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!)