Seven Strategies for Handling Difficult Questions –
What to Say When You Don’t Know the Answer

Honesty is the only policy when presenting.  Blatantly admitting, “I don’t know”, in front of an audience can be a credibility disaster.  What to do?

No one can know the answer to every question.  It’s how the inevitable is handled that separates the amateurs from the Pros.

Use the following Seven Strategies to field even the toughest questions with tact and poise.


1. Reflection

Repeat the question and reflect it back to your audience, “Does anyone here have any experience with that?”

When you allow the audience to help you, they will save you without ever realizing it.  In fact, the audience will revere you because adults love to be involved and share their knowledge.  After you have fielded all contributions, summarize, and add your own ideas, if any have been sparked.

Summarizing at the end helps you to maintain control and authority.  Always repeat questions before answering for the same reason.


2. I’ll Get Back to You

This trusted standard works well if you do Three Things…

  1.  Write the question down.
    Be conspicuous.  Make sure everyone knows you are writing the question down.  I go so far as telling the audience, “I am writing this question down.”
  1. Tell the questioner exactly when you will get back to them.
    Be honest.  Then do it.  Can you get back to them by the end of the day?  If it is an allday program, can you get back to them after lunch?
  1. Be sure to get the questioner’s contact information if you don’t have it.

These Three Things give this Strategy power.  This is not smoke and mirrors.  It is real-time Customer Service- go the extra mile, expand your knowledge, impress your audience.


3. Defer to the Expert

This is a more sophisticated version of the Reflection technique.

Sometimes a question is legitimately outside your area of expertise.  You may be a marketing expert, and someone asks a question about engineering.  The question requires an engineer.

If there is an engineer in the room you could say, “Sally, you’re an engineer.  Do you have any insights into that?”  If there are no engineers in the room, state that you will confer with an engineer and get back to them.

Notice I have just combined two techniques.


4. Compliment the Questioner

Two Things make this Strategy effective…

  1. Rarity
    Some presenters respond to EVERY question with, “Great question.”  If you do this, break the habit immediately.  Otherwise, you will lose one of the most effective techniques in your toolbox when you don’t know the answer.


  1. Sincerity
    As an expert, when someone asks me a question I’ve never thought about, I genuinely say, “That’s a great question.  I’ve never thought about it that way.  Does anyone here have any ideas on that?”  (Combine withReflection Technique.)When I use this Strategy, it is usually combined with another Strategy and it is not a conscious decision.  It’s a reaction.  It’s surprise and delight at new insights in the making with the audience in real-time.  That’s how sincere it needs to be.

    Even an Expert-in-the-Making can relish this experience with an attitude of curiosity and learning.  Attitude is the key and attitude is contagious, especially with an audience.

This Strategy works, when sincere, because audience’s love to be complimented.  They like to “stump” the teacher.  The audience becomes focused on how smart they are instead of judging the presenter.

You can also combine this technique with I’ll Get Back to You.


5. Answer a Question with a Question

Sometimes questions are too narrow or too general to answer.  Reserve the right, as the expert, to open a question up or close it down by asking a question in response.

Once upon a time I was a software trainer.  One day a woman asked me a very specific question, “What does that button do?”  I had no idea, but I didn’t confess, “I don’t know.”

Instead, I asked her a question, “What is your goal in pushing that button?”  She elaborated and explained what she wanted to accomplish.  I knew a way to help, and it didn’t involve pushing that button!

She was happy.  I was honest, credible, helpful, and very happy.


6. Parallel Answer

If you don’t know the bull’s eye answer to a question, offer what you do know quickly to demonstrate some credibility and then combine with a previous technique.

Many moons ago, when I was a software trainer, I used to be an expert in Lotus, a now extinct spreadsheet package.  As Microsoft Excel eclipsed Lotus, I had to learn Excel so I could teach it.  I was on a learning curve.  Sometimes I would be asked a question about Excel that I didn’t know the answer to, but I did know the answer in Lotus.

Quickly I would say, “I know that is possible in Lotus.  I can find out if that is possible in Excel.  I’m writing this question down.  I’ll research it at the break and get back to you.”  Refrain from droning on and on about your parallel knowledge.

Brevity is the key to this technique.  Be sure to combine with Reflection or I’ll Get Back to You to hit the bull’s eye answer for your audience.


7. Set Rules

Prevention is the best medicine.  You can avoid many Difficult Questions by Setting Rules in the beginning.  Whenever you present, you are the Leader.  So, take the Lead and Set Rules up front.

If you Set Rules and follow them, the audience respects you.  If you make rules up as you go, you lose credibility.  This has been my experience.

The number of Rules you set will vary depending on the topic and your audience.  When I taught Programming Languages and Software, I set lots of Rules because I knew the questions would be many and varied.

Example… I would start a Software Seminar by saying, “I welcome general questions at any time about anything on the Agenda.  If you have questions about a specific project or a subject outside the Agenda, please see me at a break for private consultation.  Because we have limited time, I may stop taking questions and comments sometimes to make certain we cover every Agenda topic today.”

Setting Rules is critical.  Lead and Set Rules conversationally at the beginning of your presentation to Prevent most Difficult Questions.



No one can know the answer to every question.  It is possible to handle the inevitable situation with honesty and credibility like a Pro.  Use these Seven Strategies to enjoy Difficult Questions, learn from them, and impress your audience.


About the Author

Mary Sandro helps professionals deliver brief, logically sound, emotionally engaging presentations that get an audience to take action.  Learn to excel at presenting and love the process in just 60 Minutes with the Get Them MarchingFramework.  Includes instant online access and optional live coaching.  Visit or call 800-731-0601.


About Mary Sandro

Mary Sandro helps organizations deliver exceptional customer service and standout presentations. In 1994 she founded ProEdge Skills, Inc. to deliver engaging training programs, videos, coaching, and train-the-trainer licenses that empower employees to achieve goals. Learn more at or call 800-731-0601.

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