June 29, 2010

Five ways to say "I don't know"

Something that trips up a lot of inexperienced speakers is the fear of "I don't know."

Even when a speaker understands, logically, that it's not possible to know everything and it's not even possible to prepare for every question, she often still freaks out at the thought of not being able to answer a question, especially when there are experts or superiors in the room.

You have to get comfortable with the idea that you may not be able to answer everyone's questions -- but you can do your best to point them in the right direction.

Here are a few ways to say "I don't know."

1. Follow up later

This is a great way to stay connected to audience members after your presentation. Say, "I don't have the answer to that right off the top of my head. Please give me your e-mail address after the presentation and I'll get back to you this week."

2. Share resources

Connect your audience members to others who can help. Say, "Here's my answer to that question, but I know someone who can answer it even better. I'll give you her contact information during the break."

3. Make use of present experts

Your expert audience members will love being called on to give assistance. Say, "I see that Janie Expert is in the audience. Janie, I'd love to hear what you have to say about this question."

4. Ask the audience

This is a great opportunity for your audience members to contribute to the discussion. Say, "I have some thoughts on that topic, but I'm also wondering what others in the audience are thinking about this."

5. Give it back to the questioner

Help your audience member do some critical thinking and dig into their own experiences for the answer. Say, "How do you suppose you would handle that situation?" or "What has worked for you in the past?" Etc.

Preparing for the inevitable by having these responses in your back pocket will remove a lot of the anxiety of saying "I don't know." Give them a try in your next presentation!

Please add your "I don't know" suggestions in the comments!

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5 comments. Please add yours! :

BillyK said...

Hi Lisa

The best I've heard at a scientific presentation many years ago was
"as yet I haven't accumulated a sufficient database on which to make an assessment"
This was in answer to a fairly straightforward presentation.

Kathy Jacobs (CallKathy) said...

One of the advantages of having a big social network... When I don't know the answer, I ask them.
"I wonder what if anyone on the social web can help us out. Who wants to tweet it?" or "I'll ask my online network during our break and let you know what they suggest."

The important thing with these options is to follow up with what you heard.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks for your additions, Nasho and Kathy!

Anonymous said...

Late addition:

After careful consideration in which I explored various inputs, I determined that the question you have posed does not conform to the information that is present in my current neural network as was formed by the previous inputs to various active and passive neurons in said network. Therefore I must set the output to the question as void, of which I now give you confirmation through this sentence: I do not know. :-)

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Oh, Anonymous, if only I could memorize that and start using it in my presentations. :-)

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