How to ace the Q&A (when you don’t know the answer)

Even the most confident communicators can fumble when fielding unpredictable questions in front of an audience.

While some leaders shine at open forum Q&As, others can experience stomach butterflies or existential dread. I spoke to Leigh Buchanan at Inc. about some strategies to maintain credibility as you react and respond, even if you don’t know the answer.

Empower your experts

Founders know more about their companies than anyone. But as companies grow, that knowledge becomes less comprehensive. So let employees know, as a matter of course, that you can’t answer every question–but that the team can. Then make your experts available whenever questions will be asked.

“Build up people around you so that they are willing to step up and have a voice,” says Jo Miller, founder of Be Leaderly, a career strategy firm for women. During Q&As, “call out your experts and encourage them to share the answer.” That tactic not only takes pressure off of you, Miller says, but also develops your team members’ confidence and leadership skills.

There’s no reason to say “I don’t know”

Even if experts aren’t handy or can’t answer a question, you can still do better than a straight-out confession of ignorance. Miller recommends language like, “That is just what we are trying to determine” or “I don’t have enough information yet to answer your question.”

Alternatively, “You can just turn it back on the questioner and say, ‘Why is that important to you?’” Miller says. The response may give you more information to work with–or an opening to answer a different question entirely.

Manage the mansplainers

Sometimes people don’t have real questions, just axes to grind or criticisms to level. Or they just like to hear the sound of their own voices. Women leaders, in particular, face the prospect of men wanting to enlighten them, Miller says.

In those circumstances, don’t get defensive. “The best way to deal with those questions is to have a confident and unapologetic posture,” she says. Adopting a tone of amusement can help get the audience on your side, she adds: “Respond as though you are enjoying a game of intellectual ping-pong.”