Ask LH: How Do I Answer When I'm Stumped By A Question?

Dear Lifehacker, I have an important presentation coming up, and although I feel very prepared, I'm afraid during the Q&A someone will ask me a question I won't be able to answer. What's the best way to respond when I get caught stumped?

Signed Nervous Speaker

Dear Nervous,

I think we've all been there at some point, whether it's during a presentation, interview, or even just a political debate with friends. Here are a few tips to calmly address tough questions when you don't know the answer (and avoid looking like a deer caught in headlights).

Stall/Think Through the Answer

If the answer is just at the tip of your tongue, give yourself a few minutes to think about it. Take a cue from spelling bee contestants, masters of eking out more time: Repeat the question yourself or ask the person to repeat and elaborate on the question. "Hmm... what was the smartest dinosaur? That's a great question. What exactly do you mean by smart? Some dinosaurs had bigger brains than others. On the other hand, some dinosaurs' habits also suggest high intelligence..." Image: Howard County Library System 

This strategy works if you have some background information to guide your answer or during interviews when the question is testing your ability to think through a problem, rather than find an exact answer. It doesn't really work if the question requires a fact you don't know, for example: "When did the Parasaurolophus live?"

Ask For Assistance From The Audience

This is a strategy I used often when I was teaching, and it works whenever you're collaborating in a group: Ask if anyone else knows the answer or can provide more insight. You can say, for example: "Oh, that's an interesting question I never thought about before, but maybe someone else here knows." This is especially useful if you know someone in the audience has more experience on the topic than you do; you can suggest you have some knowledge but perhaps someone else can tackle the question with more depth. Image: etech

If an audience member helps out, great. If not, you can say "well, you've stumped us all" (without losing any credibility) "but I'll be sure to look into it further and get back to you."

Emphasise What You Know, What You Don't Know, and How You Will Figure It Out

As author Jodi Glickman says on CareerBuilder, this three-step strategy illustrates how smart and capable you are, even when put on the spot and forced to think on your feet. Point out what you do know about the question: "From my research/experience/reading on [this topic], I've learned [these facts]..." Image: walknboston

However, also acknowledge information that you don't have; this is better than trying to fake it or make up an answer. You can say "I don't have the latest data on that" or "I haven't read that particular study."

Then offer to get the missing information: "But I will get that information and follow up with you later."

During a debate, you might reverse the order: If the other party brings up something you don't know much about, ask him or her to explain in more detail. You can then acknowledge the problem and reply with what you do know and, perhaps, why your argument is still valid. Then follow up by saying "But I'll look into that further and see how that changes this argument."

Whether you're using this for a friendly debate or professional purposes, the "what you know/don't know/will find out" strategy can help you tackle any question with poise and confidence.

Project Confidence... While Gracefully Admitting You're Stumped (If Necessary)

Speaking of confidence, that's one of the keys to looking like you know what you're talking about even when you don't. Try to stay calm and put on your poker face, even if you do get stumped.

Sometimes, though, it's not wise to fake knowledge. If your boss asks you about something you really should know the answer to, for example, you can handle it gracefully by admitting "I'm sorry, I thought I had that information, but I don't" or "I really should know that answer but don't know off hand." Then, again, promise to follow up.

No one's perfect and expected to be a walking encyclopedia, so don't worry about the possibility of getting stumped. Just be as prepared as possible, focus on what you know, and use the tips above to confidently get through any question thrown at you.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    As one who constantly gets asked questions by the consultants (ie the TOP doctors who have done a medical degree then further 6 odd years of specialist training) I have picked up some tricks. Repeat the important points of what they say and then twist what you know to fit that. Talk slowly and calmly. If you're lucky, more will come to mind as you talk slower. Find your own way to end the discussion with a definitive means so you don't keep rambling - that's your own style so I cant tell you how to do it. If you genuinely have no idea repeat the salient points of the question, emphasise how you also think they are important and graciously thank them for their input and sound motivated to look up the answer

    Replying with some questions can be good too... like oh yes ... I'm more familiar with strategy X than Y, we could probably implement a similar plan don't you think? Etc

      As a student, there is nothing more aggravating than to have your question answered with a question. It screams: I have no idea what I'm talking about.

      My personal approach when instructing it's to be honest. If I know a little about what I'm asked I will impart what I know and admit that that's the extent of my knowledge there. If I have no clue, I simply say that I am unsure of that particular point and that I'll get back to them. Just make sure you do in fact look up the answer and get back to the class or the individual. You learn something new and your credibility goes up for going the extra lengths. This approach gains far more respect in my experience.

    I respectfully disagree. You only get one shot to make an impression. Therefore I never flat out say sorry I don't know. Yes answering a question with a question can be annoying if you make it blatantly obvious you don't know. Just be subtle and include some of your knowledge pre facing your answer, as per the example

    J and Lyndon,

    I have to say my vote goes with LyndonL. I have taught for several years, and a teacher responding to a question with a question screams to me "I don't know how to answer (but I don't want to admit)". However, I guess my experience is limited to technical topics such as the sciences and engineering. Bottom-line, in a teaching or seminar environment, I think the "question response" is a tactic that risks communicating a negative posture to the audience.

    However, in an interview setting (of which I have experience both as an interviewer and interviewee), I think asking for further clarification about the question is completely reasonable. Broadly, as an interviewer, I am trying to give the person the best chance to show their best side. As interviewer, I often spend some time trying to dig the relevant information out of candidates, who might be a little nervous. I am happy to give an interviewee a little latitude if they can recover and focus their performance in a manner that clarifies what they know and their skills. But again, my experience is most in the technical areas, such as science and engineering (in which the interview settling doesn't really match key workplace skills).

    Oh so this is why all those politicians don't answer any questions, they don't know anything!

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