When I give explanations people rarely misunderstand them as excuses. With few exceptions people trust that if I’m not worried about something they probably don’t need to either.

If you want to adopt this approach it is as simple as providing space in written documents and presentations for a sober analysis of the risks, challenges, and missteps. When an external factor drives a shortfall in your project it is reasonable to theorize as to what you might have done to predict and avoid such an outcome. But this isn’t a performance so there is no need to linger or exaggerate either. The presence of this content alone will start you on the right path of being more focused on retaining trust than avoiding judgment.