Answering questions you don’t know 2
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 the previous article we covered Returning the question and Changing the subject, and in this 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…
3. Give a Tentative answer
This method involves giving an answer in a uncertain tone, and then add a reservation about having to double check or about being ‘pretty sure this is about right’.
In effect this method is a way of saying ‘Let me get back to you’ while maintaining appearance of confidence and expertise. The added value of this method is that it gives the audience the feeling that the question has been answered and doesn’t leave the sense of a hole left in the argument.
For these reasons this method is particularly suitable for a situation in which you have a rough idea of the answer but don’t know (or can’t tell) the exact detail.
You cannot use this method when the question pertains to an immediate action because by the time you have the result it becomes irrelevant. Also, you cannot use it with regard to an that was already made, and which you were a part of, because you will then be perceived not as cautious or forgetful but as lying or evasive.
4. Say you don’t know
This is my favorite method. Over the years I’ve found that admitting not to know, when done properly, only raises people appreciation of you. There are so many two-smart-by-half people in the world who try to hide their lack of knowledge, that a simple admission of ignorance has become surprisingly refreshing. Also, there is an effect here of the exception that proves the rule, in that admitting to not knowing something demonstrates that you know everything else.
In fact, this is such a good way to prove that you know everything else, that I sometimes emphasize what I don’t know as a way to show what I do know.
However, this method works only under two conditions. First, you must accept several questions (and know them) to work. Second when admitting ignorance it is important to emphasize that this is the exception using phrases as ‘I wouldn’t want to give you wrong information’ or ‘whenever I don’t know something I say it’.
There is a limit on how many times this method can be used. Otherwise you come across not as candid but as ignorant.