How to respond when you can’t answer a question

For presenters, ‘I don’t know’ is a good way to start—but not to finish. Audience members can come up with baffling queries, and extricating yourself is crucial. Here are some survival tactics.

scared businessman in suit standing at podium tribune and looking away during conference on white background

Editor’s note: This article is a re-run as part of our countdown of top stories from the past year.

It’s important not to get caught flatfooted in front of an audience.

I used to work at Hallmark, which is famous for stellar customer service—as well as greeting cards and charming (albeit formulaic) holiday movies.

All employees went through presentation and customer service training. One important lesson was: It’s OK to say, “I don’t know,” but it’s not OK to end with that. Make a plan to follow up with an answer.

Being in front of an audience can be unnerving, but when someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, it can be downright scary. It doesn’t have to be.

Use these tips to help you respond appropriately when you are caught off guard:

1. Don’t fake it.

If an audience member asks you something you don’t have a response prepared for, it can be a pressure-filled situation. Audience members stare at you, waiting for an answer—and “I don’t know” feels like it won’t suffice. It can be tempting to make something up to get past that moment or appease the audience. A little white lie might seem like a good solution.

Research has proven that most humans can detect when someone is lying, so faking an answer is not a good choice—for more than just the obvious ethical reason. Plus, if you are caught in a fib, you risk damaging your credibility beyond repair. No matter how uncomfortable you are, don’t fake it.

2. Reframe shame.

In a study, of the 37% who actually admitted lying, most said they did so “to protect themselves in some way—mostly to avoid shame or embarrassment, to avoid painful emotions and to avoid being judged.”

It’s true that for most people, not knowing something, especially when you are up front as the expert, is accompanied by feelings of shame or embarrassment.

We should work to be as prepared as possible for whatever comes up. However, it’s illogical to think we could answer every possible question posed during a presentation. Because of this, we must reframe the shame that comes with not knowing. Use one of these pivots to replace your embarrassment:

  • Try feeling grateful that your audience is interested enough to ask a question.
  • Try feeling curious about something you hadn’t thought about previously.
  • Try feeling challenged to continue or expand your research.
  • Try feeling inspired by your audience member’s passion toward your topic.

Any of these feelings can help replace that feeling of embarrassment.

3. Respond honestly.

Having prepared responses can protect you from the temptation to lie or the embarrassment of not knowing. The key is to make sure your audience feels heard and that your response doesn’t come off as dismissive or incomplete. Try one of these:

  • “Unfortunately, that falls outside the scope of my research/this project, but thanks for your interest. If it’s something we decide to tackle in the future, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
  • “Can I connect you with someone who might be better able to answer your question?”
  • “I don’t know, but I’d be happy to look into that and get back to you with an answer.”
  • “I don’t know, but can we schedule a time to discuss this further following the presentation?”

The audience will always appreciate when you respond with honesty and respect, even if the gist of your answer is, “I don’t know.”

A version of this post first appeared on the Ethos3 blog.

Learn how to keep your company’s messaging on point at Ragan’s Speechwriting & Public Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C.


3 Responses to “How to respond when you can’t answer a question”

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    Watch out for the question that could lead you to give the wrong answer whether you say yes, no or I don’t know.

    Like: “Would you stay in your job if it comes out that your CEO has been accused of raping six women who applied for a job?”

    A “yes” would show you may not care enough about women, a “no” could be seen as acknowledging that your CEO could be charged with that, and “that’s a ridiculous question” could seem to position your company against the press which is probably trusted more than the company.

    So the best answer might be “Actually our president is a father of daughters and a big advocate of women’s rights. Our company has an excellent record of employing women, promoting women and contributing to causes that advocate strongly for women’s rights.”

    But don’t go on and on after that or it could seem like you may be protesting too much. And never assume you’re off the record and make a comment after the press briefing that “actually women are all over our president but he’s a totally faithful husband.”

    A comment like that could lead to the report: “A company spokesman,” and then your name, “claims that women are all over the CEO who is claimed to be a totally faithful husband. But when the spokesman was asked how he knew the CEO is totally faithful, the spokesman stammered and admitted he couldn’t say for sure.”

    Always assume that you’re near a live mike. Always be ready, as if you carried around a corporate resume in your back pocket or handbag, with facts-facts-facts on what’s admirable about the company.

    Be sure the company’s annual donation budget does have something for women’s rights, minority rights, LGBT rights and all kind of other rights, plus some major disease-fighting organization like Lymphoma Research Foundation. Millions of people would immediately tend to oppose any journalist or political leader attacking the supporter of a health group like Lymphoma Research Foundation.

    PR firms keep growing because the public approves strongly of corporate good guys. Whoso protecteth our lives, yea do we protect their backs and backsides.


    PR happens to be one of the areas I’m so much interested in. Having this opportunity to be on this platform is a great pleasure!

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