What To Do If You Don’t Know The Answer To A Question

One of the common concerns around public speaking is how to handle difficult questions, and even worse, not knowing the answer to the question being asked. And this is a valid concern, as we have just shared our knowledge, our expertise and our information and yet we can not answer a question being asked on our topic. Here are some simple strategies to assist you when you find yourself being unable to answer a question.

1. You Can Not Know Everything
It is important to understand that we can not know everything on our topic. People may have just read a new journal article, seen a TED talk or received a blog post that looks at a new angle of what you are speaking on. So self-acceptance and understanding that you cannot know everything, is a great place to start from.

2. Remain Calm While Under Fire
The secret to answering any Question and Answer session is to remain calm. And this is especially important when contentious questions are asked or good questions, for which you do not have the answer. Amy Cuddy talks about Power Posing. Michael Grinder talks about the importance of low deep breathing and eye contact. Simply, we need to become good at remaining calm and looking confident even when we do not know the answer. Practise your preferred script – “that is a really great question and I am afraid I do not have the answer to that. Do let me find out and get back to you.” – or whatever you say confidently and credibly when you do not know the answer.

3. Take The Question On Notice
It is OK to find out and get back to them. Our politicians around Australia take Questions On Notice. They then have 72 hours to get back to parliament with their answer. I think it is OK to take a question on notice, especially if it is technical or data driven. Then you need to make sure that you get back to everyone in the room and not just the person who asked the question. I like to respond within 24 to 48 hours maximum.

4. Phone a Friend
Generally, we are presenting to a room full of clever, interesting people who are on their own journey of learning. Feel free to ask any of the audience if they know the answer to the question. Maybe someone has read the latest medical journal and you haven’t yet. When you ask the audience, be careful not to allow the responder to highjack your presentation or your topic.

5. Check the question is on topic and within scope
One of the main reasons that we are unable to answer a question is when it is off topic or outside the scope of what you are talking about. The best way to manage this is to clearly set the scope and range of your topic and your presentation as part of your introduction. Then you can clearly state that this is not what you are there to talk about and you can then direct them to the right person to ask that out of scope question.

6. Don’t make it up
The number one rule with question and answers is do not make it up. This is not the time to fake it until you make it. I mentioned being in a room of clever people and they have access to their smart phone and i-pads. They will google any contentious answers and may find you faking. Don’t make it up. Take it on notice, find out and get back to them.

Your question and answer session should not be stressful. And the thought of being caught out or not knowing an answer should also not bother you. Practise and develop some of these strategies and you will never have to worry about your question and answer session again.

If you want to know more about the art of Question and Answer sessions, I am running Thinking And Speaking Off The Cuff Workshop – in Perth on the 10th of July.

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