Reader Response: How Do You Handle Questions You Can’t Answer?

Ask and ye shall receive. I got some great questions from readers this past week. Today’s question is from Matt, who’s a regular reader (thank you!). The short version of his question was, how do you handle questions you can’t answer? My short-version answer would be: don’t apologize for not being an engineer or not knowing everything and don’t make stuff up. I have more thoughts below.

 Here’s a little more from Matt, explaining his dilemma:
I was wondering if you’ve been in this situation, and if so, how often, and how you typically respond.
As you may remember, back in June 2015 I started writing docs for an engineering company’s Systems Engineering team.  
I have, however, become acutely aware of the limitations of being a non-engineer writing for a major engineering project. I’ve been approached by people interested in joining [the organization], and a few have asked questions about very specific technical information: equations, theory, and design issues the likes of which I had little/no input when they were decided. I can tell you a lot about the program’s specs and requirements…I can speak volumes about the way each subsystem interfaces with the other…Top-down design issues are no big problem for me to talk about, but digging deeper into the theory requires a deeper level of understanding. Generally speaking, I answer these questions with “let me get back to you,” or by directing the interested party to the engineer/SME who knows the answer.
So, from one English major technical writer to another: How has that come up in your work? Are you versed in the “equations, theory, and design issues” related to rocket propulsion, and do you get these types of questions often? If you do possess this knowledge, did you learn it on the job?

I can answer one of your last questions first: I am terrible at “equations, theory, and design issues,” so those are things that I usually plead ignorance about. One reason I’m an English major was because I couldn’t make it over the calculus hump (I got as far as trigonometry and decided that my energies could best be spent elsewhere). My mathematical limitations are well known, however, and so I’m seldom asked those questions.

When I worked for NASA’s Ares Launch Vehicles and later the Space Launch System (SLS), I would get specific, often well-informed questions from fellow space advocates about the rockets–their capabilities, configuration, or even manufacturing processes. Sometimes I would correct false assumptions (about capabilities, progress, etc.); other times I would just explain the way the system or some part of it worked. Fortunately, I rarely encountered questions I couldn’t or wouldn’t answer–as long as the information was out there for public consumption.

On those occasions where someone asked me a question above my pay grade, I happily told them I’d get back with them and then talked to the person above my pay grade. There are several good reasons for this:

  1. I don’t want to share incorrect information (i.e., guess).
  2. I don’t want to share proprietary or other sensitive information inadvertently.
  3. I do want to give answers that my customers/employers like and can add to, if needed. Sometimes this is a matter of messaging (“spin”), sometimes it’s a matter of the subject matter expert or program manager offering up information/details that I didn’t and wouldn’t know because I was not as far into the engineering weeds.

As a writer, I saw myself as–and was, in fact, employed to be–a public spokesperson for my programs, a PR guy without the Public Affairs Office title. And while PAO people are expected to be knowledgable, they’re not expected to know everything. The Disney approach to answering questions is, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’ll find out for you.” And then, within a day or two, at most, I’d find out and get back to my questioner.

Perhaps I’m not being demanding enough.

If your employer expects you to know the answers to the questions you’re getting, perhaps you could ask for more detailed information. Or, if they don’t know what sorts of questions you’re being asked, you should tell them so they know. That would be a good opportunity to create an outreach fact sheet sharing some of the information. Such an outreach piece allows you to help the company decide what to share with the public and how and to help them shape their message. And “messaging” shouldn’t be seen as mere “marketing spin.” It’s a process of strategic communication where you help your organization position itself in the technological marketplace.

Hope this helps!


About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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