Picture this: You’re giving a presentation and the mic is hot. The words are flowing smoothly out of your mouth like molten lava from an erupting volcano. Your audience is smiling and even nodding their heads occasionally in appreciation of all the knowledge you’re bestowing upon them. When suddenly, you’re asked a question to which you don’t know the answer. You’re stopped cold as you attempt to quickly come up with an appropriate response. What do you do?
When you put yourself in front of a group of people, there is an expectation you’ll have the answers. That is the role: you’re the authority and the audience members are there to learn. Some presenters believe this means knowing everything about everything. However, audiences don’t expect you to be omnipotent. Instead, what they actually crave is authenticity.
In the scenario given above, some presenters will respond by giving their best guess. However, one problem with making a best guess is that if it’s later disproved, some in the audience may feel that their trust in the presenter has been broken. Now everything that the presenter has said can be called into question.
Audience members would much rather be told “I don’t know, but I can find out” over a best guess. If you don’t know the answer to a question posed by an audience member, consider writing it down (preferably in a place where the audience can see it – like on a dry erase board or flip chart paper). Just be sure to follow up with the audience to get them the answer. If your presentation has a break, you might use that time to touch base with some of your contacts in the industry so that you can return with an answer. Another possibility is to send a follow-up email to attendees. The point is not how you get them the answer, the important part is that you maintain the trust between presenter and audience by providing them with the information you promised.
In a similar scenario, writing it out in a visible space can also be an incredibly helpful technique when you’re facilitating a meeting and you have a tenacious team member in attendance. Have you ever been leading a meeting and one person keeps bringing up a point that is not entirely related to the purpose of the meeting? Or maybe the issue is related, but it’s more of a second cousin? But this person feels so strongly about this particular issue that he consistently – and somewhat irritatingly – keeps bringing the group’s focus back to it. One diplomatic and effective way to handle this so that the meeting can move forward is to write it out so that everyone can see it. The important part is to create some kind of agreed-upon follow-up. This creates a contract between the presenter and the audience. Now, when that topic is broached again, you can politely point at the statement and truthfully say that the group has agreed to table that topic for now. Having this visually written out makes a firm point that the group has decided to move on, while still showing that the presenter isn’t just brushing off the issue. Again – the most important part here is keeping the faith by doing the agreed-upon follow-up on the issue.
Whether it is not having an answer during a presentation or handling an overly-enthusiastic group member during a meeting, writing questions or issues out can have a powerful effect. It builds trust – as long as you follow through. At the end of the day, this approach will make you a more authentic, diplomatic leader, and it can help keep you from freezing onstage.
Jacquelyn Adams, an IEEE Senior member, is a nationally-recognized leader in employee learning and development. Jacquelyn is the CEO and Founder of Ristole, a consulting business that transforms corporations through engaging employee training. Find more of her Lessons on Leadership columns here.