In the previous lesson we learned that by keeping a few simple rules it is possible to turn audience questions and comments into a tool that helps our speech rather than hinder it. In this lesson we’ll see what happens when we get a question we don’t know the answer to.
This fear is familiar to anyone who ever stood in front of audience: What do you do when a question comes and you don’t know the answer? Theoretically the answer should have been to be better prepared, but realistically there is a limit on how much one can prepare while there is no limit on the number of possible questions. Therefore it is imperative to develop the skill to handle questions when not knowing the answer.
There are 4 main ways to handle such situations and it is important to be proficient in all of them. This is because every technique has its strengths and weaknesses, and each one is suited to a different situation. In addition, every such method, when over-used, becomes transparent and looks like an excuse. Therefore it is important to use all of them, switch between them, and never use one of them too many times in a row.
1. Answer the question with a question
This method is useful for teachers and lecturers, especially with when caught hot handed not knowing.
Return the question to the asker
This is the basic approach. Simply return the question to the asker and ask how he would’ve answered it. This approach is useful for black-out situations when we forget the answer to a simple question, or for questions about an opinion. But, it is dangerous to use this technique on informative questions.
Return the question to the whole class
This technique is more appropriate for general-knowledge questions, as there is a bigger chance that at least someone in the audience will know the answer.
Turn the question into homework
Here we refer the question to the next meeting. Its strentgh is that it works for just about any questions, but its weakness is that it works only when the speaker is in a position to order homework, and only when there is indeed a subsequent meeting.
Limitations – This method requires a convincing and authoritarian appearance otherwise the fakery becomes apparent. Otherwise it is better to use the ‘tentative answer’ approach. Also, this technique only works for speakers who ordinarily engage the audience, and therefore make it seem more natural.
2. Give a Tentative Answer
This technique is intended for uncertainty rather than out-right blank answer – for when we have a rough idea about the answer but nothing definite. The magic in this technique is to give the answer with an unconfident tone and make it conditional. It is useful, though not necessary, to promise to check and return with an answer.
In effect, this is a way to give an uncommitted answer, in a way that allows you to be wrong.
Limitations – this method cannot be used for a question about something immediately actionable. also, it cannot be used about a decision that has already been made and which you’ve been part of.
3. Change Subject – “Zoom-In” or “Zoom-Out”
In this technique the idea is to talk about something you know rather than something you don’t. This method got a bad reputation from politicians over-using it so much that it has become the butt of jokes. Therefore the old techniques of ‘X is not the right question. The right question is Y’ can no longer be used.
Instead, the right way to change subject is to focus in or to zoom out.
Zoom In – In this method we answer about one part of the question which we know about. For example, asked about freezing West-Bank settlements we may answer with a story about one settlement.
Zoom Out – In this method we answer about the question and some bigger issues together. To use the West-Bank settlements example, we may answer about the whole peace process.
Limitations – This method can fool the audience, but it will usually not fool the asker, so it is best not to allow follow-up questions.
4. Use Your Ignorance – ‘I don’t want to mislead you’
This is my favorite approach. I discovered some years ago that admitting ignorance, done frankly, actually leads audiences to appreciate you more. There are so many wise-guys in the world who would do anything to hide the fact that they don’t know, that simple admission becomes refreshing and surprising.
This technique works best if we mix the question we don’t know between several that we do know. Then, it is important to look visibly sincere in saying we don’t know, and add something to the effect of “I only talk about things I understand” or “This is not my area of expertise so I’ll have to give this question a pass”.
Done right this method actually improves your professional credentials, because of its exception-that-proves-the-rule effect: By acknowledging that I don’t know one question i give the best proof that I actually do know all the others.
Limitations – This method should be used very sparingly, otherwise we stop looking sincere and start looking ignorant.