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How to Ask Candidates Questions that Make a Difference

Tips for spreading your ideas without getting the runaround.
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Question, photo by The U.S. Army

Photo by the U.S. Army.

 

The Occupy movement has changed the political conversation. But will it make a difference in what politicians actually do? We can help—through the questions we ask.

Our political discourse now regularly includes references to inequality, corporate power, and Wall Street excess. The challenge now is to press for policies that can help the 99 percent.

So when candidates show up at political and professional meetings, hold fundraisers, or are on the radio, we can ask questions that put forward policy ideas. And with the changed political environment, those ideas can be ones that just a few months ago might have seemed entirely out of bounds.

These opportunities only work well if we craft our question carefully. Because we want to build momentum for new ideas, the audience for our question is not just the candidate, but also the others who hear our question.

Here are some dos and don’ts for asking questions that can help us all take advantage of this political moment.

Ask your question in a way that can be heard

  • Sound reasonable. You don’t want to raise hackles or just get written off. No need to say “Well, Wall Street executives will hate this idea, but….”
  • Be yourself. Bring in a relevant personal example that people can relate to. Mention something that happened to you, your relative, or friend, but keep your example short.
  • Use ordinary language. If you need to use an unfamiliar term (such as the Financial Transaction Tax, in my example below), explain it briefly. Don’t turn people off with jargon.
  • Be succinct. You don’t want people feeling you took too much air time. Best to keep your question under a minute. But don’t talk fast to squeeze in more. You want everyone to understand what you’re saying.

Use your question to move an idea forward

  • Put forward an idea rather than asking a general question. If you ask how the politician will create jobs—he/she will have a stock answer that you’ve probably heard before. Instead, ask his/her views about an idea you think will create jobs.
  • Frame your idea in terms of a goal most people want to reach (strong communities, fair elections, good schools). You want to interest the politician and the audience right off the bat.
  • Be sure your question is relevant to that politician’s level of decision-making. Thus, don’t ask a national politician something that’s handled at the state or local level or vice versa.
  • Mention the benefits of the idea you are putting forward. E.g. it generates revenue or improves the environment. But don’t exaggerate those benefits. You don’t want people to dismiss your idea because you made it sound like a silver bullet.
  • Ask the politician for his or her stand on the issue, but not in a way that can be answered yes or no. You want to open an exploration. Thus, don’t say “Would you vote for this?” Instead ask “What is your view about this?”

The dos and don’ts in action

Now let me apply these dos and don’ts to a few fresh ideas.

For a national candidate:
“I think many of us are concerned that the government is having to cut back on important services like education and veterans benefits because we don’t have the money. I’ve heard one solution is something called a Financial Transaction Tax. As I understand it, it’s a small tax on trades on Wall Street. I read that if we taxed each trade just a quarter of one percent that could raise about $150 billion a year. What is your view on the Financial Transaction Tax?”

For a state candidate:
“I’m really concerned about the number of people unemployed in our state. It’s been hard to watch my sister search for a job for over a year. I’ve heard it would help if our state had a state-owned bank. I’ve read that North Dakota has a state-owned bank—and it runs a budget surplus and has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. The state bank partners with community banks and together they’ve kept credit flowing to farmers and local businesses throughout this recession. What do you think about our state creating its own bank?”

For a county candidate:
“I’m concerned our neighborhoods are deteriorating because of all the foreclosures. I read that in California, the auditors in one county checked the documents on a sample of foreclosures and found that the big majority had fraudulent elements. Their investigation has slowed down the foreclosures. What would you think about conducting such an audit in our county?”

Now it’s your turn. If you like this approach, think of an issue you care about. Do you have a positive solution you want to bring forth—especially one that might have traction in our current political environment? Can you express your idea in less than a minute? Can your Uncle John understand what you’re asking?

Once you have crafted some good questions, use one the next time you have a chance to question a politician. See what happens. Share your own dos and don’ts, examples, or experiences in the comments below.

Let’s use this political season to get some good ideas moving from talk to policy.


Fran KortenFran Korten wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Fran is YES! Magazine's publisher.

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