presentation tip: stay on the path

Don't let questions you can't answer derail you!

We've all had that moment when we're in a meeting or making a presentation and someone asks a question and we have no idea what the answer is.

Seconds seem like hours

In that split second between stimulus and response, it can feel like your professional life is flashing before your eyes. That, or you're engulfed in questions like:

  • Where the Hell did that come from?
  • Do I have even a clue as to how to respond?
  • Will they notice if I just skip over that?
  • What will they think if I don't know?
  • Is that worse than what they'll think if I give a lame answer?
  • Can I say, "Let's talk about that afterwards," and then run like Hell when time's up?
  • Oh my God! How long have I been cycling through these questions?!

A better idea

Or you can leverage that quarter second to beat back the demons and then say confidently something like this:

"That's a great question and I don't know the answer."

Notice it's "and" not "but". But feels apologetic; and doesn't. That's important when you want to convey confidence and trustworthiness. (Here's a super-geeky Psychology Today article on and versus but. The take-away's at the very end if you don't want to read the whole thing).

Then your options are:

  1. Ask if anyone in the room knows
  2. Add that you know exactly the right person to ask and you will get back to the group with the answer

The latter is easy to do because you've gotten everyone's email addresses, right? Right?! At least offer to post the answer on your blog, remind them of the URL (even though it's on your materials, right? Right?!). And follow through on whatever you promise.

An opportunity, not a character flaw

Will you take a credibility hit for not knowing? Maybe. If people in the group are looking for things to ding you on, they definitely will.

That said, most people respect someone who's honest and confident about what they don't know. And you get serious points for finding the answer and introducing them to a new source of trusted information. In this reputation economy, honesty and connections are the coins of the realm. Not knowing can allow you to amass a little more of both. (BTW, here's a good read on the reputation economy from CNBC).

Plus, nobody looks good doing that "Holy crap, what am I going to do now?" dance.