What if they ask me a question I don’t know how to answer?

by | Public Speaking Tips

How to respond to a question to which you don't know the answer - https://michellebarryfranco.comYou are in the home stretch of delivering a presentation you have spent the last many weeks preparing. The thrill of “game day” is in full play and you are soaking up the glory of a no-hitch, engaging experience for your audience (and you!).

Then you remember: the Q & A is coming up.

Your heart beats faster again and the anxiety rises. “What if they ask me a question I don't know how to answer?,” and you lose yourself in your anxious thoughts.

It doesn't have to be this way.

In fact, you can make your Q & A one of the highlight experiences of your presentation – no matter what they ask you.

Your Q & A session in your presentation is a beautiful opportunity to increase trust, deepen your connection and show just how confident you are in your expertise.

Yes – even if you do not know the answer to a question you are asked.

In fact, I have come to find that these questions to which I don't know the answer spark some of the coolest, most audience-engaging conversations of all.

Here's why:

  • People love authenticity, honesty and respect. When a speaker takes off her “I'm the expert” hat and easily moves into “hmmm… I wonder what we could learn here together” mode, the audience is often endeared and intrigued. Your confidence in your ability to explore the topic real-time is better than any “guessing” answer you might dig up in the moment. You also show respect for the importance of high-quality, accurate information and a desire to make sure that is what they get in your presentation.
  • People love to share what they know. When you draw on the experience in the crowd to explore the question and search for an answer, you give others the opportunity to shine. Being willing to let others share their expertise shows your commitment to the best learning for everyone. It is also indicative of your own confidence.
  • Trust is the essential element of every presentation. Your audience is looking for evidence that they can trust you all the time. This is about both expertise credibility and character credibility. When you answer each question honestly, including saying “I don't know the answer”, you deepen that trust. They now know that you won't try to “B.S.” your way through answers to save your ego. This allows your audience to set aside any uncertainties about the accuracy of your information, leaving them open to even more learning and growth.

Being willing to say, “I don't know” in appropriate ways shows that you care about your audience and the information you share with them. It shows that you put them and their needs before your ego's desire to be “perfect.”

All of that said, there are ways to frame your response to make the most of the situation.

As a baseline, here's my advice about all questions you are asked during a presentation: Be completely honest, stay connected and be as helpful as possible.

This means you really never just say, “I don't know.” That would be honest, but it's not that helpful and it doesn't do much to keep the connection.

Instead, depending on what is true, start with something like:

“Great question… ”

“Hmmm, interesting question…”

“Well – that's the first time I've heard that question… I love it!”

All of these phrases affirm the person asking the question. This is important because, if you think about it, they just took a significant risk themselves. Asking a question is a sort of “public speaking” of its own. As the presenter, you are the steward of the experience for that room full of people. This kind of affirmation helps everyone feel safe joining in on the discussion.

What you say next depends on a couple of things, such as:

Is the question within the scope of the presentation?

It's not uncommon to get questions that are outside the scope of your topic. If the question falls outside of the agreed upon goals for your current presentation, it is not only appropriate but really your responsibility to keep the conversation focused. You've got a whole room full of people who are counting on you to do that. In this case, you might say: “Well, that's an interesting question. I'm not the expert in that – it falls outside of our topic area – but I know that someone in here can help you find out who can answer that for you.” Then you ask the audience for suggestions.

Of course, this only works if your audience is likely able to help. If that is not the case, you might say something more like, “Interesting question. It falls outside of our topic today, but I know I've run across information about that [state where you saw that information]. I bet if you went there you would have no trouble finding it.”

If the question does fall within your area of expertise but you just don't have the answer, you might choose to say something like, “What a great question! I've never had that one come up. I don't know the answer off-hand, but I do know where I can find the the answer. Will you send me a quick email when you leave here today so I have a way to get back to you with the answer by early next week?”

Are there other experts in the room who might know the answer to the question?

I can't say this enough: your willingness to do whatever it takes to get the very best information to your audience is the most valuable approach you can take as a speaker. Sometimes this will mean turning the spotlight onto another person in the room with similar expertise to yours and inviting them to share their wisdom with the audience. Assuming you have given the audience a high-quality, content rich presentation experience full of your expertise so far, this choice to point them to the best source for the answer to their question serves to actually increase your credibility.

I had this happen with me at a recent meeting. One of my colleagues who is an executive coach – an experienced speaker in her own right – was facilitating a presentation on Executive Presence for a group of professionals. I was in the audience. When the Q & A conversation turned to presentation skills, she shared her initial thoughts with the group then turned to me and asked me to add my thoughts to the conversation. Afterward, one of my clients who was in the room remarked to me how nice it was to have two experts share their ideas in that section of the presentation.

Does the answer to their question really matter in the whole scheme of things?

This one could be misunderstood so let me be clear: this isn't about deciding whether a person's question is a dumb question. It's about helping your audience walk away with what they really need to be more successful around whatever they came to you to learn.

If you get a question to which you don't know the answer and it is clear to you that knowing the answer to that question really won't help make life better for your audience anyway, it is best to gracefully shift the conversation. This could be a sign that something from earlier in your presentation caused confusion, so it's a good time to reiterate some important points.

You might say, “Oh I see where you're coming from with that question. I think I may have moved through that section too quickly. Let me reiterate the parts you really need to know… “ Or whatever is true for how you can make the important elements clear to the audience.

It's all about trust.

Your confident, clear response to a question you don't know the answer to can make or break the trust and connection that you've created with the audience. If you stumble around with a half-answer or give an answer that you aren't sure is accurate, your audience will feel this shift in energy. Things like our micro-expressions (very quick facial expressions that give away what we really think before we even have a chance to mask them) and voice fluctuation and pitch shift when we are uncertain. That last thing you want, after delivering such a great presentation full of excellent content, is for your audience to think: “Uh-oh. What just happened there?” or “Huh… I know that's not quite true. I wonder why she's saying that.” This can leave them lacking trust in everything you've shared. This is the last thing you want.

So, embrace the Q & A as the extraordinary opportunity that it is to build connection and trust – and to offer the most customized experience possible for your audience. Release any fear of losing credibility by not knowing the answer to a question and instead, invite the gift of being able to help your audience get exactly the information they need to resolve whatever drew them to your presentation, wherever that accurate information can be found. This makes you not just an expert on your topic, but a trusted adviser overall, which goes much further than one successful presentation.