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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Married Louisiana Congressman Vance McAllister was caught on surveillance video this week passionately kissing a woman at his local office.
The woman, Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock, was a longtime friend and donor to McAllister’s campaign. Making matters more complicated, the woman’s husband was also a friend and contributor to McAllister’s campaign; Mr. Peacock told CNN that this incident has “wrecked his life.”
Even worse, Ms. Peacock was on McAllister’s payroll and was terminated after the video became public.
The Republican freshman has vowed to remain in office, but the messy incident has remained in the news, threatening his young political career.
According to CBS News, McAllister is “reportedly asking for an FBI investigation into the source of the leaked security footage.”
A friend and trusted colleague emailed me today and said, “This seems like a bad idea to me. You cheated on your wife and kids, don’t ask the FBI to find the person who caught you doing it.”
I understand where he’s coming from, but I disagree on this one. Rep. McAllister is taking a page out of two smart crisis management playbooks: Don Draper’s and David Letterman’s.
Don Draper, the fictional MadMen anti-hero, famously said, “If you don’t like what is being said, then change the conversation.” McAllister’s request may help shift at least part of the storyline from his steamy kisses onto the person who leaked the footage.
As for David Letterman, he paid a relatively small public price after news of his affair with a staffer became public. He benefited from having a bad guy in the story who was worse than he was—a blackmailer—and that blackmailer took a much worse media drubbing.
I wish McAllister’s crisis management strategy was to apologize, resign, and retreat from public life. But if his goal is to remain in office, his “find the leaker” strategy may help.
UPDATE, April 9, 2014, 5:40pm
Well, so much for that. According to Politico, Rep. McAllister’s staff said the congressman would no longer pursue an investigation into the leaker. It looks like he will have little to hide behind other than the de rigueur “I have let my family down and will try to do better” line.
In yesterday’s post, you learned the first four rules of engagement for managing the all-important Q&A period. In today’s post, you’ll learn three more.
5. Keep Your Answers Brief
You’ve worked hard during your presentation to remain focused on your big shiny object and choose your words with precision. Apply that same discipline to the audience Q&A, and avoid the far-too-common problem of speakers who offer six-minute rambles where 30-second answers would suffice.
Long answers chill the room. Audience members are quick to detect the pattern of a speaker who offers seemingly endless answers—and their questions quickly dry up when they realize further questions would subject them to another interminable monologue.
Keep your answers short. Aim for one minute or less. If you’re generally successful at keeping your answers succinct, the audience will forgive an occasional extended response.
6. Draw Out Your Audience
When speakers ask their audience for questions, they often see a collection of blank stares facing back at them. That moment is understandably difficult for many presenters—two seconds of quiet feels like an eternity—so they conclude that the audience has nothing to say and end the session after just a few seconds of silence.
As a professional presenter, I’ve encountered audiences that are quieter than others. But almost all of them can be drawn out—if you create a climate that encourages interaction.
Let’s say you begin by asking, “What questions or thoughts do you have about my proposal?” No one responds. Here are a few things you could try next:
Wait: People detest a vacuum. Long silences are uncomfortable. If you simply stand confidently and wait, someone in the audience will usually speak up.
Ask the Audience a Question: If no one speaks up after several seconds of silence, you can ask the audience a question. (“During my presentation, I mentioned one possible approach to raise more money from donors by selling licensed merchandise. What advantages or disadvantages do you see with that approach?”) If no one responds, you can call on a few people.
Prompt the First Question: To ease the audience in, you can bring up and answer a question that you’re often asked about your topic—or a question that you had to contemplate when developing your presentation.
End the Session: Gracefully thank your audience, deliver your second close, and invite the audience to approach you with any thoughts or questions after the session ends. Don’t assume that the audience’s lack of feedback was a sign of failure (and don’t convey, through your words or body language, that you thought it was). You may have been so effective in delivering your presentation that they understood it thoroughly and are processing your information. To help determine the root cause of your audience’s silence, analyze why you didn’t receive input by reflecting upon your presentation, speaking to the meeting planner or a few participants to discuss what worked and what didn’t, and evaluating the results of your post-presentation survey.
7. Assign Roles For Team Presentations
If you’re presenting as part of a team, decide in advance which team members will answer questions about which topics. For example, you might assign questions about a project’s timeline to Susan, the project’s cost to Rick, and the project’s architectural design to Raheem. Doing so helps prevent the awkwardness of deciding in front of the audience who should answer which questions.
Also, resist the urge to add something to an answer given by a co-presenter if they offered a sufficient response. Too often, team members compete for “talk time” by unnecessarily adding their thoughts to another team member’s answer, which can slow down the Q&A period.
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Too often, speakers spend weeks carefully crafting their presentations but fail to prepare adequately for their audience’s questions. As a result, they deliver a successful presentation only to become derailed during the question and answer interaction.
One bad response can be all it takes for speakers to diminish—or even reverse—the good impression they established during their presentation. This week, we’ll focus on the question and answer period to make sure you take advantage of those critical minutes.
1. Set Time Expectations
If your presentation doesn’t have a firm ending time, tell the audience for how long you intend to take questions. If the audience knows you’ll wrap up the session in 15 minutes, they’re less likely to be distracted by the phone call they have to make, their biological needs (“When can I go to the bathroom already?), or their growing hunger.
If you don’t tell them, they’ll become uneasy, as they don’t know whether they’ll be stuck in the room with you for 10 minutes or an hour. You can eliminate this step if your session is time limited—the audience will understand that a 50-minute conference breakout session will predictably end at 50 minutes past the hour.
2. Invite Audience Participation Using The Right Phrases
When most speakers open the floor to questions, they ask, “Does anyone have a question?” That question often fails to elicit a response. One reason is that whereas only a few people in your audience may have a question, many more likely have thoughts, opinions, or comments about the material you presented. You can encourage more participation if you use those words when soliciting feedback from your audience instead of—or alongside—the word “question.”
Ken Molay, president of the firm Webinar Success, says that another problem with the “Does anyone have a question” approach is that it doesn’t place personal responsibility onto any single member of the audience to act. As better alternatives, he advises clients to change that question to “Do you have a question?” or “What are your thoughts?” Although those questions can be addressed to the full audience, the use of the pronoun you may prompt a more active response.
An even stronger cue, Molay says, is to give the audience a direct command to take action in a specific way: “Now it’s your turn to guide the discussion. What should I clarify or go into more detail on?”
3. Repeat the Question or Comment
There’s usually no need to repeat (or summarize) an audience member’s comment or question when speaking to smaller groups in smaller rooms, or in larger groups when questioners use a microphone.
But repeating an audience member’s question is imperative when: The audience size or room is large enough that some people might not hear the question; the person asking the question is soft-spoken; or the session is being recorded and questioners do not use a microphone.
You don’t have to repeat back each question in its entirety, but make sure you include the heart of the question in your summarized version.
4. Avoid Negative Language
Neurophysiologist Rick Hanson writes that, “Your body generally reacts more intensely to negative stimuli than to equally strong positive ones…Negative stimuli produce more neural activity than do equally intense positive ones.” Since negative words or experiences tend to be more memorable than positive ones, it’s best to remove any negative language when restating a question posed by an audience member.
For example, a member of the audience—a person who rents apartments from your management company—might say, “We’ve been complaining about the noise for a year, and you’ve done nothing about it. It’s obvious that all you care about is money.”
When repeating back the comment to the audience, don’t say:
“She says that all we care about is money and that we haven’t addressed the noise problem.”
Instead, strip away the negative language when restating the comment:
“I understand that you’re concerned about the noise. Let me tell you what we’ve done to address the noise problem.”
Click here for part two of this post!
Many people have fantasized about their opponents in the media being put out of business. But most of them have the good sense not to give voice to their dark wishes.
That didn’t stop Rutgers University Athletic Director Julie Hermann from publicly fantasizing about the demise of her media nemesis, New Jersey’s Star-Ledger. According to Star-Ledger columnist Steve Politi (and originally reported by Rutgers University student website Muckgers):
“If they’re not writing headlines that are getting our attention, they’re not selling ads – and they die,” Hermann told the Media Ethics and Law class. “And the Ledger almost died in June, right?”
“They might die again next month,” a student said.
“That would be great,” she replied. “I’m going to do all I can to not give them a headline to keep them alive.”
Now that’s a new one. Giving such a juicy headline in a quote about not giving the newspaper a headline?
Worse than the quote itself is Ms. Hermann’s timing. Last week, the Star-Ledger laid off 167 staffers. That a local college official appears to be dancing on their professional graves during a tough economy makes her look vindictive, petty, and small.
Worse yet, Ms. Hermann’s response isn’t much better than her original comments.
According to The Detroit News:
“The university said in a statement that Hermann’s remarks to a media ethics and law class in February came before she knew about deep layoffs at the Star-Ledger…Rutgers said her statements were “intended to give the students some understanding of the challenges she has faced” and were not expected to be made public. She did not apologize.”
Ridiculous. That Ms. Hermann had any expectation for privacy in a public setting is ludicrous. (How many times have I written about this already?)
Plus, what kind of message is that to send to a media ethics class—that if you don’t like the coverage you’re receiving, you should wish for the news organization’s demise? Ms. Hermann owes the newspaper—along with the men and women who work for it and the students she was lecturing to—an apology.
Thank you to the anonymous tipster who forwarded this story to me. Have a tip? Send it to Contact@MrMediaTraining.com.
Due to their spontaneous nature, question and answer exchanges can be more memorable than the presentation itself. Sharp audience questions often add energy to your talk—occasionally even a sense of danger—and audiences tend to be keenly interested in what their fellow seatmates have to say.
Even with its risk of unpredictability, you should view the question and answer exchange as a critical asset for you as a speaker, not as an unwelcome interruption. Questions help reveal what your audience cares about, remains confused by, or continues to resist. They allow you to offer responses that align your content with their concerns, clear up any lingering confusion, and persuade people that your ideas are sensible.
The Q&A period also allows you to demonstrate your competence. Directly answering challenging questions with poise and confidence sends a message to your audience that you’re capable of leading, executing or managing whatever initiative you’ve presented.
Beginning tomorrow, we’ll run three in-depth posts on managing the audience Q&A.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, you’ll learn seven rules of engagement for managing the Q&A period.
On Thursday, I’ll write about six things to do when you’re stumped by a question.
On Friday, I’m taking a nap.
In the meantime, I’ve included a few links below from previous posts on this topic:
General Motors CEO Mary Barra testified to Congress this week regarding her company’s delay in recalling faulty vehicles that are responsible for at least 13 deaths.
Ms. Barra is new to her position—she became CEO less than three months ago—and she’s trying to usher in a new era of transparency. But as last night’s Saturday Night Live noted, the multiple evasions during her testimony won’t help her in that effort.
SNL often reflects—or sets—national sentiment. To be their target in an opening sketch is not going to help GM’s crisis management efforts at all.
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As you’ve heard by now, talk show legend David Letterman announced his retirement last night. What struck me about his retirement announcement was that he chose to frame it within an anecdote.
Letterman told a lengthy story about spotting a rare bird while fishing with his son. He didn’t know what breed of bird he had spotted, so he spent his next day at work trying to figure it out.
When he got home and his wife asked him how his day was, he told her what he had learned about the bird. When his wife asked who was on the show that night, Letterman shrugged. He couldn’t remember.
It was at that moment, it seems, that he realized he had lost the passion to host his show. When the “How was work?” question led to a bird tale instead of conversation about the show itself, he knew it was time hang it up.
When making his announcement, Letterman could have simply said, “I’ve lost my passion for hosting,” or “It’s time.” Instead, he chose to frame that message within a story. As a result, his retirement announcement was a lot more colorful, memorable, personal, and understandable.
I’ve written about this topic before—about looking for “smaller” stories to help make a larger point. It’s a great device, one you should consider for your own presentations.
Here’s a post I’ve written about telling small stories.
And here’s a wonderful example of a TED Talk that accomplishes that beautifully.