How to dodge a killer question

We’ve all been asked that killer question in an interview or presentation, but what is the best way to deal with it?

Peter Iantorno October 19, 2015

It is a moment that can derail even the most assured interview or presentation: the killer question that leaves you completely stumped.

Even the most experienced politicians and slickest businessmen are prone to being shown up by a tricky question every once in a while, and often attempts to take evasive action can seem, well, evasive.

So how exactly should you deal with a tough question that you simply don’t know the answer to? We took to questions and answers site Quora to find out the best way to dodge a killer question.

Field planner Jon Mixon says that he has employed a range of methods to avoid tricky questions during presentations. “That’s a good question” is a great phrase to use for a start, says Mason, as not only does it buy some time for you to think of how to answer, but it also "moves away from the original by creating a discussion about your perception of the question’s quality.”

Another delaying tactic is to ask for more detail about the question. According to Mixon, this could lead the questioner to “accidentally reveal part of the question’s answer by further explaining the question”.

But, Mixon adds, there is only so far avoiding the question can get you and, if used too much, sooner or later these techniques will “backfire or fail completely”.

Keith Patton, a geologist who has lived and worked across the US, Europe and the Far East, adds that maybe the best way to go about dealing with a tough question is to take a leaf out of the politicians’ book. “You can handle them like politicians,” he says, “by restating the question, but subtly changing it in the restatement, and then answering your own question instead of the original one.

“Or restate it completely, saying something like, ‘That's an interesting question, but the real question is...’ and then state your own question and answer that one.  It helps misdirect the listeners so that they do not think you are dodging the original question.”

One of the classic interview questions we are all faced with at some point in our career is the infamous “what is your weakness?”. And while most people agree that this is a sloppy line of questioning that shows little respect for the candidate, it is still important to be prepared for it.

Mira Zaslove, a business analyst at tech giant Hewlett-Packard, says that there are three main tactics for dealing with this most effectively. When asked “what is your weakness” interviewees should either: “Pick a skill that isn’t relevant to this job; tell a story where you learned from a mistake; or give a weakness that is genuine in many environments, but acceptable in this one.”

Another option is to take the kind of humorous approach that Marc Cenedella, now the CEO of recruitment agents, took when he was asked to give his greatest weakness. His answer? “Brevity,” before staring politely back at the interviewer with “a little bit of a wise-ass grin”.

However, for all the wise cracks, avoidance and delaying tactics that can be employed, if a killer question really has you stumped, most people are in agreement that honesty is ultimately the best policy.

“People often really respect a person who immediately says they don't know rather than risk their credibility and waste everybody's time,” says Adam Nyhan, a lawyer from Maine, US.

And Ken Eckert, an English Professor now living in South Korea, agrees: “Do you think audiences are so stupid as to not see what you are doing in evading a question?” He asks.

So, while buying time and dodging questions might work out for the slippery politicians and evasive executives of this world, and cracking jokes will probably give you a good story to tell rather than a job offer, it seems that the most effective way to dodge a killer question is not to dodge it at all.

Quora respondents are required to use their real names and job titles. The site asks some individuals, such as doctors and lawyers, to prove their expertise.