3 Ways To Handle Questions, When You Don’t Know The Answer

One of the most common fears people have when public speaking is, what if I am asked a question and I don’t know the answer.  Here are some simple solutions for 3 common situations.

 

 

1. During an educational lecture

If a student or audience member asks a question and you don’t know the answer, during a less formal presentation, a good response is:

  • I have some ideas, but I’d like to research that more in depth so I can give you the most accurate, updated information.

 

2. During a live media interview or formal meeting

Redirect – When asked question that is controversial or leading:

  • The current research has informed us…
  • The more important issue is…
  • During this time, people are most concerned with…
  • What I have found most valuable is…

Share Your Experience – When asked a question you don’t have an answer to:

  • Over the past [3-10 years], I’ve seen the trends go up…
  • While working on ______ project I’ve seen/heard/learned…
  • I’ve found that our customers like____ most and…
  • Having worked in this field over 15 years, I know…
  • After analyzing the data and a thorough investigation, I discovered…

Clarify and Narrow – When asked a confusing question

  • That’s a general question, to be more specific…
  • This is an unusual situation, the best protocol is…
  • That question is unclear, what I DO know is…
  • There are no easy solutions/answers, the best options are…
  • It’s very complex problem, the target issue is…
  • There are no simple solutions, but I have found ____ works best…

 

3. When ‘I don’t know’ is appropriate

A friend once told me she attended a meeting at a huge stadium with the Dali Lama.  Someone from the crowd asked him, “What’s the secret to happiness.” He paused, a hush fell over the crowd.  You could hear a pin drop.  He responded with a chuckle, “I don’t know.”  The entire audience burst out in laughter.   He’s a humble man and the question was posed in such a monumental way, as if the person were asking, “What’s the meaning of life.”  The Dali Lama’s response was perfect.  Then he went on to talk about the meaning of suffering and the value of compassion.  He followed up his “I don’t know” response with specific, targeted topics.

  • During a print media interview, it’s more that acceptable to tell the reporter you don’t know the answer to the question and you will get back to them within 1-2 days.
  • When you are with a group of people who know and trust you, saying ‘I don’t know’ is a form of transparency and can build trust.  You can even redirect the question to the audience.  If you do it in a confident tone, it can be effective and efficient, getting answers in that moment.  Say to the audience, “We have a great deal of wisdom in this room, who would like to answer that question.” Or you can redirect the question to someone who is an expert in the room and who can answer it on the spot.
  • If you are new to a position, you can say, “I don’t know the best answer.  I am still gathering information and your input is extremely valuable.”  The person inquiring feels respected, included and validated.