Have you ever gotten stumped?
Besides fearing that the audience already knows what you’re going to present about and the risks of assuming you know what the audience knows, speakers face another worry: What happens when you don’t know the answer to a question?
Saying “I don’t know” shouldn’t be a stumbling block. Just because someone can formulate a question doesn’t mean there’s a ready answer.
Saying “I don’t know” doesn’t mean you’re stupid or ignorant about your subject matter. It could even boost your credibility.
Even so, many speakers fear an audience member will pose a question for which they won’t have an answer. Saying “I don’t know” feels like a conversation stopper.
You might feel embarrassed or tempted to fake an answer, but don’t. It’s better to be honest and know a few ways to say “I don’t know” with grace, style and a little bit of humor (when appropriate).
Try some of these back-pocket phrases during your next “I don’t know” moment:
1. “I wish I knew that.”
This clever phrase lets you explain why you wish you knew that unknowable thing. If the question is hopeful and forward-looking (i.e. “When will we be able to solve climate change?”), you can agree with the questioner in principle.
2. “If only I knew that.”
This variation, which sounds like a lament, lets you talk about what could be accomplished, or what your work/life/research would be like, with this missing piece.
3. “If I knew that, I’d be a billionaire.”
This suggests the answer is unknowable—not just unknown to you. Use this phrase when it’s impossible to answer the question.
4. “Who knows?”
This is a philosophical answer. You can follow it up with many options, depending on the direction you want to take.
5. “That’s just one of many things we don’t know about X.”
This is a great option for researchers presenting a dense or technical topic. Use this phrase to launch a discussion about the topic’s many unknowns, or why that particular unknown is significant to your work.
6. “I don’t know, and here’s why.”
Get factual—as long as you can deliver this phrase without sounding defensive. Do you have to conduct more research? Is there missing evidence? Use this response to launch into your explanation.
7. “Wouldn’t it be nice to know that?”
This response is great for a pie-in-the-sky question. It lets you agree with the questioner and spend a minute thinking out loud about what life would be like if you did have the answer.
8. “I don’t know, but perhaps someone else here does.”
This is a brilliant way to look generous, honest and humble. As Gloria Steinem says, questions are an opportunity to find solutions. Pose the question to the audience, then listen to the responses. Make sure several people get to speak. This phrase is a compliment to the knowledge in the room, and audiences will love it-even if an answer isn’t forthcoming.
Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 140 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.