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By Art Samansky and Eric Samansky

The fireworks have gone up, the balloons and confetti have gone down, and the 2008 Presidential campaign is off and running, right into the debates.

Which raises the question: to seek, or not to seek to take the first question at the start of, and throughout a debate, or for that matter, a business-oriented panel discussion.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton famously raised the issue during a February 26, 2008 Democratic presidential-candidate debate with Senator Barack Obama.

For all but a relatively small number of people, political debates, at any level, are unlikely. But a business debate or panel discussion: that is a common event and frequent possibility for a wide range of business executives, academics, and many others.

Putting aside potential reasons Sen. Clinton raised the issue, the answer to the Shakespearian-like question is: yes, seek to answer the first question, and continue to go “hand-up” for all first-questions in every round during a business-oriented debate or panel format. And, always seek to be the first speaker--even if it is with opening remarks rather than an answer to a specific question.

The reasons are much the same as those of a football team winning the coin toss opting to “receive” rather than to “kickoff.” With the ball in its hands, the receiving team has the chance to set the tone and pace of the game, score first, and put the pressure on the opponent.

Especially in a business debate or panel setting, receiving the first question, and the subsequent first-question as different topics are raised, provides the initial speaker with a variety of important potential opportunities. Foremost, the first speaker can establish command by roughly setting the parameters of the discussion. He or she also can influence the larger direction of the conversation, by focusing on and delivering key views and messages.

These first views, if properly presented, are more than likely to be the ones the audience most remembers, as they haven’t yet been bombarded with other commentary. More than likely, too, the other speakers also will need to respond to the first speaker’s points before trying to segue to their own messages. As a result, the initial messages of the first speaker often are re-enforced.

There may be circumstances in which a speaker may want to be second and take the measure of his or her opponent’s approach, words and tone, or hope the first speaker delivers a poorly worded response.

But, except for extraordinary circumstances, these possibilities should have been dealt with in pre-event practice sessions. And, hoping for an opponent’s mis-step isn’t the best way to plan for success: it is more likely to result in missed opportunities.

To be sure, there are potential downsides to going first.

Most critically, the first speaker has less time to “think” about the moderator’s question and frame the best answer. The second speaker has the additional time, and an opportunity to turn the message back on the first speaker. But these concerns also can be, and should be, mitigated through pre-event practice sessions with the equivalent of a “Tiger Team.”

Regardless of the nature of the event--whether collegial or likely contentious--the Tiger Team should be asking the difficult questions, trying to “trip” the speaker. This practice alerts the speaker to refine the answer, or further develop supporting details and evidence. It also helps ensure the speaker has a full understanding of the key messages, and can deliver them effectively. In addition, the Tiger Team sessions help the speaker understand how to avoid falling into verbal traps, “taking the (opponent’s) bait,” or inadvertently touching “third-rails.”

If the event is likely to be contentious, the Tiger Team should ask the difficult questions in the style of the opponent--including phrasing and attitude. This type of practice helps the speaker prepare for, and calmly handle, the negative or mocking tones of the other speaker or speakers. Responding in an argumentative manner often results in a detrimental and negative perception by the audience.

No matter what the nature of the event, careful message development, and practice are essential to the success in any form of presentation, and help ensure accurate and honed responses for a question and answer period. Participating in a debate or panel discussion and planning to “wing it,” or make some notes on the way to the event, is a formula for failure. Failure has consequences.

Embrace receiving the “first” question and lead the discussion. It’s to your advantage.