How to Ask Questions and Get Real Answers
Bird-dogging = a tactic where we directly reach policy makers, at public appearances like campaign events or town meetings
Here’s how to do it:
1. Get an event.
- CALENDARS: Gathering information on where candidates and elected officials are going to be is important work–make it a priority.
- You can learn about upcoming public events by getting on party/candidate e-mail lists.
- Keep your eye on local press. Local reports will be the first to announce specific events.
- CALLS: During campaign season, call the campaign offices and say “Hi. What the next couple of opportunities are to see Senator so-and-so?”
- EVENT FORMAT: Ask the event organizers about the event: when do the doors open, do you need a ticket and where can you get one, and, most importantly, is there a question-and-answer period?
- ACCESS: Sometimes you need a ticket. These almost always go quickly. If the tickets are gone or the event is a fundraiser, you can volunteer for the event to get in for free.
2. Get a posse.
- Bring a posse – just as simple as collecting a few friends will strengthen your effort a lot.
- Every single person can have a big impact when you’re bird-dogging. But four or five polite people armed with effective questions can completely alter the vibe of a question-and-answer period and win new commitments from the candidate!
- It is best to bring a group, so you are better able to get your questions asked and answered and so that you can back each other up.
3. Get a plan together with your crew.
- It is very important to make a plan in advance with your posse. Truthfully, it never works to ‘wing it’, nor can we really just tell our team what to do and expect them to do it.
- Important: Write your questions in advance, so you are less likely to stumble over your question when the microphone is on and the cameras are pointing.
- A posse of five-to-ten activists might write just two or three questions and then be ready to follow up when and if the target gives an incomplete answer. Be sure to follow up on each other’s questions.
- PRACTICE: Even for simple Q&A sessions, practice with your teammates strengthens everyone’s efforts and avoids mistakes.
4. Get good seats – which means arriving early!
- Good seats are in or near the very front row and/or near microphonesin the aisles.
- If there are several people in your team, spread out. People sitting next to each other will not be called on.
- Make eye contact with the candidate or the staff who decide whether to call on you or hand you the mic. Sit where the target can hear you, and see you (right in front of the podium if you can)!
- Applauding wildly and shouting supportive things during the speech can make it much more likely you will be called on.
5. Get your hand up first, fast and high.
- This sounds simple, but it is the most important thing to do to get called on! Most people will wait for the second or third question to raise their hand, and some only raise their hand half-way. These people will rarely get called on. If you are the first, fastest, highest person to get their hand in the air, you will almost always get called on!
- Raise your hand even if there is not supposed to be a Q&A period—if you are in the font and have been applauding, the target will often decide to give you a question.
6. Get a handshake, a photo, an autograph & AN ANSWER!
- The handshake line is another chance to ask the target a question, in public, and usually near reporters. Anticipate where the handshake is going to be (usually near the stage) and quickly bring your team forward, even before the Q&A section is done. Squish right up next to the rope, don’t lose your spot, and wait for the candidate to come to you!
- One important tactic: don’t let go of her hand until you have your answer! If there are a few of you, it can help to crowd around the candidate to prolong the handshake for as long as necessary until they have said “yes” to your team.
- Make it short (just one sentence) and PRACTICE since you won’t be able to read off a piece of paper!
- Politicians–even the most powerful–are suckers for posed photographs. Getting a photo of you and your posse one at a time with the target while the questioning is going on – is a good way to extend discussion and/or seal the deal.
7. Get quoted.
- After the event, talk to the press and get them to cover your questions and the politician’s statement. The press will not come to talk to you – you’ve got to go to them.
- Prepare your quote just like you prepared your question.
- Important: when you’re talking with a reporter, you’ll want to keep the discussion to what YOU want to say about your issue, and not on other, less important items. You only have to answer the question you should have been asked! Be sure to give them only what you want your quote to say.
8. Get a report out.
- Our collective voices can be much more powerful if you know that someone will follow up on your question to a Senator or Representative.
How to Ask a Great Question:
– GOAL: Pin the candidate down and make him/her give you a REAL answer rather than just rhetoric. We want the candidate to feel like the best option is to meet your demands.
– GOOD QUESTIONS…
- are about 10-20 seconds long
- are constructed like a narrative: problem, personal interest, solution and a demand
- are accompanied by a specific closed-ended “yes” or “no” question.
- contain the answer! The demand is the most important ingredient.
– WHAT TO INCLUDE:
- FACTS: The opening ‘intro’ should grab people and make them care about your question, and include one or two facts.
- PERSONAL SENTENCE about why you care.
- IMPORTANT: Make sure the answer to the question is in the question. Facts and citations are hints or prompts to the candidate about what they should answer.
- Choose closed-ended YES or NO questions when you want a definite answer.
- Choose open-ended questions when you want to challenge an official to do better.
Sample Questions on the F-35’s:
1) Senator Sanders, the Air Force DEIS says the F-35’s will be 4 times louder than the F-16’s. I live in Winooski, so I will directly experience this excessive noise. Will you commit to meeting with people who will be living in the predicted 65 and above dB DNL zone?
2) Senator Sanders, the Air Force DEIS says that no new jobs will be created under Scenario 1 (18 F-35’s to replace our current 18 F-16’s) and only 266 jobs will be created under Scenario 2 (24 35’s). Major General Dubie said that the Air Guard will lose all the maintenance jobs, because the F-35’s cannot be maintained here? Could you explain the job benefits of having the F-35’s based here?
3) Governor Shumlin, the FAA considers properties in noise contours above 65 db DNL to be “not compatible with residential living.” According to the Air Force DEIS, my home will be within this zone. The DEIS say that there will be over 3,000 homes in this area, and it also says that homes in this noise zone may lose 1.8-2.3% of their value. Will homeowners be compensated for loss of property value? Will you commit to meeting with representatives from the community to discuss the details of compensation for such decreases in property value or noise mitigation options for homeowners?
4) Senator Sanders, many supporters of the basing argue that VTANG might close if we don’t get these planes, and that would be devastating to our local economy. They compare the potential closing of VTANG to the closing of Plattsburgh Air Force base. I love the Air Guard, and I would hate to see the base close. But the Plattsburgh base was an Air Force base with thousands of active duty personnel. Is this a fair comparison with Burlington/ VTANG, in terms of the economic impact of a base closing?
5) Senator Sanders, the South Burlington City Council asked that your office help us to attain the initial scoring sheets for the other 5 basing options. On our own, we would have to fill out a Freedom of Information Act to attain these scoring sheets for comparison. Will you commit to requesting these initial scoring sheets and providing them to us?
* We are very grateful to the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC) at St. Michael’s College for generously sharing their advocacy materials with SOS.