What to Say When You Don’t Know the Answer: 3 Techniques

As a new intern on a large data team, I was giving a presentation I had prepared extensively for. I thought I had it in the bag. But when it came time for Q&A, I was caught completely off-guard. I was asked questions from a business point of view I had only superficially considered: 

  • “What are the risks involved in this proposal?”
  • “How can I integrate this with our existing products?” 

I kept saying, “Let me get back to you” + some random ramblings to seem like I knew something.

And that looks bad.

In this article, I will cover several techniques you can use to preserve your reputation and come out as an expert in these situations. 

Here’s the game plan:

Technique 1: Prepare the Appendix

Let’s say you’re presenting to the CEO of your company. You can spend hours and hours and hours on your own anticipating every single question you could be asked – and that would be a waste of your time.

Instead, ask for help. Ask your colleagues or your manager who’s presented to the CEO before what questions they typically ask.

Figure out how the CEO thinks:

  • Are they skeptical of any new information? 
  • Are they detail-oriented and data-driven, or motivated by intuition and experience? 
  • What are the high priority strategies they’re focusing on now and how does your presentation fit into their world? 

Once you get help anticipating those kinds of common questions, create an appendix for your presentation that provides an answer to each one.

You can’t anticipate everything. But you can make it less likely you’ll be stumped by preparing answers to the categories of questions that will come up. 

Technique 2: Say What You Know

Inevitably during the presentation, you will get questions you don’t know the answer to. And that’s ok. To give yourself time to think, use these techniques to buy yourself time. And remember – because you’ve done all the prep beforehand, you’ve made yourself the expert in the material (if you weren’t already). 

When you get a question within your area of expertise but you don’t know how to answer it directly, do this:

  1. [Here’s what I know] 
  2. [Here’s what’s different]

For Example:

  1. “From my experience with [X], I know that…”
  2. “This situation differs because of [Y]…so I’d like to perform more analysis in those areas before we move forward”

We’re technical professionals, not politicians. Don’t try and cleverly worm out of the answer. Confidently say what you know. And then confidently say what the caveats, nuances, and disclaimers are. That makes you a trustworthy business partner, who both speaks from experience and acknowledges the complexities. 

Technique 3: Say How You’ll Get It

When you get a question outside your area of expertise and you don’t know how to answer it directly, use the “Let me get back to you” as a last resort. 

But still aim to provide genuine value. 

You can say things like: 

  • “That would be a great question for [Z] who has expertise in that particular area”

This shows you are aware of the subject matter experts, and have a network in place to fill in any knowledge gaps 

  • “I can’t give a definite answer because of [these uncertainties]…but over [timeframe] we will get the necessary information to properly answer that question” 

If done concisely and genuinely (not made up off the top of your head just to sound smart), this answer shows you are knowledgable about what makes the question difficult, and are also aware of what processes are in place for filling in the gaps

Summary

if you don’t know the answer, you can still do the following as an expert in your material: 

1. Prepare the Appendix

2. Say What You Know

3. Say How You’ll Get It

The key is adding concise, relevant value. Rather than rambling about something – anything – just to fill in the awkward silence, speak from your position of expertise, or explain how you’ll get the answer that doesn’t yet exist. 

If you’re looking for further guidance on how to speak with confidence and authority, reach out to me here.

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