How to Communicate so Your Legislator Will Listen
A great many of us are intimidated by the perception of power and prestige that exudes from our elected officials. It is only natural to feel a little bit intimidated by the entire process. I was more than a little intimidated my first time speaking in front of the Education Committee, but I got through it. You can too...
The more you educate yourself on the process, the easier it becomes. Most of our elected officials and their staff are very approachable and want to help you if they can -- especially if you can make them look good. They got into office by rubbing elbows with the people, most of them haven't forgotten where they came from.
- Do your Homework.
- Build a working relationship with your legislator.
- Be Prepared to meet your legislator.
- Be passionate and informative but not emotional.
- Respect their time.
- Don't burn bridges.
- Stay on topic.
- Provide handouts.
- Understand the system and the unwritten rules.
- Ask for his or her support.
- Track the bill as it moves from committee to committee.
- Aides can be helpful.
- Thank your legislator.
Find out where your legislator stands on certain issues by making inquiries at local group meetings and organizations. Read your local newspapers, listen to local radio programs. What do they say about your legislator? Visit your legislators website, sign up for his or her newsletter. Additional information can gleaned by researching your legislators political base and identifying key contributors.
It maybe easier than you think. Contact him or her often. Schedule office visits, attend town hall meetings, invite them to speak to your group, participate in campaign events. Always be courteous. Engage in small talk if time allows. You want "your" legislator to move towards you in a crowd, not away.
Provide insightful information when ever possible. Always provide factual, accurate information, never mislead your legislator. Presenting both sides of an issue with all the facts, will lend credibility to you or your organization and provide a resource your legislator may come to depend on.
Be prepared with talking points. Stay on topic. Don't try to tackle several issues in one visit. Bring another individual or two who can bring additional information to the table. Assign roles and topics to each person. Rehearse what you intend to say! It's easier to remember one part than the whole thing, and, if you get off topic, having another person there who is able to refocus the conversation is a plus.
If you have a true story to tell that will make your point, use it, legislators want to know that the work they do is meaningful to the individuals they serve.
Emotional outbursts will do more harm than good. Crying will detract from your issue and won't help your case any. Expressing anger won't make you any friends either. If you aren't able to keep your emotions in check, bring a friend and let him or her speak for you.
Your legislator will normally have several aides who are assigned to cover certain work loads. More often than not, when you call to make an appointment with your legsilator, you will be directed to his or her aide.
The aide will normally tell you how long your appointment is when you make it. When the aide appears or the legislator signals that your time is up, wrap it up and leave. Scheduling a second meeting is better than overstaying your welcome.
Don't expect much time - in your district you will normally be allowed 15 to 30 minutes. If you are meeting at the capital during the legislative session, your time may be limited to 5 to 15 minutes. During the legislative session, committee meetings often run late, leaving precious little time to meet with constituants. If a legislator says "lets talk on the way", take it as a compliment. Your legislator values you enough to squeeze you in.
It's very common for legislators to have heated discussions on the floor of the Senate or the House and never lose their decorum. Legislators know that they may have to count on that person, they so vehemently disagree with, on an upcoming vote.
Avoid alienating your legislators. Don't lump him or her into a group and blame them for all the evils of the world. Instead, point out possible consequences of pending legislation that they might not have considered. Assume that your legislator, does not have all the facts on the bill you are opposing, and thus could become an ally in fixing it. Provide documentation whenever possible.
You will not win every fight. Often changes come in small increments.
Legislators are notarious at changing the subject. They realize that every vote is important and thus will avoid confrontation whenever possible. When faced with the opposition they will often attempt to shift the conversation to more comfortable ground. It is perfectly acceptable to say, "That is not the issue I came here to discuss..." and refocus the conversation.
Be sure to bring flyers or brochures to leave behind. Provide two copies of everything; one for your legislator and one for his aide. Include information you intend to cover, so it can be referred to, if needed. Keep it simple and easy to read. One page is best, along with any additional documentation. Be sure to include contact information and a business card.
Be aware that these will usually just be filed. Don't expect your legislator to read anything after you leave his office.
If your legislator says that leadership is supporting or opposing the bill, understand that your legislator will be expected to vote with the leadership of his or her party.
If that happens, request a pilot program or a delay in implementation. These small steps could be significant victories.
Know the bill number. Ask for their support, their opposition, or to ask them to speak to the bills sponsor about amending the bill. Offer to speak at committee hearings.
Speak to the committee members before it is brought before their committee, and testify during the public comments portion of the meeting.
If you plan to testify, call the committee office ahead of time. On hot issues, they often limit the number of people they allow to testify and/or the amount of time. When testifying keep it short. Testimony is normally limited to two minutes. If another speaker makes your point, say so and sit down. Don't take up committee time needlessly, it will not be appreciated.
When beginning to investigate a piece of legislation, putting a call into the legislative aide can be very insightful. When calling on a particular bill, do not immediately state your own position. More often than not, the aide will assume you are in favor of the piece and provide valuable information. Always let them finish before providing your own view point.
Take the time to win the aide over to your side. They are in a position to influence and remind the legislator of your concerns during a crucial moment. Just be sure that you ask to speak to the person handling the bill you are interested in, or you could find yourself getting frustrated having to repeat your inquiry and questions for a second time.
Also, when placing a call to your legislators office, be sure to put on a smile before you dial the phone. They will hear it in your voice.
Send a thank you note shortly after the visit. You may want to include a follow-up piece of literature. It reminds the legislator of the conversation and is a good way to promote ongoing dialogue.