Beat the brain freeze

How to respond to a question when you don’t know the answer

What’s the oddest question you’ve been asked after giving a talk?

My personal favourite was “where did you get your shoes?” but that was frankly entirely justified – they were rather fabulous.

Questions show that people are engaged with your presentation so theoretically should be welcomed. In reality, they’re the stage of presentations that many people dread. And the biggest concern tends to be: what if they ask me a question to which I don’t know the answer?

In my early days as a presenter this used to throw me into a tizz – I felt that not knowing the answer was an Epic Fail. Imposter syndrome + inexperience is a potent mix.

Nowadays I really don’t give a fig – in fact I rather enjoy the challenge of those sort of questions. Because, if handled gracefully, not knowing the answer needn’t be an issue.

The audience can – and will – ask any question they like but it’s entirely under your control how you choose to answer. With a few techniques up your sleeve, you can slide elegantly into being back in charge of the floor rather than feeling like it’s opening up beneath you. Here are my top five:

#1: Acknowledge that it’s a great question (who doesn’t love that?) and buy yourself some thinking time by throwing it open to the audience with a breezy “I’d love to know what other people think about that”. Your job then is just to manage the discussion and drop in a few pearls of wisdom. 

#2: A technique we use a lot in media training is to reframe the question. What you’re looking to do is redirect to a subject that you’re comfortable talking about. You might use a phrase such as “I’ve not had direct experience of that, but we faced a similar issue when…” or “the part of that question that really interests me is…”.

#3: If you’re a confident presenter and you know your talk has gone well, it can be charming to simply acknowledge that you haven’t got a clue! Once you’ve established your credibility, it’s actually a great power move. If you’re willing, you could say that you’ll look into it, and email the group with a link to some useful resources.

#4: When a question is simply too vast to answer, hone in on a relevant example. If you’re asked a question about your company’s policy on disability and you know you only have two minutes until the end of your slot, better to give one good example that demonstrates your approach than try and fail to cover everything.

#5: Conversely, if you’re asked about a specific situation with which you’re not familiar – perhaps a customer complaint against your company or a social media post that went out that morning – broaden it out to talk about how you resolve complaints or how you support your staff with social media protocols.

Your confident, poised and good humoured approach will be remembered long after the nitty gritty of your response, so don’t overthink it. Because, as the profound philosopher Dr Seuss reminds us, “sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple”.