If you work in a technical role, chances are you like precision. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. But what if you’re in a situation where you’re not sure what to say at all?
Speaking off the cuff is such a situation.
Your boss asks you in the hallway how a project is going.
You’re asked a question during a presentation you didn’t anticipate.
A colleague asks you where you want to go for lunch.
Perhaps the last one is inconsequential (pick Thai food, by the way. You can never go wrong with Thai food). In any event, it can be nerve wracking to speak unprepared.
Here’s a tip to make it less nerve wracking: restate what you think you heard or ask a clarifying question.
So much miscommunication occurs when the sender’s intent and the receiver’s interpretation are not in alignment. To minimize misunderstanding, restate what you think the sender is trying to say or ask a clarifying question.
For instance, if you’re asked a question during a presentation that you didn’t anticipate, a clarifying question may be “just so I understand you correctly, your question is ….?” The “…” part is your understanding of the question in your words. If the question asker agrees with your interpretation, answer. If not, try again with different words based on the asker’s response.
You may have understood the question correctly, but don’t know the answer to the question. Be confident enough to say you don’t know the answer, but don’t leave it there. Add something that shows that you have an inkling on how to address the question. Try this: “That’s a great question. While I don’t know the answer offhand, based on my knowledge I suspect that the answer may involve…”.
If you have absolutely no clue what the answer is and what an answer may involve, consider saying “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer but am curious to dig deeper into it.” If appropriate, you may even want to put the question back on the questioner, asking “how would you approach an answer to the question?” You may be speaking with an expert on the topic. That person may point you in the right direction.
Ultimately, speaking extemporaneously is unnerving for most of us. Don’t sweat it, though. If you either restate what you think you heard or ask a clarifying question, you buy yourself some time to answer, and if the answer is still “I don’t know”, at least it shows that you were thoughtful in making sure you understood what was being communicated.