Handling questions during presentations: What to do when you don’t know the answer

handling questions during presentation

No one expects you to be omniscient, so it’s not a big deal if you’re stumped by an audience member’s question. But if the thought of having to admit that you don’t know leaves you panicky, use one of these go-to responses for handling questions during presentations:

If the question is on-topic:

  • “That’s a good question, and we’ll come back to it at the end.” If an audience member asks a question during the meat of your presentation, you can postpone it until the official Q-and-A session. That is useful for situations in which all you need is a little extra time to think before you respond. Bonus: The person may feel that you sufficiently answer the question in the remainder of your presentation.
  • “Good question, but I’m not sure. Does anyone in the audience know?” Directing questions to the audience members doesn’t make you look dumb. It’s a smart move because it shows that you think they are intelligent, thoughtful people.
  • “I’m not sure off the top of my head, but I bet you can find the answer in/on _____.” When audience members ask you a nitpicky detail question, it’s OK to direct them to a resource with the answer.
  •  “That’s a great question, and I’d love to know the answer myself. I’ll look into it and get back to you.” If the question is relevant to the whole group, offer to follow up with an email to share your findings. If it’s relevant only to the person who asked, get the person’s contact information and follow up individually. Tip: Be sure to make note of the question so you don’t forget to follow through with your promise!
  • “That’s a great question, but I’m not sure. My gut says …” As a general rule, it’s better not to guess, but if you’re open about being unsure, that can be an effective response. Note: If your topic is controversial or if your audience seems skeptical or hostile, do not use this technique for handling questions during presentations!

If the question is off-topic:

  • “That’s an interesting question, but that’s not my area of expertise. Does anyone else happen to know?” If you think an audience member could briefly answer the question, direct it to the crowd. However, don’t let the off-topic query take your Q-and-A session on a wild tangent. Be prepared to steer it back on track, if necessary.
  • “That’s a little off-topic for right now, but I bet it will make for an interesting discussion once we wrap up. [To the audience:] If anyone has insight into this person’s question, be sure to see him afterward.” That response keeps your Q-and-A session on track while still showing respect to the person who posed the question.

When handling questions during presentations, there’s really just one thing you should never do: make up an answer. If you’re wrong, there’s a good chance that someone in the audience will call you out, and that will make everyone distrust the reliability of your entire presentation. Don’t risk that.

Find more Q-and-A tips in this month’s free Focus on Q-and-A section on AmericanSpeaker.com.

What advice do you have for handling questions during presentations?

[Image Source: Cherie Cullen via The U.S. Army]


4 responses to “Handling questions during presentations: What to do when you don’t know the answer

  1. Pingback: The Training Nation Weekly Round-Up | Training Nation

  2. Pingback: Do you have contingency plans? Prepare for these 4 possibilities | Workplace Survival

  3. It’s also a good practice to rephrase the question to ensure that you correctly understood it, or even to repitch the question to better match the answer you intend to provide.

  4. Pingback: How to Maintain Control of the Q&A Following a PresentationPresenting Yourself and more . . .

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