What if I Can’t Answer a Question?

What if I Can’t Answer a Question?

One of the biggest fears people have when presenting or leading a meeting is, “What if I am asked a question I can’t answer?” Relax. There are many approaches for handling these types of situations.

Most questions are honest and asked with good intentions to clarify information. Questions are beneficial when it comes to delivering information because they can be used as talking points to create discussion that is relevant for your listeners.  Questions strengthen your credibility and authority on your subject because you are presenting as an information provider.  It is natural to have concerns that a question could be asked that is outside of your knowledge area.  No one individual is expected to know everything. Listed below are some strategies to help in this area.

1.  Use it as a topic for discussion.
Chances are you will be speaking to a group with varying skill levels, background knowledge, and expertise.  If someone asks a question and you don’t feel fully confident in answering the question on an expert level, pass the question over to the audience.

By presenting the question to the group, you can have a small discussion on that talking point that you would facilitate.  You could state, “That’s interesting or new information” and ask, “Does anyone have some thoughts on that or is familiar with that concept?” Instead of attempting to answer a question you are unsure of, lead a group discussion that could provide useful information for everyone.  Most likely your audience will be satisfied with the discussion and you will continue to maintain your leadership status as a speaker. A good closure and transition statement is to ask if the information just shared was helpful.

2.  “Fake it until you make it” is not always best.
It may offend your audience if it can be sensed when a speaker is “faking” an answer to a question.  Be honest and report that you are not fully familiar with that content in the question and do not want to provide inaccurate information.  Your audience will appreciate your honesty.  As a final gesture, you can begin an email list and offer to send information on that point at a later date.

3.  What if a person is talking “on and on” and the question is lost?
Acknowledge that many points of interest have been raised. To ensure that you give a proper response you could say, “To clarify, your question is…” (and state your conceptualization of question). This will help provide structure to the question and alert the audience on what you will be answering. It will also give you some time to formulate your response.

When Audience Members Seem Defensive: Do’s and Don’ts

1.  Take a breath to collect your thoughts and formulate a response.
A moment for pausing will allow you to prepare.  A pause may seem like a long time, but it really is not, and your audience will not notice.

2.  Never show that you are offended by the question or by the tone of your audience member’s voice. 
This could escalate the mood. Keep your vocal tone even and non-emotional and respond using factual information. If your tone sounds slightly defensive, you could create the perception that you do not have the ability to lead the discussion or answer the question accurately. This could affect the overall quality of your presentation and reputation.

3.  Never take hostile comments or questions personally.
Sometimes people are purposely aggressive because they want to grandstand and have the spotlight.  Other audience members will clue in as to what that other audience member is doing, and it most likely will not reflect on you as the speaker as long as it is handled well. There may be times when it is reasonable for an audience to be upset or concerned with the information that is being delivered. Although it could possibly feel hurtful or uncomfortable, respond in a way that is objective and professional. Keep your emotional level objective and sensitive.  If a power struggle occurs, your presentation and credibility will deteriorate.  Always being professional will make evident your natural leadership skills.

4.  Skip debates.
Acknowledge that the topic is interesting and there are several points of view. You are the leader of your discussion. As an option, you can say, “We have 10 minutes available to discuss different viewpoints.” When the time is out, return the group back to the presentation and move forward.



Speech and Voice - Elizabeth Peterson


Elizabeth Peterson, Denver’s leading speech therapist and executive speech coach for over 22 years and is the author of Accent Reduction 101, Third Edition 2017 and Speak Like a Broadcaster & Lead Like a CEO, Third Edition 2017 . Learn More

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Elizabeth Peterson M.A., CCC-SLP Speech Therapist

Speech Therapist & Executive Speech Coach for over 22 years
Licensed speech therapist in the State of Colorado
Certified with the American Speech Language Hearing Association
CSHA, Colorado Speech-Language-Hearing AssociationASHA, American Speech-Language Hearing Association