How to Tackle Questions When You Don’t Know the Answer

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On March 2, 2020  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

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We’ve all been there – you’re midway through a presentation and it’s going well. The audience is engaged, your nerves are gone and your confidence is high. When all of a sudden you get asked a question that you don’t know the answer to and it brings you crashing back down to earth. Handling questions can be difficult!

What do you do? Try and bluff your way through? Evade the question? Panic?

None of the above will help you – in fact they are guaranteed to make things worse. But the good news is there are 3 simple techniques that can help you handle the situation like a pro. Handling questions can be difficult, but it can also be an opportunity!

Read on to learn how to answer tricky questions and keep your confidence and reputation intact.

1. Leading questions

Woman handling questions from the room

If you’re trying to persuade your audience to agree with your recommendation rather than an alternative option, there’s a good chance you’ll need to field questions from them before they’re convinced enough to back your ideas. In this situation, the leading question technique can work well. It involves handling questions you can’t (or don’t want to) answer with a carefully worded question (right back at them) that leads the person to agree with you. 

However, it’s important that they feel comfortable that they made the right choice for themselves.

As an example, let’s say you’re in a team meeting presenting a proposal to update  your company’s branding and an employee questions the project itself or perhaps the creative direction. The following leading questions can guide them to your line of thinking:

  • Make it easy to say yes: ‘Should we update our logo so that it’s more contemporary?’ not ‘Do you think we should change our logo?’
  • Narrow the choice: ‘Do you prefer red or the blue for the logo?’ not ‘What colour should we use for the logo?’
  • Endorse it: ‘I think the new logo is much improved.’ or ‘The feedback on the new logo has been overwhelmingly positive.’
  • Add an assumption: ‘How much better does the new logo look?’ not ‘Do you think the new logo looks better?’

It’s important to remember that the leading questions technique won’t be as effective if you ask questions your audience doesn’t know the answer to or that they might respond to in the negative. So start with fundamental questions that are easy to answer positively or with a ‘Yes’ and then lead the discussion in the right direction.

2. Funnel questions

Man handling questions from the room

With this technique, you give those who feel frustrated or angry the chance to get it off their chest, before discussing and agreeing on a solution. It involves three stages: 

  • Establish: Where general questions are asked to take the emotion out
  • Explore: Where detailed questioning gets to the heart of the issue
  • Close: Where a decision is made on how to move forward

For example, if your presentation is regarding a new system that is to be implemented across the business, you will likely be met with some reluctance to change. Employees may ask: “How are we to find the time to complete the training and embed the new system when we are already struggling with existing unrealistic workloads?”

Handling questions like this with a stock standard response about prioritising their work will probably anger the questioners even more and possibly get the entire audience offside. 

Instead, the 3-stage funnel question technique can work well here. 

Stage 1 – Establish

You could start by getting some general information about how and when their workload became unmanageable. Give the questioner plenty of time to share their concerns and so defuse as much tension as possible.

Stage 2 – Explore

Having opened the dialogue you can then start exploring their challenges in more detail e.g. what projects are they currently working on? What are the deadlines? Who are the key stakeholders? And so on. From here you can start to explore and discuss different solutions. 

Stage 3 – Close

Because the questioner is now part of the solution they will be far more willing to agree to a way forward and so close the discussion on a positive note. 

Tip: Make it a point to start with closed questions for clear answers from your audience and as you progress, switch to more open questions.

3. Redirecting technique

If you’re presenting and find yourself in a situation where you are asked a controversial question, or one that leads you to a topic you don’t wish to cover, the redirecting technique can be a lifesaver. 

When done correctly it will effectively shut down an enquiry and, instead, introduce a new line of thought. However, it’s important to practise this technique to be sure you get it right handling questions when it counts. If your audience feels you’re deliberately evading the question it can backfire and amplify the situation instead.

Effective redirection requires you to assertively close the question without being dismissive. Here are some redirection phrases you can customise to suit different scenarios:

  • ‘I understand your concerns, and what I have found helpful is…’
  • ‘I can’t answer that as we are still investigating the causes, but I can say…’
  • ‘We are aware of this. However, the current data would suggest…’
  • ‘That’s a great point, but we feel the more important issue is…’
  • ‘I appreciate your point of view, but our survey shows what most people are concerned with is…’

Remember handling questions respectfully means acknowledging the question before closing the door on it. And always redirect to a topic that is related to the question and is of interest to the audience. Otherwise, you risk losing their attention or worse, inviting more challenging questions.

Practice will help you tackle difficult questions

Man preparing handling questions in advance

When it comes to presentations, much time is spent perfecting the narrative and creating the slides – but it’s essential to also spend some time preparing yourself to answer audience questions

Even the most well-prepared presenters can be thrown off-balance by an unexpected question. By dedicating some time to learning handling questions using the above techniques you’ll be able to confidently navigate your way through just about any question that comes your way. Even when you don’t know the answer.

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Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

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Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

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