Clear Comm Consulting

The Correct Way to Say, “I Don’t Know the Answer to that Question.”

May 26, 2008

When you are the person at the front of the room with the microphone in your hand, you’re the expert, right? Or if you’re the person with the camera in your face, your natural inclination is to answer the questions that come your way.

Well today I’m here to tell you no, you DON’T have to answer the question and there is great power in knowing how to handle these situations.

Whether it is out of politeness or ego or obligation, many of us feel we have to answer every question when we are at the front of the room or facing a reporter’s questions. Yet when we wander into unfamiliar territory or get into topics that should be off limits we are sailing among the icebergs — and the results are often quite unfortunate.

The Controversial Issue Question:

This is the one that makes the Evening News. A topic is either sitting out there that should not be addressed in a public forum or someone talks about something they don’t really know enough about to discuss. Whamo. Headlines and heartache.

(The correct answer is NOT, “No Comment.” That only sets off more alarm bells — as does, “The (person in question) did not respond to repeated interview requests from reporters.” The average viewer or reader starts thinking, “What do they have to hide?”)

The correct answer briefly emphasizes the good or important work being done or the current lack of information that is out there. For example, “Our CFO has a long history of integrity and service to the community. Right now the charges you’re referring to are being investigated and we will let our justice system take its course.”

Or in a different case, “Our focus right now is in caring for the families affected by this tragedy. It is too early to pass judgment on what may or may not have happened. Accurate analysis in this situation takes time and we don’t want to jump to conclusions.” Keep it short and talk ONLY about what you know. You are intelligently saying you don’t have an answer right now.

The Public Meeting Stumper:

Anyone who has made a presentation has probably been hit with the, “Gee I have no idea,” situation. The question comes from out of the blue or it’s just not your area of expertise. First, no one is the expert on all things. Secondly, there is no shame in saying you will track down the answer or find the person who can answer the question. Best case scenario? You provide a small amount of information and then say it is not your area. “I know safety is an important consideration for any of these situations, but I couldn’t tell you any specifics because I don’t deal in that area.” You are saying you don’t know without using those words.

Does your professional group need a speaker for a national or statewide conference? Please contact my office. I enjoy the opportunity and have references and rate information readily available.

Cary Pfeffer is the founder of ClearComm Consulting,, a Phoenix, AZ-based communications consulting firm which is helping people tell their story. He works with clients to make the most of their media and live audience communication. Email him at: [email protected]

Follow along with Cary on Twitter @CaryPfeffer

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