How to Respond to Potentially Embarrassing Questions

“Mistakes are a part of life; you can’t avoid them. All you can hope is that they won’t be too expensive and that you don’t make the same mistake twice.” – Lee Iacocca (Iacocca: An Autobiography, 1984)

You are making a sales presentation or speech, feeling your oats, when someone hits you with a very tough question. It’s a stumper — and that one question threatens to derail the brilliant argument you’ve been pushing forward and leave you looking like a poser.

What do you do?

Most authorities on the subject provide the following advice (which I’ve clipped from a recent newsletter on communication):

1. Restate the question.

2. Ask “What do you think?”

3. Start with a general reply.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t dare restate the question. I’d be afraid the audience would see this technique for what it is — stalling. And I don’t think I’d try to move in on the answer slowly by making general comments. Again, I’d be concerned that this evasion would be too transparent. I do like the idea of turning the question back on the questioner. But before I tell you exactly how I’d do that, it should be said that this is a problem that really shouldn’t happen.

It’s not always possible, but you should really make an effort to pontificate only on subjects about which you have a certain amount of expertise. If you don’t really know what you are talking about (and have shown the limitations of your knowledge in your comments), no amount of question asking, generalizing, or trickery of any sort will save your butt.

It’s much better when talking about things you don’t know too well to include some qualifying comments in your discussion. “From what I’ve read …” and “According to some reading I’ve been doing …” will indicate the limits of your knowledge, but that won’t undermine your authority nearly as much as pretending will.

If you do end up getting caught, you can either smile brightly and admit to it or — if it’s a less-than-friendly gathering — say something like “That’s a very good question. In fact, it points to a problem with my solution. I have a feeling, since you posed the question, that you may have a good answer or at least some general idea yourself. What do you think?”

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]