Don’t Know the Answer? Try These 10 Tips for Thinking on Your Feet

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Meg Prater (she/her)
Meg Prater (she/her)


Does this sound familiar? You’re in a demo. You’re moving through a meticulously personalized presentation. You’ve prepared for any scenario. And then they hit you with that question. The one you never saw coming. The one you have no idea how to answer.

Even the most seasoned salespeople have faced this situation at least a few times in their careers.

It’s impossible to prepare for every question your prospect might ask, but you can prepare for the unexpected.

Next time you’re caught unable to answer a question lobbed at you, try a handful of these techniques for thinking on your feet. You might be surprised at how gracefully you can recover.

1) Breathe Deeply (It Really Helps)

The American Institute of Stress says that “Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.”

Breathing deeply elicits “relaxation responses” such as slowing a racing heartbeat, relaxing your muscles, and quieting your mind.

So, before you respond to a question that has you scrambling, take a deep breath and allow your body to catch up with your mind. You’ll be better prepared -- both physically and mentally -- to answer the question, and you’ll score a few extra seconds to organize your thoughts.

2) Speak Confidently

That’s a pretty vague statement, so I’ll break it down below. You can speak confidently by hitting three main buckets:

  1. Speak Slowly: Bill McGowan, author of Pitch Perfect: How to Say it Right the First Time, Every Time says, “The less certain you are about the next idea coming out of your mouth … the slower you should be talking. You want your vocal pace to allow your brain more lead time to get out in front and navigate … "
  2. Speak in a Strong Voice: Your instinct may be to retreat within yourself and speak quietly to muffle the fact that you’re unsure of how to answer. Avoid the use of “umms” or “uhhs” and speak clearly, with continued intonation. Strategic pauses also increase the strength and impact of your words.
  3. Maintain Eye Contact: “Gaze functions to encourage and persuade in all human beings,” according to Psychology Today. “We deal with embarrassment by looking away; it discourages further conversation.” Maintain eye contact during your pitch and keep the conversation going. You never want your prospect to feel you’re not engaged in the meeting.

3) Ask Clarifying Questions

Start by asking your prospect to repeat the question that has you stumped. Not only will this buy you more time, it might also give you more information.

If you’re still not sure how to answer, ask several questions to clarify. Take this example:

Prospect Question:Does your platform have X feature like Y competitor?”

Clarifying Question 1:Great question. Can you tell me more about the purpose of X feature?

Clarifying Question 2:How would your company use X feature?

Clarifying Question 3:What would the primary benefit of X feature be to your company?

In the example given above, your clarifying questions have allowed you to learn why X feature is valuable to your prospect, which gives you more context with which to answer the prospect’s question. It also allows you to think about whether or not your company has a similar existing feature available or in the development stage.

4) Be Honest

If you’ve asked clarifying questions and still aren’t sure how to answer the question, be honest with your prospect. Depending on the formality of the meeting, you might tell them you’ll reach out to someone who can answer the question -- perhaps an engineer in the previous example.

If the meeting is a more formal one, say something along the lines of:

That’s a great question. I can tell that X feature is important to our solution being the best fit for your company. I want to be sure that I’m giving you an accurate answer, so I’m going to bring this question to a few of my colleagues and get back to you on this topic by EOD tomorrow.

Everyone appreciates honesty, and your candor will ensure that both parties in the meeting are finding a good match in each other.

5) Make One Point and One Point Only

When you’re caught with a question you’re not sure how to answer, it’s crucial to be succinct. To guard against nervous rambling, choose one thought and support it with a brief statement. This will keep you focused, on topic, and authoritative.

For example, in response to the question of whether or not your platform offers X feature like your competitor does, you might be tempted to say:

Well ... we do have Y feature that might be similar, and we also have A and Z features coming this fall that we’re really excited about. We have a few other clients who are looking forward to A feature, and I think you might be a great candidate for a case study if you chose our company and decided to go with A feature when it rolls out …

In the scenario above, not only have you not answered your prospect’s original question, you’ve also raised several questions they never asked to begin with.

Instead, try answering like this:

We don’t have a feature that accomplishes exactly what X feature does, but I see us moving forward in three ways. First, we can work with our engineering team to see if X feature can be built and what the timeline might look like there. Second, we can find out if there are features currently available in our product offering that will deliver similar results as X feature. Third, we can discuss what it means for our two companies if we can’t meet the needs that X feature currently solves for.

Not only have you answered their question honestly, but you’ve set forward a confident and knowledgeable roadmap for how to proceed.

6) Don’t Get Defensive

It’s easy to get frustrated when you feel like you’ve been backed into a corner you can’t answer your way out of. You’ve spent weeks, maybe even months preparing for this presentation, and now you’re on the brink of blowing it.

Remember that things are likely not that bleak. It’s also important not to take out your frustration on your prospect. That can be difficult especially if you feel your prospect’s question is unfounded, has already been covered, or has little bearing on the outcome of whether or not they choose your company.

Acknowledge and validate their concerns, but if you can’t offer them a clear solution or answer in the moment, move the conversation forward, and continue your presentation in a professional and courteous manner.

7) Know When To Stop Talking

Business psychiatrist Mark Goulston says there are three stages of speaking to other people. First is “the business stage.” Second is “the feel-good stage.” And third is “the off-stage attempt to recover stage.” You know, the one when you know you’ve lost your audience and need to immediately refocus the conversation.

Goulston recalls a helpful strategy that fellow business coach Marty Neko gave him. It’s called “The Traffic Light Rule” and goes a little something like this: For the first 20 seconds of a conversation, the light is green and your listener is engaged. For the next 20 seconds, the light turns yellow and you increase the chances of your listener losing interest in the conversation. At the 40-second mark, your light turns red and you should stop talking. Now.

If you feel the need to continue speaking after being thrown for a loop, Goulston recommends taking stock of the motivation behind saying more. Is it simply because you feel nervous that you haven’t answered your prospect’s question? If so, stop and ask, “Have I answered your question?” Your prospect will certainly tell you.

8) Be Aware of Your Body Language

You might be familiar with Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on power poses. Cuddy is a Harvard Business School psychologist who has conducted several studies on how adopting power stances (folding your hands behind your head, standing with feet apart and hands on hips, etc.) in or before meetings contributes to feeling more powerful.

How you carry yourself matters. Crossing your arms, slouching, or cutting off eye contact may be second nature when you’re feeling embarrassed about your inability to answer a prospect’s question, but these poses will send distinct signals that you’re closed off, apathetic, or untrustworthy.

Try adopting a stronger stance (shoulders back, lean into a conversation, or stand up and face your audience head on) when you’re feeling most vulnerable. It’s amazing how much more confident you’ll feel.

9) Watch for Nonverbal Cues

Your body language is key, but the nonverbal cues your prospect is giving off are just as important to notice. Body language expert Patti Wood says, “Nonverbal cues can help business people determine others’ motivations and analyze business interactions with much more richness, depth, and insight than can come from simply relying on spoken or printed words.”

If you’re nervous about how you’ve answered a question, take note of the nonverbal cues your prospect or other stakeholders in the room are giving off. Are they restless, distracted, or disinterested? It may be time to shift the conversation or confront the situation by asking, “It seems like I’ve lost you. How can I bring value back into this conversation for you?

Similarly, if you notice that your audience is nodding in agreement and engaged with what you’re saying, this is probably a sign you handled the question like a pro and can move on without fear of having left potential issues unaddressed.

10) Plan for the Unexpected

It’s likely you’ll be caught off guard by a question at some point in the sales process, so why not prepare for the unexpected? Put together a strategy for how you’ll handle these uncomfortable moments.

For example, you could decide that when faced with an unexpected question you’ll:

  1. Pause
  2. Take a deep breath
  3. Ask three clarifying questions
  4. Be confident and honest in your response
  5. Watch for nonverbal cues to know how to move the conversation forward

With a familiar formula to turn to when things get a little unfamiliar, you’ll be able to steady your nerves as you decide how to respond. You might also find that you’re less nervous headed into meetings, which will serve you well.

No matter how great your prep work is, you're still going to get questions that stump you. That's just the nature of sales. Keep a few of these tips in your back pocket, and they’ll help you move past uncomfortable situations and on to closing big sales.

HubSpot CRM

Topics: Sales Pitch

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