Stumper questions can bedevil speakers. Learning how to say “I don’t know” with grace is a useful survival skill.
Many speakers are invited to speak because they are “experts” on a topic. Facing a question you can’t answer, at least without fibbing, can be embarrassing. They don’t need to be. Faking an answer is more likely to result in embarrassment.
Mastering the “I don’t know” answer is mostly a matter of presence, not superhuman skill. Here are some suggestions:
- “You are asking an excellent question. I don’t know the answer, but I want to find the answer. If you give me your contact information, I will share what I find out.”
- “I don’t know the answer to your question, but I should. I will follow up and make sure the answer is distributed to everyone here. Thank you for asking.”
- “I know the answer, but I’m blanking on it at the moment. Please let me get back to you.”
Following up is a way to show respect and remain in command. Plus, it is a fine way to build trust. Cell phones offer a way to follow up before leaving your speaking venue. You can transmit the answer directly to the questioner or even get that person in contact with your go-to resource. Instead of humiliation, you come across as confident.
When giving a TV or live interview, saying “I don’t know the answer, but I will find out” can be a way to avoid a slip of the tongue or a wandering non-answer. Reporters will appreciate your willingness to give them a factually correct answer or a source with the answer.
Honesty and personal engagement go a long way toward cementing rapport with audiences. Bluffing your way through a question or trying to be clever, not so much. Even worse is giving what sounds like an evasive answer. If you don’t the knowledge or facts to answer a question, just admit it. The world won’t end. And somebody else is likely to ask another question that you can answer.
While you are learning how to say “I don’t know the answer,” you might as well practice how to give a short, crisp answer. You can do far more damage to your reputation as a speaker by giving windy answers that lose an audience’s attention and potentially make you seem like, well, a windbag.
Answering questions is all about satisfying the person who asks the question, not providing an encyclopedic essay on a topic. If someone has follow-up questions, it may be smart – and a blessing for the rest of the audience – for you to suggest talking one-one-one after your talk. That’s respectful to the questioner – and everyone else.
There are times when you will want to deflect a question. This can be risky business unless you apply some grace to your deflection. For example, you might be asked to comment about a pending legal matter or commercial transaction. A good response might be, “I appreciate your question, but I’m not able to comment now because the matter is pending.”
Sometimes you may want to deflect a question because the answer might be awkward or off message. In media training, we teach bridging techniques – skillful ways to acknowledge a question, but to pull the conversation back to the message you want to deliver. This is especially useful when someone poses a hypothetical question or a trick question.
Good speakers endeavor to say something and say it well. They should give equal effort to practicing what not to say and not saying it well.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm’s PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.