One of the greatest fears public speakers have is being confronted by a question they don’t know the answer to.
Admittedly, there are times when not knowing an answer can make a presenter look bad. If you’re a political candidate who can’t answer a question about your own economic plan, for example, you’re going to receive negative media coverage. But in the vast majority of cases, not knowing an answer is okay—if you handle it well.
This post will offer you six ways to handle a question that stumps you.
Letting a few seconds elapse between a question and your response may feel like an eternity to you—but it doesn’t to the audience. Pausing to think also conveys to the audience that you’re taking their questions seriously, not offering canned answers.
If you’re temporarily unable to think of an answer, you can tell the questioner that you’d like to think about the question for a few minutes and that you’ll come back to them later (“That’s an important issue, and I’d like to think about it for a few minutes before responding.”).
3. Ask Them To Elaborate
Ask questioners to elaborate upon their main point. Oftentimes, people become more specific when they restate their question, which makes it easier for you to understand and respond.
4. Turn To The Audience
Don’t be afraid to use your audience as a resource. If stumped, you can ask the audience to share their knowledge and experience with the questioner (“I know we have some people in the audience who have dealt with that issue before. How have you handled it?”).
5. Tell Them What You Know
Sometimes, knowing a specific answer isn’t as important as providing a general response. In those cases, it’s okay to tell the questioner what you do know, not what you don’t. As an example, if you work for an office supply company and someone asks what percentage of your sales last year were for recycled paper, you might say, “I don’t know the specific number, but what I can tell you is that recycled paper sales continue to grow steadily and we’ve given more shelf space to the product due to increased consumer demand.” You might pair that response with the final tip below.
6. Use These Seven Words
This final point is a critical one that should permanently eradicate most of your fears about being stumped. If you don’t know an answer, just say these seven words: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Then, follow up as promised. If you have a website, blog, or social media account, you can even tell your audience that you’ll post the answer within 48 hours for anyone who’s interested. That seven-word sentence is an especially powerful resource for speakers with perfectionist tendencies, since it reminds them that they’re allowed to be—and should be—human in front of their audiences.
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