How to respond to a question when you don’t know the answer
In the previous article, we learnd about the benefits of questions from the audience, and the Golden Rule of accepting them only between arguments. In this article, we look at a common fear about not knowing the answer.
Anyone who has ever spoke in front of people is familiar with this fear – what do you do when a question comes and you don’t know the answer? The straightforward recommendation would be to be more prepared, but in reality there is a limit to the amount of preparation but there is no limit to the number of trick questions. Therefore it is essential for every public speaker to develop the ability to address questions without informed knowledge.
Fortunately, this is an acquired skill that with the right theory and a bit of practice any one can master. There are 4 main ways to handle a question which you don’t understand the answer for, and it is important to know all of them – in this article we cover Returning the question, Changing the subject, and in the next article we cover Giving tentative answer, and admitting not to know. The reason is that any of them, when overused, becomes transparent. If each time you use one of them, you can get out of nearly any amount of missing knowledge…
1. Return to Sender
- Return to the asker – ‘well, what do YOU think?’
The basic approach. If the question is simple you can reply by asking the asker what he thinks the answer is or how he would have solved the problem he raises.
- Return to the whole class – ‘So, who can tell me the answer?’
Just like in the TV show ‘Millionaire’, this method is better for factual questions (you can’t return it to the asker, because he might not know), because it is likely that someone in the audience would know.
And what if nobody in the audience knows the answer? Will, in that case you can lie with a straight face, because nobody will know you’re wrong…
- Give the question as homework – ‘For tomorrow I want an answer from all of you’
This method is useful when you cannot fail, because it makes it removes the question from the discussion and gives you an excellent excuse for not giving the answer. Note that it can only be used if you have another meeting with the group, and if you have the authority to give them assignments.
It is imperative to look and sound authoritative, otherwise you will appear to be weaseling out (if you can’t handle that, opt for the ‘tentative answer’ approach).. This method works best if you’re the sort of speaker that involves the audience and answers many questions.
2. Change the subject
Nobody likes to admit he uses this method, but is actually very effective for questions about policy or preference (though less useful for questions of knowledge).
To change the subject without appearing to do so can be done in two ways, by expanding the issue or by zooming in into one of its components. For example, when asked about ‘should Israel freeze west-bank settlements’ , an evasive speaker can either expand the question into ‘I want to address this issue in the general context of the future of the settlements’, or by narrowing down into ‘Let’s look for example at what happens in Alon-Shvut settlement south of Jerusalem’.
This method has been used so extensively by politicians that some phrasings of it now sound like a joke or a caricature.