Six Things To Do When You’re Stumped By A Question

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 10, 2014 – 6:02 am

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.


Man Clueless or Perplexed About Something

1. Pause

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.

2. Punt

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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Seven Rules Of Engagement For Managing Q&A (Part Two)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 9, 2014 – 6:02 am

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.

Answering Audience Questions African American Man iStockPhoto PPT


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.

Woman gesturing with her hand while a business team is watching her


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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Seven Rules Of Engagement For Managing Q&A (Part One)

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 8, 2014 – 6:02 am

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.

Audience Questions Hands Raised


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?”

Audience Raising Hands


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.

Businessman holding a microphone while looking at a business team with raised arms


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!


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10 Commonly Used Phrases To Avoid In Your Speeches

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 12, 2014 – 6:01 am

There are a few phrases that always hit my ear badly when I hear speakers use them in response to an audience member’s question.

They’re all variations on the same theme; you can probably come up with several similar ones of your own. Each can make the person who utters them come across as annoyed, if not downright peevish.

Man Zipping Mouth

The phrases are:

“As I mentioned earlier”

“As I already said in my email”

“As I said before”

“As I’ve already mentioned”

“Like I previously stated”

“As I wrote in the memo you received”

“Like I said”

“As I stated earlier”

“Like we discussed”

“As we covered at the beginning”

In my experience, the majority of speakers who utter these types of lines don’t do so because they’re annoyed. I’d guess many of them aren’t even aware that they said these lines at all.

Nonetheless, they can come across as an accusation to the audience—I already spoke about this! Why weren’t you listening to me?

Even though it can feel annoying to receive an audience question about material you already covered, keep in mind that: The person who asked the question might have entered the room late due to an unexpected doctor’s appointment; their mind may have drifted because the information you were sharing frightened them; their attention span waned simply because they’re human. Heck, it may even be a sign that you’re a sleep-inducing speaker!

The bottom line is that if you’re asked to restate something that you said earlier, just say it a second time.

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This Week: Public Speaking Horror Stories

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 2, 2014 – 6:02 am

This week, I’ll focus on public speaking horror stories—mine and yours.

The goal isn’t simply to share fun stories about the public speaking nightmares we’ve all experienced (although I’ll admit that they can make for fun reading). Rather, my hope is to use those experiences to share lessons about what others should do if faced with a similar situation.

I’ll post a few of my own horror stories this week, but I’d also like to post yours!


Please leave your personal public speaking horror stories in the comments section below. In addition to sharing the story, please leave some advice for people who may face the same situation. Now that you’ve had time to think about what went wrong, what would you do differently?

I’ll post a few of your excerpts throughout the week. I look forward to learning from you!

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No Word Was Ever As Effective As A Rightly Timed Pause

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 23, 2014 – 6:02 am

You may recognize the title of this post as a famous quote from Mark Twain. But I had never heard that quote when, in 1998, I was tasked with running the intern program for ABC News’ Nightline.

We received hundreds of applications for that year’s coveted summer internship, for which we only had four open slots. I culled the hundreds of applications down to about 20, and then conducted phone interviews with each of the finalists. 

Sixteen years later, I still remember one of the phone interviews. The applicant had been performing well enough—but then I asked him a question he clearly hadn’t anticipated. He asked if he could take a few moments before answering the question. The phone then went dead. Not for three, or five, or ten seconds, but for close to fifteen.

Nightline Ted Koppel

He then answered the question. It was a good answer, but that wasn’t what impressed me. Rather, it was his confidence in pausing and thinking before rushing into an answer. Anyone with that much confidence and poise deserved a shot, I thought.

He got the job.

His approach to answering that question stood out precisely because it was unusual. But it shouldn’t be. All of us should be able to stop and think for a moment before rushing into an answer—and as my experience with this intern demonstrated, that pause can enhance an audience’s view of you.

That sounds deceptively simple. In my experience, even when I coach a presentation training client immediately before their practice Q&A session to pause before answering a question, they forget the moment it begins.

That’s understandable, because answering questions without a pause in everyday communication is reflexive, even normal. So for presentations, you have to work actively to subdue that reflex (you can also pause when answering questions in some non-live media interview settings).

Pause and Play

The pause has many benefits for you as a speaker: It buys you time to form a better answer, it allows you to deliver that answer with greater confidence, and it often eliminates your verbal filler. It also gives your audience a moment to think, to engage with your content in their own terms.

A pause can also make you appear more thoughtful to an audience, but only if you do it the right way. Pauses can look either purposeful—and therefore be perceived as effective—or as a sign that you’re slow of thought, which is obviously a problem. The key is to be deliberate. Either say something similar to my former intern (“I’d like a moment to think about that”) or communicate the same message through your body language.

The best part of this advice? You can begin practicing this immediately, the next time someone asks you a question.

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The Universal Language Of Public Speaking

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 18, 2014 – 6:02 am

In 2003, I traveled to Guatemala with a group of professional communicators from all over the world. We spent one particularly memorable day exploring the Mayan ruins in Tikal, climbing its tall structures and trekking through the forest. It was a magical experience.

But for some reason, the moment I remember best about that trip has nothing to do with the historical site. It has to do with a DJ.

Tikal Guatemala

On the last night of our trip, the conference organizers hired a disc jockey. I watched as the DJ struggled to find music that could fill the dance floor. The DJ was aware that we were an international crowd—but everything he played ended up segregating the audience.

If he played a Brazilian tune, the Brazilians would dance. If he played an American pop hit, the Americans and Europeans would dance. If he played something with an African rhythm, the Africans would dance. (Yes, a few people tried dancing to unfamiliar music, but they were the exceptions.)

Then something remarkable happened. The DJ played the first few notes of “Three Little Birds” by Bob Marley—and the dance floor filled up almost immediately. The Americans joined the Chileans, the Ghanaians joined the Filipinos. 

The DJ, quite accidentally, had stumbled upon the universal language of music. Bob Marley was the one artist that, for whatever reason, united a diverse group of people from more than 15 countries. (The DJ was no dummy; he played several more Marley hits in a row.)

That made me think: What is the Bob Marley of public speaking? What is the universal language that unites audiences?

In their great book Made to Stick, authors Chip and Dan Heath offer this answer:

“Find a ‘universal language,’ one that everyone speaks fluently. Inevitably, that universal language will be concrete.”

The Heaths point out that while experts will understand abstractions, non-experts will not. Concrete language, full of vivid detail, reaches both audiences. It unites experts and non-experts alike. In his book Lend Me Your Ears, author Max Atkinson offers similar advice:

“More difficult is to know how to approach it if the audience is made up of a mixture of specialists and non-specialists. The safest solution is to pitch it towards the non-specialists, as the specialists in the audience will…be aware of the different levels of expertise among those present.”

International Global Panel iStockPhoto PPT

Practically speaking, what does that mean? It means anecdotes. Case studies. Stories. It means culling more abstract points out of your presentation—or supplementing them with broadly understandable examples.

Here’s an example.

Instead of saying this: “This bill got bottled up in committee.”

Say this: “The committee has 14 members. Only five of them support us. But there’s good news: that’s one more person than last year. I asked the member who changed his mind why he changed his mind, and he told me that he was deeply affected by the testimony he heard from a local resident named Trudy Hall. Last year, Trudy was diagnosed with… [insert anecdote].”

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Ellen Page’s Coming Out Speech

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on February 15, 2014 – 11:57 am

Ellen Page—the actress best known for roles in Juno and Hard Candy—came out yesterday during an emotional speech to a group of LGBT teens at a Human Rights Campaign conference in Las Vegas. 

The speech has received a lot of buzz since she delivered it last night, and it’s easy to see why. It’s magnificent. 

Ms. Page struck the perfect tone with her speech. Yes, this platform served as her public coming out—but even so, she made sure that the focus of her comments remained on the audience. This easily could have become an indulgent, self-focused speech, but she repeatedly returned the spotlight to the people in the audience who have already come out and are dealing with the issues that involves.

It was impossible to watch Page’s speech without noticing her fear. She spoke for five minutes before coming out—and because she knew what she was leading up to, she appeared vulnerable the entire time. But that was a good thing. Audiences often perceive authentic vulnerability as a gift from the speaker, and Page served as a perfect demonstration of that.

“I’m tired of hiding, and I’m tired of lying by omission. I suffered for years because I was scared to be out. My spirit suffered, my mental health suffered, and my relationship suffered. And I’m standing here today with all of you on the other side of that pain.”

Ellen Page Coming Out

Even with her vulnerability, or perhaps because of it, Ms. Page was fully connected with the audience the entire time. She remained conversational but intense, nervous but focused. 

And that leads me to a technical point. Ms. Page read her speech off of a teleprompter. But unlike the 99 percent of people who sound like they’re reading off a teleprompter, she didn’t. She infused each line with meaning, punching certain words and phrases for emphasis. Her acting background certainly helped there; she knows how to communicate the emotion behind each word. That’s a critical lesson for all public speakers who use a teleprompter.

Finally, she used a wonderful speaking device that bookended her speech. It involved the word “weird.” I won’t spoil it for you, but it was a delightful moment.

To the LGBT community, for whom these coming out speeches offer hope, Ms. Page’s speech served as a wonderful moment of inspiration. I only hope we’re nearing the point when these speeches become unnecessary, anachronisms from a less-accepting time.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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