Answering impromptu questions in front of an audience can be high risk. Often it will be an enquiry you’ve heard many times before. Sometimes, though, you’re forced to think on your feet and give a reply you haven’t rehearsed. Provided you keep your response short and declare when you don’t know the answer, this risk is usually worth taking — the gain from being responsive overcomes the loss in accuracy. The worst thing you can do, however, is to make up an answer when you are uncertain or stumped.
You don’t have to answer every question
As an informal educator, there are many legitimate reasons you may choose not to answer certain questions in the middle of a presentation — to avoid spoiling their curiosity for a later reveal; lack of time; the majority of the audience is not sufficiently interested; the question is too specialised to answer in an accessible way; the enquiry is off-topic; or the question is asked for self-enhancement, not genuine interest. Also, when young children fire out questions, this is often code for, “I’m interested in what you’re saying, tell me more”, rather than specific requests for information.
Asking a question in front of an audience can make the questioner feel vulnerable and anxious. So, in deferring it, you need to avoid giving the impression they are being publicly rejected. A standard strategy to cover most of these situations is inviting the person to speak to you after the presentation to discuss the issue.
Paraphrase and pause
If you choose to answer a question, paraphrasing it first serves several purposes:
- allows you to summarise what may have been a long or unfocused question;
- checks that you have understood the essence of their enquiry;
- helps the rest of the audience to hear it;
- lets you judge how interested the audience is in the question, so you know how long you can invest in addressing it;
- buys you some extra thinking time before responding.
Even with this additional breathing space, don’t be afraid to pause for a moment to compose your reply in your head. To you, this pause will seem like an eternity. To the audience, however, if they notice it all, it merely looks as if you are taking your response seriously.
Keep your answers clear and concise
Whenever you try to give an unplanned explanation, it rarely comes out as clearly as you would like. Your reply needs to be accessible for the audience you are addressing, without relying on dangerous over-simplifications which may damage their future learning.
Equally, few improvised answers are concise — it’s easy to fall into the trap of narrating your messy thoughts aloud as you stumble your way through the explanation, including diversions and unnecessary details. A useful technique is to give a summary of your answer immediately and then only expand on this if the questioner looks confused.
The sweet spot of hitting both clarity and brevity only comes after much thought and through honing the explanation, word for word. Even the most experienced educators find it challenging to create effective explanations on the spot. This is why it is essential to curate banks of prepared answers for the most common queries in each presentation. These banks should be kept under constant review as you encounter new questions.
“I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.”
Blaise Pascal (mathematician)
Check briefly if your reply helped
If the questioner appears to be confused or unsatisfied by your answer, you can quickly check this — either verbally or nonverbally. This demonstrates your eagerness to help and your patience. You are still limited, though, by the amount of flexible time you have built into your interactive script.
Cope with the fear of your ignorance
This is the dread that eats away inside us. The voice that convinces us we’re an impostor. The doubt that our ignorance will be exposed at any moment. Here, I’m assuming the enquiry is factual or scientific, in the sense that it is capable of being answered by evidence, rather than a question which involves a belief or opinion-based response.
No matter how much you lower your status (1.5), in most informal education presentations, the audience will still perceive you as an expert. Even though all expertise is relative, it can feel uncomfortably as if they expect you to know the answer to everything about your subject. Clearly, this is an impossible image to live up to and if you try, you will, inevitably, come unstuck.
“The test of a good teacher is not how many questions he can ask his pupils that they will answer readily, but how many questions he inspires them to ask him which he finds it hard to answer.”
Alice Wellington Rollins (author)
When I don’t know the answer, it helps me to consider the different degrees of ignorance:
- Type 1 — you couldn’t possibly know — you understand enough to know that, currently, there is no consensus answer to this question by the experts in that area;
- Type 2 — you could know, but don’t — you think experts would know the answer, but it’s too advanced or detailed to expect someone in your role as an educator to explain it on the spot;
- Type 3 — you should know, but don’t — you know there is an answer which you think it’s reasonable for you to know, and yet you don’t, or you can’t think of an accessible way of explaining it.
Our guilt and embarrassment increase from Type 1 to Type 3 ignorance. It’s public exposure of the Type 3 gaps which keep us awake at night. But every informal educator possesses weaknesses in some areas of the topics in which they try to engage the public. Although, as a professional, you never stop working to reduce these gaps, you need to accept that some will always exist. Don’t feel ashamed of them. Paradoxically, having some gaps in your understanding and knowledge is helpful in your role as an informal educator. Learn to live with them. They make you human and relatable.
The last thing you want to do is hide them by bluffing your way through an answer. This is a golden opportunity to model how best to cope with uncertainty as a learner. The more we blush, dodge, or fabricate, the more our learners think this is what you’re meant to do when you don’t know something. They copy us.
Replying when you don’t know the answer
Modelling how to deal with ignorance could be the single most valuable lesson your presentation imparts. Tell the audience you don’t know the answer, but without shame or embarrassment. Stress how all learning involves coping with not knowing things, but what’s important is how you go about trying to find an answer. This honesty and vulnerability will, in fact, increase their trust in you. It is only after not being able to answer a succession of enquiries that the audience will start to lose faith in your authority as an educator.
Depending on the nature of the question and the time you have available, these are some further responses to consider:
- promise to research the answer and to contact them or, more often, their parent or teacher, later — if you do this though, make sure you follow through on your commitment;
- throw the question back to the audience in case anyone knows the answer — free-choice events attract some individuals who are obsessively knowledgeable about your topic;
- ask them what evidence they would need to collect or where they might go to discover the answer;
- in the case of a presentation about science, if it’s possible and safe, try to figure it out live with the help of an experiment;
- if you suspect there is an accepted answer, set them the challenge of trying to find it after the presentation and then get back to you through their teacher or parent. You can explain that you’ll be able to share their answer with future audiences.
“I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”
Richard Feynman (scientist)
Unfortunately, the above analysis has ignored an invisible type of ignorance which is much more common in all of us than we dare think:
- Type 4 — you think you know, but don’t — you have a misconception, of which you are blissfully unaware, that leads you to give an incorrect or harmfully misleading answer.
You sometimes don’t even know what you don’t know. This distressing possibility is not a reason to avoid offering explanations, but bear in mind that, as an educator, your answer can only ever be based on your best current understanding of the underlying concepts. This is a humble, but important message, for all learners to appreciate — educators are always learning too.
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