One of the most challenging moments as a presenter is when you’re faced with a question for which you don’t have a ready answer. It’s a situation that can make even the most seasoned professionals break a sweat. However, mastering the art of responding to questions gracefully when you don’t know the answer can be a valuable skill in your communications toolkit.
Not knowing the answer to a question when you’re in the spotlight can generate brain freeze. You go into panic mode as you search for the answer, any answer, and the ensuing seconds of pause can seem like a lifetime.
It could happen in a job interview, a press conference, a podcast, an industry panel, an employee town hall, an analyst call, or an investor pitch. Your mind may go blank, and you may be tempted to improvise an answer you may later regret.
But you can learn to think on your feet without blinking an eye. The rule of thumb is to set an intention for your talk, presentation, or interview. Consider it the throughline that tethers all your ideas, stories, and examples together into a coherent message. What do you want to impart to your audience? What will they remember as a result?
Based on that intention, you can anticipate and plan for questions. What is your audience likely to ask to deepen their understanding of your topic? Or what questions may emerge from a competitor or an adversary in the audience who throws you a gotcha question to make you sweat and throw you off balance?
You as the expert speaker who has a solid command of your topic need to prepare for the unexpected and respond with grace and aplomb. Here are some words of advice to help you answer difficult or off-topic questions while safeguarding your credibility.
1. Stay calm and breathe.
When confronted with an unfamiliar question, remain calm. Panicking can cloud your thinking and hinder your ability to formulate a coherent response. Take a deep breath, maintain eye contact with the questioner, and remind yourself that it’s okay not to know everything.
2. Don’t fear saying you don’t know.
Instead of hedging and tap dancing around your response or making something up and getting it wrong, simply say you don’t know the answer. But plan your follow-up with a statement about what you do know. Examples:
- That’s not my area, but here’s what I can tell you…
- I don’t have the complete answer to your question, but I do know that…
- I don’t have all the details now, but I’ll make sure to respond by…
- I don’t know but I will find out…
3. Respond quickly.
Answer every question every time, especially in media interviews, even if you can’t. If not, you could be seen as evading the topic and showing a weakness that the interviewer could exploit. What could you say? Use short phrases that serve as an on-ramp for a longer answer where you can display your knowledge and authority.
4. Be clear and precise.
Avoid wishy-washy responses like “Not really.” Or “Not exactly.” They both mean no, but you could come across as tentative and unsure. Be careful not to use filler words and verbal markers that give away your discomfort. A deliberate pause is much better. Ums and ahs may buy you time to think, but they can leave a negative impression and make you look like an amateur.
5. Transition to what you do know.
After answering that you don’t know, go right to your wheelhouse. Imagine you’re swimming in too-deep water and there’s a life raft nearby. Instead of treading water with bad answers, swim to what you know. Your intention, your throughline, and your message are on that life raft—they’re what you set out to communicate on that occasion. “I can’t speak to X, but I can tell you that…”
6. Stay positive.
Praise the questioner. Watch your gestures and facial expressions that could denote anger or displeasure with the tough question. Defensiveness is easy to spot in your tone of voice, too. Maintain an open stance and speak calmly. Express a poised receptivity to learn something new. Stay cool and respond with some of the sample phrases suggested above, or positive statements such as:
- That’s an excellent question to which I’ll owe you an answer.
- Your question speaks to something I’ll explore in the future. Thank you for the thoughtful question.
- That’s an important question that I can’t answer right now. Let’s talk offline and see how I can help you.
7. Hand off the question to someone else.
If you’re not the right person to answer an off-topic question, it’s fine to say so and pass it on to a coworker. Refer the question to someone else in the room or tell the questioner that you’re not an expert on that subject but would be happy to find someone who is.
When you as the speaker are faced with a question to which you don’t know the answer, never bluff. Stay in your lane, focus on your message, and understand that saying you don’t know demonstrates vulnerability and authenticity. It’s a better option than jumping into a random response that may haunt you afterward and tarnish your reputation.