This one comes up a lot in Presentation Skills training:

“What do I do if I get asked a question and I don’t know the answer?’

People get overly stressed by this, and as a result spend way too much time preparing their presentation, in the hope that they can anticipate every question they might be asked. (And then they put all that stuff onto slides so that they don’t forget it – a subject of what will have to be yet another Blog).

Once they realise that there are 5 alternatives to them having to answer it, there are audible sighs of relief all around.

Before listing them out, it is worth pointing out the bleeding obvious (I have a degree in that subject):

IT’S OK NOT TO KNOW!  Honestly, it is.  As long as you don’t say this too often, most people will really appreciate it when you thank them for the question, tell them you don’t know the answer, and will get them one by tomorrow.  In fact it can be a great technique for building openness and trust when you do this, and it makes you seem on the one hand more approachable and authentic, and on the other more confident.  We’re all human, after all, and you could never know EVERYTHING about ANYTHING, could you, so why bother trying?

So, here are the alternatives to you answering:

  1. DEFER.  Tell them to hang onto the question, it’s coming up later.
  2. REFLECT.  Give it back to the person who asked it.  A great way to handle expert questions designed to test you or to show off (see my previous Blog on handling experts).  Also a great way to handle deliberately silly questions:

Q: “What colour underpants do you have on today Michael?”

A: “Interesting question, what do you think?”

  3. DEFLECT.  Give it to the rest of the audience.  This keeps them awake, takes the focus off you for a bit, and makes it feel more interactive.  “What do other people think about that one?”

   4. SCOPE.  Take it offline.  Do this when the question is not relevant, or may take too long to handle.  Also, of course, when it doesn’t help you or you can’t answer it publicly.

5. REDIRECT.  This is a very specialised option, for which I am grateful to Bill Durbin, Head of Research for Wood Mackenzie in China and NE Asia.  Bill finds himself in front of sceptical and specialist audiences all the time.  Here’s how he explains the technique:

“I use it primarily when someone is questioning (sometimes aggressively) an outcome without a clear understanding of the methodology or without appreciating context. So I will steer them to a different question that allows me to explain better the methodology or context of the event. It can be quite effective on ill-informed ‘assassins’ or unknowing ‘royalty’ at the table! I believe you need to have a mastery of the topic that is at least equal to if not greater than the audience. Ultimately, if done well it can be a subtle way to solidify control of the session / audience.”

So, what are the limited circumstances when you and only you should answer the question?  You have all of a millisecond in which to weigh up whether the question meets these criteria:

You know the answer + no one else does + it’s a useful, relevant question which you are allowed to answer + you have time.  

If it fails one of these, use one of the options above.

Oh by the way, I don’t recommend a 6th option which people sometimes suggest, which is to ignore it!

Do you know of any other options which I may have missed?