Sometimes your mind purrs along like a well-tuned engine.
Other times it coughs up thoughts, feelings, and anxieties that are worse than useless.
Flashes of insecurity are human and inevitable. But when negative thoughts pop into your mind, it’s all too easy to freeze up, sputter, or panic.
For many of us, this happens when we’re asked a question that we don’t know how to answer.
Do You Clutch When You Don’t Know the Answer to a Question?
I’ve talked in other posts about why it makes sense to answer the question first. But when you don’t know the answer, a negative thought cascade (also known, charmingly, as an emotional death spiral) can block you from confidently saying so, leaving you tongue-tied.
This cascade often starts with a self-judging thought such as,
I should know the answer to that question!
That thought can quickly escalate to,
What’s wrong with me that I don’t know the answer to that question!?
And then you hit rock bottom, with something like,
I’m a fake. I’m an idiot. I’m unqualified — and everyone will know that as soon as I speak.
This is never a good place to be, and less so when someone is waiting for you to answer a question they’ve just asked.
So what can you do about it?
To Avoid an Emotional Death Spiral, Learn a Public Speaking Phrase that Pays
Here’s where I tip my hat to Z100, the New York Top 40 radio station that created the term “phrase that pays.”
- What they mean by it is: listen to our station around the clock and when you hear a certain phrase, be the first to call us and you’ll get money.
- What I mean by it is: the pay-off will be big if you commit these phrases to memory and practice them regularly so that they come to mind automatically when you need them.
There are lots of magic public speaking phrases; these two are particularly versatile:
Phrase that Pays #1: “Let me find out and get back to you.”
Phrase that Pays #2: “Can you tell me more about that?”
The first phrase —“Let me find out and get back to you”— pays off when you don’t know the answer to a question, but you know where to get it.
- You can state this fact (“I don’t know that offhand, but…”) or leave it out.
- But whether you do or don’t actually say the words “I don’t know,” your point — stated without embarrassment or apology — is that you’ll deliver the answer ASAP.
The second phrase —“Can you tell me more about that?”— pays off when you don’t understand what the other person is asking.
- This might happen for several reasons: They might be asking about a topic that’s totally outside of your knowledge. Or their question may be garbled, muddy, vague, or filled with internal contradictions that cancel out any semblance of meaning.
- Saying “Can you tell me more about what you need to know?” or “Can you tell me more about the type of information you need?” is a big improvement on what you’d really like to say, which is probably something like, “What the heck are you talking about??????”
Start Simple, Then Build Your Skill at Using the Phrase that Pays
When the time comes to actually use these phrases, feel free to adjust them to fit the particular situation you’re in, or the style of the person you’re talking to. For example:
I want to give you an accurate number, so let me check my records and get back to you before the end of the day.
“Can you help me understand what type of information would be most helpful? Are you looking for a case study? A metric? Or something else?
Although you’ll eventually be able to make similarly smooth comments, start by learning the bare-bones version of each phrase.
Do this because it’s always easier to embellish or improvise when you have a solid foundation — and that’s what a phrase that pays provides, if you make the small effort needed to “internalize” (thoroughly absorb) it.
In other words…
Practice Until These Phrases Come Easily and Automatically to Mind
As with any physical discipline, it’s not enough to understand public speaking theory — you also have to do some public speaking practicing!
1. Take a few seconds to get into your public speaking Avatar — the version of yourself that you want to be when you’re speaking in public.
2. Now stand tall in front of a mirror, look yourself right in the eye, smile with comfortable confidence, and say the phrase that pays out loud.
3. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again. Do it again!
4. Try out different variations, but always come back to the most basic version, because that’s what you’re trying to internalize.
The more often you do this brief exercise, the more both these words and your positive attitude toward them will sink in.
And the next time someone asks a question you can’t answer, you’ll find yourself confidently sailing through what might have been an awkward moment, but isn’t!