How Do I Answer When I’m Stumped by an Important Question?
I have an important presentation coming up, and although I feel very prepared, I’m afraid during the Q&A someone will ask me a question I won’t be able to answer. What’s the best way to respond when I get caught stumped?
I think we’ve all been there at some point, whether it’s during a presentation, interview, or even just a political debate with friends. Here are a few tips to calmly address tough questions when you don’t know the answer (and avoid looking like a deer caught in headlights).
Stall/Think Through the Answer
If the answer is just at the tip of your tongue, give yourself a few minutes to think about it. Take a queue from spelling bee contestants, masters of eking out more time: Repeat the question yourself or ask the person to repeat and elaborate on the question. “Hmmm. What was the smartest dinosaur? That’s a great question. What exactly do you mean by smart? Some dinosaurs had bigger brains than others. On the other hand, some dinosaurs’ habits also suggest high intelligence…”
This strategy works if you have some background information to guide your answer or during interviews when the question is testing your ability to think through a problem, rather than find an exact answer. It doesn’t really work if the question requires a fact you don’t know, e.g., “When did the Parasaurolophus live?”
Ask for Assistance from the Audience
This is a strategy I used often when I was teaching, and it works whenever you’re collaborating in a group: Ask if anyone else knows the answer or can provide more insight. You can say, for example, “Oh, that’s an interesting question I never thought about before, but maybe someone else here knows.” This is especially useful if you know someone in the audience has more experience on the topic than you do; you can suggest you have some knowledge but perhaps someone else can tackle the question with more depth.
If an audience member helps out, great. If not, you can say, “well, you’ve stumped us all” (without losing any credibility) “but I’ll be sure to look into it further and get back to you.”
Emphasize What You Know, What You Don’t Know, and How You Will Figure It Out
As author Jodi Glickman says on CareerBuilder, this three-step strategy illustrates how smart and capable you are, even when put on the spot and forced to think on your feet. Point out what you do know about the question: “From my research/experience/reading on [this topic], I’ve learned [these facts]…”
However, also acknowledge information that you don’t have; this is better than trying to fake it or make up an answer. You can say, “I don’t have the latest data on that” or “I haven’t read that particular study.”
Then offer to get the missing information: “But I will get that information and follow up with you later.”
During a debate, you might reverse the order: If the other party brings up something you don’t know much about, ask him or her to explain in more detail. You can then acknowledge the problem and reply with what you do know—and, perhaps, why your argument is still valid. Then follow up by saying “But I’ll look into that further and see how that changes this argument.”
Whether you’re using this for a friendly debate or professional purposes, the “what you know/don’t know/will find out” strategy can help you tackle any question with poise and confidence.
Project Confidence…While Gracefully Admitting You’re Stumped (If Necessary)
Speaking of confidence, that’s one of the keys to looking like you know what you’re talking about even when you don’t. Try to stay calm and put on your poker face, even if you do get stumped.
Sometimes, though, it’s not wise to fake knowledge. If your boss asks you about something you really should know the answer to, for example, you can handle it gracefully by admitting “I’m sorry, I thought I had that information, but I don’t” or “I really should know that answer but don’t know off hand.” Then, again, promise to follow up.
No one’s perfect and expected to be a walking encyclopedia, so don’t worry about the possibility of getting stumped. Just be as prepared as possible, focus on what you know, and use the tips above to confidently get through any question thrown at you.