A while ago I wrote about how to predict the questions you might get asked in a presentation – after all, if you can predict them you can prepare answers to them, right? You can even rehearse those answers so that you look really slick.

So much for planning, but it doesn’t always work. With the best will in the world you’re going to get ambushed occasionally.

The best laid plans of mice and men…

So what to do if you don’t have a pre-prepared answer to to the question? Well the worst thing you can do is bluff. Never make it up. Even if you don’t get caught out (and you will, usually) you deserve to.

Your best bet (assuming you’ve not got it covered) is to use one of the formula for improvising. It’s important to realise that anything you say (including answers to questions therefore) consists of two elements

  • structure – how you say it
  • content – what you say

and if you’re improvising, you have to work on both of these simultaneously. Using a tried and trusted formula to cover the structure means that you can concentrate almost entirely on the content.

Concentrate on your content

There are quite a few of these formulas but the most famous (and perhaps the most flexible) is PREP, which stands for

  • Point – a broad, bold statement of what you believe in very few words
  • Reason – a logical support of your position
  • Example – a personal and emotional example of how your idea would work in practise
  • Point – a restatement of your point.

Let’s try and example.

“Yes, I believe women should have the vote.” (Your Point).

“After all they comprise over half the workforce of the country and create nearly half the country’s GDP!” (Your reason).

“For example, in my own household my wife earns about 20% more than I do, which makes her the economic head of the household and it seems silly for the head not to vote.” (Your example)

“Overall then, I’m in favour of women having a vote.” (Your point once more)

Your last resort – Confess instead.

But don’t just confess – confession is good for the soul but not very practical for you as a speaker so you need to follow it up with something. The magic you need is to follow up your confession with a specific and timed assurance that you’ll find out.

Saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know,” is better than making something up.

Saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know – I’ll find out,” is better.

Saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know – I’ll find out and get back to you,” is a bit better still.

Saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know – I’ll find out and get back to you by X-o’clock on Y-day. Can I check your email address is…?” is your best option of all.

In other words, the more specific you are about when and how you’ll provide that information the more likely it is that your questioner will be satisfied and that the rest of your audience will respect your response, allowing you to move on with your credibility relatively undamaged.

A vague promise to find out won’t fool anyone – a specific promise tied to a time, a date and a medium of communication will. It goes without saying (surely) that if you promise to tell someone by a certain time and place then you actually do that – right?

Personally, however, I’d say that (effective though this approach is) you can only use it twice and should only use it once for any given presentation. To be honest, if you feel the need to use it more than that you weren’t prepared enough!

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