I could just never ask a question of somebody -- a politician, a business leader, a man on the street -- without first putting in an entirely gratuitous, meaningless and time-consuming prelude to the question. It was always something like this:
"Now, I just want to ask you ..." Or,
"Can I ask you this ..." Or,
"Here is the question I want to ask you..."
It was a tic, of sorts. Instead of just asking the damn question, I had to announce FIRST that I intended to ask a question. In an interview. Which is about nothing else but asking questions.
Maybe it was a delaying tactic while I collected my thoughts. Or maybe, I felt like I kept needing to ask the interviewee's permission. In any case, I got over it. I learned just to ask the damn question.
Which means I am particularly sympathetic to the brave and bold souls who raise their hands to ask questions when I am moderating the Intelligence Squared U.S. debates. This is a vital part of each program. We want the audience to add something to what's happening on stage. To stir the pot, and stir it well.
Unfortunately, while sympathetic, I also have the job of keeping things on point, and so it falls to me to reject -- yes, reject -- a poorly phrased or off-topic question. It happens nearly every time out, and sometimes, I reject MULTIPLE questions. I hate doing this.
And so, for those of you planning to be there for our upcoming series of debates (which starts on September 10th, when we debate the pros and cons of the U.S. drone program), a short three point primer on how NOT to get rejected.
1. Short and tight is good: you don't have to layer on comments about the ramifications of what you are asking, or provide paragraphs of context. If you do, that most likely means you are debating the debaters, not provoking them to debate each other more deeply. But we already have debaters. Thanks anyway. Ask a question.
2. Your question should be on point. That is, it should advance discussion of the proposition being debated. Of course, certain ancillary thoughts, only distantly related to the precise topic, may pop into your head as you are hearing and weighing the arguments. That's the point, in a way. We want you to think. But we are doing a structured debate, not an open-ended discussion. Save your off topic question for afterwards, when you are welcome to rush the stage and corner our debaters.
3. A question is not a comment, and a comment is not a question. Simple rule of thumb: if a question mark fits naturally at the end of whatever you are saying, then it's probably a question.
I hope this helps. In all honesty, I have only respect for people with the guts to rise in front of the crowd while the cameras and microphones are recording… and take part. Even if I reject your question, please know that I respect it, and that, seriously, I hate doing it. Please don't make me.
John Donvan, Moderator
Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates
JOHN DONVAN RECOMMENDS
VIEWED FROM PAKISTAN, AMERICA'S WAR ON TERROR IS NOT YET OVER
"In some countries, [drones] are the only face of US foreign policy."
DRONES BEST WEAPONS WE'VE GOT FOR ACCURACY, CONTROL, OVERSIGHT
"The critics don’t understand the reality of 'drone' operations..."
THE KILLING MACHINES
"The act of willfully pinpointing a human being and summarily executing him from afar distills war to a single ghastly act."