But You Digress . . .

2 Oct

We’ve been thinking about the possibility that mediocre essay questions produce mediocre essay answers. But who says you have to answer the question precisely as posed?

To those who worry that the Common App questions are dragging them down, the first presidential debate of 2012 should  be instructive.

When asked any question, the politician is inclined to answer a question of his or her own making, and bend his response just enough so that he appears to be answering the query that’s actually on the table.

They get pretty good at this form of magic with prepping from folks like Ron Klain, Vice President Biden’s former chief of staff. He has prepped candidates for 20 years for campaign debates in high-stakes federal elections.

Take note of the 16th in a list of tips for debaters, taken from a memo by Klain published recently online by the think tank, Third Way:

16)  Begin answers with “yes” or “no” if possible: answer first, then explain. For many voters—especially undecided ones, late in a campaign—debates are more about assessing a candidate’s character than her positions. And for these voters, evasiveness is the ultimate character defect. The more questions you begin with a simple “yes” or “no” reply, before going on to elaborate or qualify—rather than doing it the other way around—the more voters will see you as candid and responsive. Similarly, if you want to use an answer to a question to also cover unrelated ground, or to bring back a previous point, answer the question FIRST, and go off on the digression SECOND. The four worst words you can use to start a debate answer are: “Before I answer that…” Answering candidly and directly doesn’t mean that all your answers have to be sympathetic with the question posed. Don’t be afraid to disagree flatly with a questioner, so long as you do so civily. 

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