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.

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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.

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