11

Today, I gave a presentation in front of a group of my manager and a several executives. I spent a long time preparing for it as there were a lot important people attending.

It was going well until we got to the Q&A section, which went something like this: `

Will this work with active/active?
-I don't know.

What's the impact to the EAE project?
-I don't know what that is.

How will this be scaleable with the QA infrastructure?
-Yes, it will be.
How?
-I don't know.

What encryption technique is being utilized?
-I don't know.

Was Chris Kegoh ok with this design?
-Yes, he definitely was.
Chris is a *she*.
-Oh... then, I don't know who that is.

What do you feel about BLT?
-Uh... BLT?
Yes.
-Well, I've never been a big fan of tomato...
No... the Business Ledger Team.
-Oh.  I don't know who that is.

I was probably asked 20 questions, and I couldn't answer of them. I thought I was well prepared, but obviously I wasn't, and now I've made a fool out of myself.

Beyond preparing even harder, how should I answer questions that I don't understand (or have no idea on the answer)? I don't want to completely BS my way through meetings, but give just enough BS so I don't appear so incompetent.

  • 9
    Is it your job to know these things? What IS your job here? The questions you list range from stuff a high level manager should know down to stuff an engineer should know; no one person can reasonably answer all of those. – Erik Feb 10 '17 at 7:42
  • 3
    Your manager has kinda hung you out to dry by not stepping in after, say, the first two such clearly-beyond-your-pay-grade questions – AakashM Feb 10 '17 at 10:27
  • 2
    Follow up if appropriate, e.g. "What encryption technique is being used?" - "I can't answer right now, but I can investigate it/ask the developer/etc. and get back to you after the meeting." – Brandin Feb 10 '17 at 12:10
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    Don't bullshit yourself through this. You didn't do yourself any favors by pretending to know people (and having talked to them) you don't actually know. Not knowing the answers (especially about business decisions outside your usual range of work) is perfectly fine. You did a great presentation and you can be sure that these managers don't know the nitty gritty details about your usual line of work. In my opinion, asking questions back (e.g. "I'm sorry, what does that abbreviation mean?") can be a sign of confidence. Alternatively, you can refer them to your manager for certain details. – Llewellyn Feb 10 '17 at 19:44
  • I would agree that you shouldn't BS in such a meeting. But a meeting with higher up executives needs careful preparation. You should have had a dry run of the presentation with your manager (and maybe some other department members) to be sure that your group wouldn't come across as idiots. Not knowing the answer to all 20 questions is ok, but not knowing the answers to any of the 20 questions indicates poor planning for the meeting. You and your boss should spend 10 hours of your time not to waste 1 hour of an executive's time. – MaxW Feb 11 '17 at 7:21
23

Don't be ashamed when you can't answer questions. Nobody knows everything, it is fine to admit what you do not know.

That said though, there are a number of strategies you could follow to make the Q&A sessions more effective.

  • Understand the big picture: If you are making a presentation on FooWidget, it is certainly most important to know FooWidget thoroughly, but it is also important to understand the bigger picture. This will help you anticipate the questions, and prepare for them. For example:

    1. Where does FooWidget fit into the overall system?
    2. What alternatives exist in the market to FooWidget?
    3. Who are the target users of FooWidget (or the system that incorporates FooWidget)?
    4. What is the history of FooWidget? Did it have any previous versions? What were the limitations of those versions that led to the current version?
    5. What is the future of FooWidget?
  • Understand your audience: People usually ask questions from a "what does it mean to me/my team?" perspective. You could be making a presentation explaining the technical features of FooWidget, but a marketing manager would be interested in knowing the selling points, and not in the sorting algorithm used. Knowing your audience beforehand also helps anticipate the kind of questions they are most likely to ask.

  • Do dry runs: You could do a dry run of presentation with your peers and/or your boss, before making the big presentation to the executives. The Q&A session at the end could either give you confidence that you have most bases covered or show you areas that you need to study more.

    You should decide whether a presentation needs a dry run and the attendees to be invited on a case-by-case basis, based on the importance of the presentation. Doing dry runs for every presentation not only wastes everyone's time for little gain, but also makes it a chore which reduces its value.

  • Don't shoulder the burden alone: If you do not know the answer to a question, you could change the format of the question to a discussion. This is usually helpful if your team members are present. Hence, rather than saying, "I don't know", you could say: "Does anyone want to share any insights on this question?"

    In a typical business meeting, it is quite rare that nobody in the audience has any clue about a question. However, people do not always speak up lest the presenter feel "sabotaged". By opening up the forum, you signal that you are okay with someone else taking control, albeit temporarily.

  • Make note of difficult questions, and follow up promptly: When you come across a question that you cannot answer right then, make note of the question along with the asker's name (and contact information), and assure them that you would get back to them with the answer. Then do so. Promptly.

    Saying something like this should suffice:1

    "This is a good question. I am afraid I do not have enough information to answer that. I will look into it after this presentation, and get back to you in a couple of days."

    I would rather wait for the correct information, than be misled by some hastily arranged wrong information.


give just enough BS so I don't appear so incompetent.

Don't do this. The "just enough BS" that you give could mislead someone into making a wrong decision, causing potential harm. Your false fear of appearing incompetent is of little importance in the bigger picture.


1 This goes without saying, but just for completeness, I must mention that you should not parrot the same lines for multiple difficult questions in the same session. For the 2nd and subsequent questions, "I will make note of that as well", should be enough.

  • 5
    I agree. Admit you do not know what you do not know. Spinning stuff can bring all sorts of pain, but of course - based on experience you sometimes can give semi-answers. And then, take notes and say you'll get back with the information as soon as you've gathered it from the relevant parties. And do get back with the information. – Allan S. Hansen Feb 10 '17 at 7:33
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    Excellent answer here. A couple of suggestions from me. When answering questions, it's good to demonstrate your knowledge instead of saying "Yes" or "No". It's clear from your example dialogue that you're bluffing and you got caught out. When you get caught out bluffing one question, every single other question is also brought into question unless you can demonstrate a clear understanding. – user44108 Feb 10 '17 at 7:35
12

I haven't worked out whether you should have known the answers to the questions, but your attempts at answering with seemingly little knowledge haven't helped you at all.

Will this work with active/active? 
-I don't know.

This is fine. Maybe add a "Who do I need to check this with?"

What's the impact to the EAE project?
-I don't know what that is.

Again, fine, but create a follow up action.

What encryption technique is being utilized?
-I don't know.

As above, fine but find out more info

How will this be scaleable with the QA infrastructure?
-Yes, it will be. 
How?
-I don't know.

This is where you have gotten yourself into trouble. Do you know if this will be scaleable with the QA infrastructure? Have you checked to see if your solution will fit into it?

Saying "Yes it does something" then not being able to back it up is bad news. It means I probably, as an attendee, won't believe anything you have said. And i'll probably tell others about this too.

Overall, it sounds like you haven't quite set the scope of the presentation correctly in your intro. You need to set what you are covering more specifically. Like so (a basic example)

Today i'm covering Solution X. I'm going to cover it's functionality, it's current progress and how we plan to integrate it with Y. I've currenly been working with Stakeholder A on this solution. If there are other business areas that need to know about this, please pass on the slide deck after the presentation.

You can state who you have been working with on this early on. It sounds like you have been ambushed a little with stuff that is maybe "above your paygrade" on the project. If a project lead/team lead should have been liaising with other business areas, state that you are just developing it etc, and that questions regarding other stakeholders is for someone else to answer.

  • 3
    +1 Yes / How? / lol idk was a big mistake. Instant credibility killer. – rath Feb 10 '17 at 11:06
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    To be fair, they might have been told by someone else (their boss?) that "this solution is scalable" but not know the details themselves. In that case, actually mentioning that would have been better than the plain "I don't know". Misidentifying a person is a big ouch, though. – Llewellyn Feb 10 '17 at 19:36
  • @Llewellyn Yeah, if I am in the audience, I would be fine with "this is scaleable, Bruce says so", but not, "this is scaleable, I don't know how." – Masked Man Feb 19 '17 at 6:40
3

If you don't know, acknowledge it and ask if they want you to research it.

Determine if these questions are in the scope of your job and/or the project. Again, you indicate you don't know that, but can find the person who does.

Some questions may need a follow-up question. If someone is suppose to approve the design, is that standard operating procedure? Maybe it should be? Where are these kinds of things documented?

Beware of Politics What may be going on here is a way to embarrass someone else like your boss. Happens a lot. Do the best you can and get back with your boss to see how she wants to handle it. I've had bosses who wanted to come to my defense in these situations. Others may want to ignore it or take care of it themselves. I suggest you follow their advice.

  • Yes, THAT. You could be a proxy for issues you are not aware of. – user1220 Feb 10 '17 at 20:05
2

One thing I would add to the other answers here is that you know more than you think you do, but because you're under pressure, it's hard to remember it.

When someone asks you a question, stop. Take a breath. If you have a hard time letting the room go quiet for a moment while you think, take a drink of water to force yourself to pause before you blurt out that you don't know. Think about why they are asking the question. If you don't understand the concern, ask them to explain.

For example: "Will this work with active/active?" might lead you to respond with "Are you concerned about disaster recovery or with how it will interface with our other services?" Sometimes you can't answer the question because the person asking didn't give you enough context and not because you don't know the information they're looking for.

Sometimes people will ask really specific questions when they might actually want to know something more general. For example, "Did Chris K. approve this design?" might mean Did you talk with other experts, or is this a one man show? so you could respond by talking about the design process and reassure them that it was well-vetted even if you aren't sure whether Chris gave their explicit approval.

And as others have already mentioned, if you truly don't know, just admit it, and promise to follow up. I like to add some filler in there and a specific way I intend to follow up so it's not a flat "I don't know." For example, "I don't know off the top of my head, but I will get with M. and see if we can get you those details."

1

Beyond preparing even harder, how should I answer questions that I don't understand (or have no idea on the answer)?

I always answer with some variation of "Great question. I'm not sure, but I'll research that a bit and get back to you."

Then I do the research and get them an answer promptly.

But honestly, in your case it likely wouldn't matter how you answered. If you were asked 20 questions, and didn't have a real answer for any of them, then you weren't sufficiently prepared. Perhaps you rushed to get to the presentation phase. Or perhaps you didn't preview your presentation to anyone who could give you feedback as to possible questions that might arise.

A good lesson for next time.

(And honestly, those weren't all tough questions, were they?)

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