How to sound confident under pressure, think on your feet and deal with questions you don’t know the answer to

I am frequently put on the spot in workshops, meetings and other client facing situations and some feedback my manager gave me the other day was that I could be more confident when I’m asked a question that I don’t know the answer to. As a result, I did some research and came up with the list below.

Consider the question

  • Is it even a valid question?
  • Shut it down, disagree with the implied statement etc.
  • What is the questioner’s motivation?
  • Are they testing you or genuinely interested? If genuinely interested then a “I’ll get back to you” will probably be quite an acceptable answer.

Ask them to repeat the question as a way of stalling for time

Unless it was a very technical or heavily accented question this will almost certainly be seen as stalling for time.

Ask clarifying questions

Get the scope of the question narrowed down and in so doing giving you more time to work out how to answer.

Ask for definitions to jargon

Sometimes TLAs or other company/sector specific jargon will genuinely confuse you. Similarly, clarifying definitions can help buy time and ensure you don’t accidentally answer the “wrong” question or give away an element of your negotiation strategy.

Think out loud

Quite literally talk through what you are thinking as you work out what they want to know, what kind of information they need, and which kinds of evidence/specifics they might want.

Obviously you will then need to organise yourself and provide a clear and confident response, but it shows the questioner that you:

a) listened,
b) you don’t have a ready answer however you can
c) think on your feet and
d) recover to provide a clear and confident response while under pressure.

Acknowledge the person’s own work/expertise

As part of considering the question, consider the expertise and knowledge of the questioner. It may be that they have generated knowledge on the subject and you might garner some bonus points by referencing it. Even if you don’t know the answer but know that they have expertise in it, tell them that you know that they’re the expert and what you know about their expertise. Beware the temptation to avoid the question through flattery however.

Choose 1-3 points and pieces of evidence

When you are asked a question and a million possible answers pop in to your head, take a moment and identify between one and three and respond confidently and succinctly on these. Do not gabble and jump from one to the next to the next to the next. Remember that you need to be calm and respond confidently.

Tell a story

Tell a story that captures the questioner’s underlying reason for asking the question and then takes them through what is/was done.
Sometimes it is clear that the question has been asked to garner some underlying information and you can easily provide the information they seek without actually answering the direct question. Besides: everyone loves a story.

Prepare – What if…

Preparation is the key to most situations where you’re going to be put on the spot. Anticipate the kinds of information they’re likely to want and prepare stories and answers to those. Apart from allowing you to respond to any question confidently, it’ll be obvious that you’ve thought ahead, anticipated their needs and prepared accordingly – all excellent behaviours to be exhibiting.

Practice clear delivery

Falling into the “preparation” bucket, practicing confident delivery will mean that when you are in fact under pressure and being made to think on your feet you don’t also have to try and remember to appear confident while desperately thinking through this list of possible response methods and trying to think of a suitable response… Practice does NOT make perfect: Practice makes PERMANENT.

What to practice?

  • Speaking in a strong, confident voice – a good practice for this is to make up a story on the spot and ensure you’re maintaining the confident voice even though your made up story has silver fairies dancing with the queen while a one legged dog tells jokes to distract the guards…
  • Remember that you want to be able to keep a good level of eye contact. Not a stare but a comfortable some-on-some-off kind of natural contact. It’s ok to look away to remember something and remember to re-connect when you deliver a succinct answer as it will add a confidence to any response.
  • Speed of delivery – Time seems to speed up when we’re under pressure. We take a breath and take a moment to think about the question and possible answers and all of a sudden it feels like there’s been an hour’s silence. Relax – you have more time than you think. A quiet period while you gather your thoughts for a confident and well delivered answer is a million times better than filling the space with er… or simply filling it with the random and unconnected things that “might” be vaguely connected to a possible answer.
  • Body language – I’m terrible for this as I am always catching myself dry-wringing my hands or fiddling with a pen: all signs of discomfort and being unsure of oneself.
  • Use the questioner’s name in your response. Confident people use other people’s names when they talk. Practice this with your friends. It might be slightly odd, but then isn’t dealing with feeling odd a confidence thing anyway?
  • Go on an improvisation course – Seriously, this will give you the practice and skills to be able to think on your feet, appear confident and absolutely own any off-the-cuff questions and situations that might arise.

I don’t know

I don’t mind admitting I don’t know something but I hate having to take away actions from a meeting but if all else fails “I don’t have the answer right now, but let me reach out to some colleagues and get the answer for you in the next 24hrs.”

Hopefully I’ll remember some of these for the next client meetings I have (and I have a few coming up!)

A valentine love poem for my daughter

To My Beautiful Princess,

 

Your eyes always twinkle and shine like star light,

Your smile makes me giggle and laugh with delight.

Your hugs and affection are second to none,

and I hear you are even good to your mum.

I can’t help but smile just hearing your name,

and seeing you sleeping does just the same.

And whether you’re here of we’re far apart,

you’ll always be part of me…

...Here, in my heart.

Love Dad xxx

I should point out that there is a little bit of back story to why I wrote this and that original post for this valentines poem is at kidmunication.com

The fear of the unknown

Recently a friend of mine was bemoaning the fact that there is not much in the way of social groups where he lived. Not one to take “can’t” for an answer I used some Clean Language questioning to explore that “can’t”. It turned out that there was in fact at least one group but because he had no idea what they did, had done nothing about it.

Now of course it’s easy for me, as an outside observer, to help my friend discover the problem and allow him to come up with a solution (phone them up and ask!), but I know we all have things in our lives that we want to do but don’t purely because we don’t know what’s involved.

“Hypnosis in Gravesend”

I’d always wanted to learn hypnosis but had never done anything about it because I’d no idea what was involved. One day I just happened to be in the right frame of mind and I casually Googled hypnosis training in Gravesend and guess what: There was a course running not far away and at a price and time I could afford. It didn’t take much thinking to sign up after that.

Fear holds us back from so many things, but so seldom do we realize that the “fear” is not in the doing or becoming whatever it is: it is the fear of the unknown process of getting there!

Think of something that you really want to do but haven’t. Get a new job? Go on a trans-European holiday? Learn a new language?

Now ask yourself what is it that is holding you back from that and what you would like to have happen.

Could it be that you don’t know what is available, how to organize it, where to go that is the problem? In other words; could be the mystery, the lack of knowledge, which is what you’re afraid of? It’s not the holiday or the job or the language that is scary is it, so it must be the organising of the holiday, the “finding” of the job and the fact that you don’t even know if there is somewhere nearby that even teaches languages.

Diminish the power of the unknown with knowledge

This year, why not choose one of those things that you always promise yourself you’d do and rather than promise yourself that you’ll do it, simply find out what is involved. Choose a starting point and go from there. I bet you’ll find it’s not as difficult as you imagine.

Being specific for tangible results

Well only two weeks to go before I have to work my way to the open door of an aeroplane travelling at 100 miles an hour at 10,000 feet, lean out… and let go…

I’m not sure if you saw my previous post asking for a donation towards a charity called Catch22 so I thought I’d write again and maybe remind you that I’m doing this to raise £1000 to provide dedicated attention and education for a young person for a whole year through the Catch22 organisation.

I’m sure you get asked to give money to charity for all sorts of good causes by all sorts of people all the time, so I appreciate that you might not be overwhelmed by yet another call to give to charity. In my defence this is the first time I’ve done anything for charity and as you can see I’ve set myself a fairly steep target for a first go, but I have an actual aim and I know exactly where the money is going and exactly what it is going to do.

I too don’t really like the idea of simply filling the generic coffers of a “good cause” which is why I was so psyched to find Catch22 and actually go down and meet the people running the Gravesend branch where the money is going to go and actually see with my own eyes what they do and achieve there.

Below is a video about Auto22 which is a social enterprise and how I found Catch22. Watch the section about Boo: a graduate of the programme whom I have been to meet personally. Boo is exactly the kind of person whom the money raised will be helping: taking a young “hoodie”, with no prospects other than a life of crime, intimidation and benefits and giving them the time and attention to put them back on the path to a productive future as a fully signed up member of the local community.

If you, like me, want to actually see tangible changes as a result of your donation, then please support me in this and have a look at my Just Giving page and watch my video and see a bit more about why I’m doing this and the kind of results Catch22 give.

www.justgiving.com/Ben-WhiteCatch22

Thank you so much,

Ben

P.S. I’m jumping from 10,000 feet on the 28th August over an airfield near Maidstone, Kent.

P.P.S All the money raised is going to Catch22. None of this “sponsored” jumping nonsense: I’ve paid for the jump myself, so your contribution (plus Gift Aid if you’re a UK tax payer) is going to be used to help someone like Boo.