I used to work at Hallmark headquarters. Besides being known for greeting cards and charming (albeit formulaic) holiday movies, Hallmark is famous for stellar customer service. All employees went through presentation and customer service training. One of the lessons I remember most was this: it’s okay to say “I don’t know,” but it’s not okay to end with that. Make a plan to follow up with an answer.

Being in front of an audience can be unnerving. But when someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, it can be downright scary. But it doesn’t have to be. Use these tips to help you respond appropriately when you are caught off guard.

1. Don’t Fake It

If an audience member asks you something you don’t have a response prepared for, it can be a pressure-filled situation. You have audience members staring at you, waiting for an answer. And “I don’t know” feels like it won’t suffice. So it can be tempting to just make something up to get past that moment or appease the audience. A little white lie might seem like a good solution.

But research has proven that most humans can detect when someone is lying. So faking an answer is not a good choice for more than just the obvious ethical reason. Plus, if you are caught in a fib, you run the risk of damaging your credibility beyond repair. So no matter how uncomfortable you are, don’t fake it.

2. Reframe Shame

In a study of why people lie, of the 37 percent of people who actually admitted lying, most of them said they did so “to protect themselves in some way — mostly to avoid shame or embarrassment, to avoid painful emotions and to avoid being judged.” It’s true that for most people, not knowing something, especially when you are up front as the expert, is accompanied by feelings of shame or embarrassment.

We should work to be as prepared as possible for whatever comes up. However, it’s illogical to think we could ever be prepared to answer every possible question someone might ask us during a presentation. Because of this, we need to reframe the shame that comes with not knowing. Use one of these strategies to replace your embarrassment:

  • Try feeling grateful that your audience is interested enough to ask a question.
  • Try feeling curious about something you hadn’t thought about previously.
  • Try feeling challenged to continue or expand your research.
  • Try feeling inspired by your audience member’s passion toward your topic.

Any of these feelings can help to replace the natural feeling of embarrassment when you don’t know how to answer a question.

3. Respond Honestly

Just having some prepared responses if you are caught off guard can protect you from the temptation of wanting to lie or the embarrassment of not knowing. The key is to make sure your audience feels heard and that your response doesn’t come off as dismissive or incomplete. Try one of these:

  • “Unfortunately, that falls outside the scope of my research/this project, but thanks for your interest. If it’s something we decide to tackle in the future, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
  • “Can I connect you with someone who might be better able to answer your question?”
  • “I don’t know, but I’d be happy to look into that and get back to you with an answer.”
  • “I don’t know, but can we schedule a time to discuss this further following the presentation?”

The audience will always appreciate when you respond with honesty and respect, even if the gist of your answer is, “I don’t know.”

The next time you are headed into a presentation, don’t fear the questions the audience might ask you. Prepare for common questions, but then remind yourself that you can’t possibly know everything. Just remember: don’t lie, there’s no shame in not knowing, and memorize a few ways to respond tactfully if you are caught off guard.

For more tips on how to master the art of presenting, check out our full line of presentation design and training resources here.

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