Answering questions properly and presenting solid arguments can be a challenge, so I’ve been analysing what works best and why it matters. This could be relevant to you no matter who you are or what you do, but perhaps more so if you are: a student, a public speaker, a politician, a job seeker, or a writer. Or maybe you believe in the value of a well-structured argument/debate.
Recently I got my hands on a copy of the latest Marie Claire (July 2016 edition), which is kind of weird for me. I don’t look at magazines unless I see something of value to read. Well my eyes caught something on the front cover that I wanted to check out: a Turnbull/Shorten interview (page 50, if you’re interested).
I’d rather not use politics as an example for writing advice, but this one was too good to pass up.
Reading through it I noticed the best answers – the ones I paid attention to and believed – were the ones that got straight to the point, provided lists or statistics, and didn’t use vague statements to avoid a clear answer. The influence those answers had on my interpretation – whether positive or negative – was fascinating.
Let’s look at an example.
Both men were asked, “What are the most important issues for women in 2016?”
(I will list and analyse the responses without specifying who said what, because if I do it will become a political blog post, which is not really what I’m going for…)
1) “Respect is absolutely critical, whether you’re talking about access to great jobs and business opportunities or domestic violence. The most important thing we can do is teach our sons to respect women. Respect for women is part of my DNA, which informs every aspect of our policies. Women hold up half of the sky, as the Chinese say, and they should be given due credit for it in every respect.”
2) “If this country does nothing else in the next 10 years, we must achieve the equal treatment of women. Everything from more women in positions of power or in parliament, to bridging the pay gap, gender savings gap and the burden of unpaid care that falls on women, right through to the worst example of the unfair treatment of women in society: domestic violence. If we can do nothing else but solve those problems, we will be a very rich country. We need to put more women into more positions of power.”
Notice some differences?
The first response was centred on the overall importance of respect for women, which he repeated a couple of times. He also referenced a Chinese saying to support his opinion, which gives the impression he’s filling in space instead of elaborating on his points. It was nice, and he mentioned a couple of issues, but he didn’t focus on them enough. It wasn’t convincing or satisfying.
The question is: Why?
This sort of pattern seems to emerge a lot in politics, but also in other familiar places, like in essays and job interviews.
I remember during my studies sometimes I didn’t understand an essay question or I couldn’t figure out how to answer one, so I would just try to write as much as I could about the topic. I thought that would be enough and it sounded great because I could write really well, but my content lacked any real meaning because I was avoiding the point of the essay. As a result, I failed to answer the question and subsequently received lower marks.
I wish I had done then what I’m about to suggest to you all now.
To answer a question properly you need to first reread the question and realise what it is asking of you. A question about the causes of climate change, for example, is not the time to get carried away about your opinion, or even what the results of climate change are – unless, of course, you are asked to do so. If the question asks about causes, you must list causes. What are the causes? Why are they causes? How impactful is each cause?
If someone asked me a question like that, I’d probably go off on a tangent and talk about the results, and what it means for the future of Earth, and so on. I might provide good information and I might have more fun, but in many cases my arguments could fall flat, because we need to focus on what we’re specifically asked in order to satisfy our audience.
Now, of course, this applies more strictly to school and university. Essays usually require you to answer the questions very specifically. It really depends on what you’re being asked to do. But if you lose track, you risk not answering the question at all. In the essay context, you’ll get lower marks. In the interview context, your answers won’t be valued or taken seriously. It matters.
So, if you don’t understand the question, spend some time making sure you do. If you’re unclear on the meaning of a word, look it up. If the wording confuses you, get someone else to read it to you or provide their take on it. You can also ask whoever is asking the question to clarify what they mean.
And, if it helps, re-write the question for your own sake, in a way that makes the most sense to you.
Once you’re clear on what the question requires of you, you need to think of the best way to present your answer. Structure matters. Let’s look at how our politicians utilised structure.
2) He identified the problem: gender inequality.
He listed the exact issues, as requested by the question: more women in parliament/power, bridging the pay gap and gender savings gap, the burden of unpaid care, and domestic violence.
He recognised the impact of these issues, that our country will be rich even if gender inequality is the only thing we solve.
He concluded with a suggestion on how to begin the process, by putting women in positions of power.
Evidently the structure of this response is clean and carefully considered. It has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m actually a little impressed he managed that in an interview context. Now look at the first response, and notice how the structure isn’t as easy to follow, which makes it harder to absorb.
1) He didn’t identify the problem, but rather jumped straight to an answer, which was to respect women.
He mentioned a few issues, which addressed the question briefly: career and business opportunities, and domestic violence.
He reiterated his view on respect.
He made it personal by referencing his own DNA.
He used a Chinese saying to support his beliefs.
After reading through both responses many times, I have determined that one good way to introduce your response is by looking at why the question is being asked in the first place. If it’s about the causes of climate change, I would probably open with an acknowledgement of climate change as a real and important issue, and then lead into how it has become such an issue by listing the causes.
In the case of our politicians, the second response approached it well because he had things he wanted to acknowledge, but he prefaced them with an important statement before simply listing them. He took the time to first address the fact that the question was being asked, by pointing out how important it is to eradicate gender inequality in the first place. Then he was able to list the various examples of gender inequality to solidify his stance.
The problem with the first response was that he seemingly heard “women’s issues” and jumped straight to “respect women” instead of framing something a little more substantial. That isn’t to say respect is a bad thing to bring up. It just doesn’t get your attention like the second answer does. And in essays and interviews and speeches and arguments, you want to get your audience’s attention with something more specific.
As you can see, structuring your response in the right way can give you a head-start. But the content matters just as much. Response 2 offered a good number of examples of gender equality issues, and they were all solid. Response 1 offered only a few, and they were not necessarily good choices. Domestic violence was a good one to bring up, of course, but the other two were not as well thought out. It’s almost one point spread across two. This could leave readers thinking perhaps our interviewee is a little ignorant or indifferent on the topic. Having the right information is the first step, and knowing which to focus on is what can put you ahead. It shows that you understand what you’re talking about.
However, to be fair, both responses offered their opinion on what to do about it. 1 said we need to respect women and teach our men to respect women. 2 said we need to give women more power. Both are good points, but there’s a subtle difference that helps the second one over the line.
Respect is a very broad and general term. It’s easy to throw that word around and know it means good things. But suggesting women belong in positions of power requires a little more preparation. You have to first know that there aren’t enough women in power, and then know that women being in power will be useful to inequality and the country as a whole, and then understand its importance in solving the overall problem. This alone makes the second response even stronger.
And all of this is important because you need your readers/audience to understand you and believe you. If you have an important message to get across, it won’t happen with poor content and structure. If you have to write an essay, you’ll give yourself the best chance at high marks if you put thought into your response. It matters even if you’re not answering a question. You need to be able to provide people with the information they need or want to hear. If you don’t, they may lose interest or miss the point, and it really sucks when you’re not heard or understood.
If you have something important to say, or you need to hit the nail on the head in an interview, it’s a good idea to consider some of this stuff. So, I’ll summarise:
- understand your question – clarify its meaning, and re-write if you need to
- consider the structure – acknowledge the topic/question/problem, list the reasons/examples, show its importance, and provide a possible solution
- be straight to the point
- use good content – lists, statistics, numbers, facts
- know what is relevant – the content that will answer the question and appeal to your audience the most
- use vague statements and ideas that could be applied to anything
- tiptoe around and avoid the actual question
- forget the question
- go off on tangents and get distracted
- go in blind without being sure you understand the question or topic
- to engage your audience/interviewer and hold their attention
- to help people understand and believe your message without confusion
- to have your views valued and taken seriously (in interviews, for example)
- to demonstrate your knowledge and competence to get higher marks (in essays, for example)
- to spread important information in the most effective way
- to satisfy your audience by actually answering the question
And here’s why it matters to everyone else if you’re not answering questions well:
If you struggle to make your point, it comes across as though you don’t know enough, you don’t care enough, and/or you’re lying. And those are not good things if you’re in a position to answer/argue/explain.
But, of course, sometimes it’s just social anxiety, which is totally understandable.
I hope this proves useful to some of you!
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