Thursday, March 31, 2016

#publicspeaking save: 8 ways to say "I don't know" gracefully

Right behind early-career worries about what if the audience already knows what I want to say? and the risks that go with assuming what the audience knows, there's another speaker fear lurking for junior and experienced speakers alike: What happens when you don't know the answer to the question?

"I don't know" shouldn't be such a big stumbling block--after all, just because someone can formulate a question doesn't mean there's a ready answer, as any scientist knows. And "I don't know" doesn't mean you're stupid, or look stupid, by any means. In fact, it can boost your credibility with an audience.

Even so, when a question arises for which the correct answer is "I don't know," it leaves many speakers shaking in their boots. It feels like a conversation-stopper. You may feel embarrassed, or tempted to fudge or fake it. Don't! It's better to be honest, and have a few practiced ways to say "I don't know" with grace and style, and a little bit of humor where appropriate. Try our collection of back-pocket phrases for those "I don't know" moments:
  1. I wish I knew that: A clever phrasing, this lets you move into explaining why you wish you knew that unknowable thing. If the question is hopeful and forward-looking (When will we be able to solve climate change?), this approach lets you agree in principle with the questioner.
  2. If only I knew that: A little more in the direction of a lament, this variation lets you talk about what could be accomplished or what your work/life/research would be like with this missing piece.
  3. If I knew that, I'd be a billionaire: This needs to be played for laughs, and suggests the answer is truly unknowable, not just unknown. Use it when the question is simply impossible.
  4. Who knows? A philosophical answer, perhaps delivered with a shrug, you can follow this up with many options, depending on the direction you want to take.
  5. That's just one of the many things we don't know about X: This is a great option for researchers with a dense or technical topic. You can use this to talk about the many unknowns, or why and whether this particular unknown is significant to the work.
  6. I don't know, and here's why: Get factual, as long as you can deliver this answer without sounding defensive. More research to be done? Missing evidence? Can't get an answer yourself? Use this to launch into your explainer. 
  7. Wouldn't it be nice to know that? Great with a pie-in-the-sky question or a blue-sky question, it lets you agree with the questioner and perhaps spend a minute thinking out loud about what life would be like if we did know that.
  8. I don't know, but perhaps someone else here does? This is a brilliant way to look generous, honest, and humble. As Gloria Steinem advises, questions are an opportunity to find solutions, and as the speaker, you can be the finder-in-chief. Put the question to the audience, the rest of the panel, anyone in the room, then listen to the responses and make sure those offering answers get to speak. This answer is a compliment to the knowledge base in the room, and audiences will love it, even if an answer isn't forthcoming.
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Randstad Canada)

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