Here’s the question we’re asked most often about this topic: what should you do when you don’t know the answer?
We’ll respond in a few ways.
First, do your best to avoid the situation. We encourage all presenters to brainstorm in advance to develop a list of questions the audience might ask. Prepare yourself to respond to those questions—the easy ones, the tough ones, and the ones you hope they DON’T ask. This simple exercise will help you feel more prepared to respond during Q&A.
Now, you’ve done your homework, but as you finish your remarks, you still get a question or two that stump you. How will you respond?
Here are some thoughts:
Confirm that you understand the question. People misunderstand questions all the time. Feel free to ask for clarification if you need it. It will also give you an extra moment to consider your response.
Be honest. You can best maintain your credibility as a presenter if you give your audience a straight response. Of course you’d rather have the information they want, but if you don’t, it’s best to admit it instead of stumbling your way through or sharing what you THINK the answer might be. No one needs to be perfect. Tell them you know how to find the actual answer and let them know when you’ll get back to them.
“Park” the question. If you get questions you can’t answer, write them down on a note pad, white board or flip chart. Tell your listeners you’ll investigate the answers afterward, and that you’ll get back to the group. When you find the information, blast out an email to all of the attendees, sharing the details you’ve learned.
Follow up personally. If someone in the group needs a specific answer that you’re not able to provide, ask that person to stop by after the presentation to give you their contact information. That way, you can respond directly to them later with the information they need.
Refer the question. Do you have a colleague in the room who knows more about the topic being addressed? Feel free to invite them to field the question. (One warning: let them know ahead of time that you might call on them. And NEVER refer a question to someone with their nose in their iPhone—make sure they’re paying attention to you!)
Open it up. If you have a friendly audience with expertise on your topic, consider opening up the question to your listeners, suggesting that perhaps one of them knows the answer or can offer an opinion. If they help you out, be sure to say, “thank you!”
Avoid trying to fake an answer, gloss over details, or ignore the question. You run the risk damaging your credibility. Take your time, be authentic, and you’ll do a great job!