Getting the Council to Vote Yes!

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Tips on getting your message across to elected officials.

City councils, boards, commissions, and other committees and agencies conduct the government's business. The decisions they make affect almost every aspect of our lives, including what television programs we watch, where our children go to school, how fast we drive, and whether there will be a hospital in our neighborhood. It's a huge task, and in a democracy, elected officials rely on the constructive input of their constituents to assist in their deliberations in those matters. In this way, we all share equally in the benefits of the government bodies we have created.

At some point during your lifetime, you may be called upon to speak before one of those government bodies on a matter of great importance to you or your employer. Thousands maybe even millions of dollars could be at stake, depending upon your ability to persuade the members to vote Yes! on your recommendation or proposal. The question is, How will you do that?

The surest way to persuade any official governing body to rule in your favor is to use your hard-earned Toastmasters skills. Speech organization, voice intonation and inflection, gestures and the appropriate use of words are effective public speaking tools that you can bring to the podium. The following eight strategies will assist you in making the best presentation possible one that will persuade the elected members to vote Yes! on your next recommendation or proposal.

Dress for a Great First Impression
As you walk up to the podium your appearance is the first thing the members notice, and they begin to formulate their opinions before you open your mouth. That's the power of first impressions. It's a quick, hands-down judgment on your credibility. So always be well-groomed and dress appropriately when you speak to an elected body. It's not the time to flaunt what a free spirit you are. Don't dress down, or wear clothing that is out of the norm. Leave the cowboy hats, Hawaiian shirts, jogging outfits and motorcycle jackets at home. I'm not saying that you have to wear a business suit with vest and power tie, but it's also no time to wear old jeans and T-shirts either. Right now, you want the members to think that you are serious and a person who respects the decorum of the board's chambers. The impression you make on the members could influence the votes they cast.

State Your Name, Address and Purpose
When your name is called, stand up tall and walk directly to the podium. Face the members. Don't slouch over the podium. Don't fidget. Keep your hands away from your face and out of your pockets. Make eye contact with the members. Speak up like you have something important to say. First, acknowledge the chairperson and the members. For instance, say, "Madam Chairwoman and honorable members of the council. Then state your name, your address and the purpose of your appearance before the members, like this:

My name is Joe Blow, and I reside at 3434 Smith Lane, in the city of Wherever. The purpose of my presentation today is to support the council's proposed action to ban gas-powered leaf blowers within the city limits.

That's it. All of that will take you less than 30 seconds to say. It's neat, it's short and it's to the point. For added effect, I recommend memorizing your opening remarks. It isn't difficult. A memorized opening makes you look like a polished professional. It will also impress the board members.

Don't Tell Jokes or be Flippant
Elected or appointed officials conduct serious government business. A city council meeting is not the time or place to be funny. If you try to be, you can look weak, nervous and unprofessional. That's not to say that if a board member says something funny that you shouldn't laugh; but a word of caution, don't laugh until the board member laughs, and then, just smile politely and continue with your presentation. As I've mentioned above, the members are serious and they assume that you are in front of them because the matter at hand is of some importance either to you or to your employer. You definitely don't want to go back to work and tell your boss that you told this great joke, the members laughed, but they voted against your proposal.

Check with the Clerk of the Board
Most government bodies will allow you to use visual aids, but definitely don't show up to the meeting with a briefcase full of handouts and expect to walk up the dais and divvy them out. That won't happen. Even if the council members accept them, with a forced smile on their faces, they'll simply not have time to read them and digest their content while at the same time listening to your remarks. It's not possible. If you have a handout that you feel will significantly add to the members' understanding of your presentation, call the clerk of the board, or the city clerk, a few days before the meeting. This person will tell you how to handle such documents appropriately. Often, the clerk will insert the handouts into each member's meeting packet. Tom Sykes, 4th term city council member and three-time mayor of the city of Walnut, California, advises potential speakers by saying, "Always try to check with the city clerk before the meeting. If you can't do that, however, then wait until the end of your presentation to distribute your handouts to the members."

 

"You may be given only three minutes to speak,
so make sure that you have a short version of your talk."

 

This also goes for other visual aids such as overhead slides and PowerPoint presentations. Most government meetings now a days have accommodations for electronic media. With PowerPoint presentations, the board may prefer a particular background color and a certain font size for the slides. Check with the clerk to be sure.

Don't Get Caught Unprepared
You've created a great presentation, but the members won't hear it because they are out of time. What then? This is quite common, so always be prepared for a minimum presentation. Most government bodies have laws that allow the members to limit individual speaking times when they deem it necessary, which is often the case with controversial agenda items. It's not unusual for several people to speak on such a topic. Without a time limit, the members would never be able to hear all of the speakers. You may be given only three minutes to speak, so make sure that you have a short version of your talk. This is exactly why your introductory remarks should state your name, your address and you purpose right up front. That way your essential information has been imparted to the members. If they're keeping score, then you've been counted.

Make Your Audience a Winner
Remember, the elected members are your audience; don't direct your comments to the spectators seated in the auditorium behind you. It's absolutely amazing how many speakers walk up to the podium and speak as if they're talking to the audience at their backs instead of the members behind the dais. Most agencies have Web sites that give a brief biography of their individual elected members. Read about them. Know their names and who elected or appointed them. If time permits, sit in on a few meetings.

Keep in mind that it's really how the elected members choose to vote that's important. If you know the members, then maybe you can structure your appeal in such a way that it not only fulfills what you hope to achieve but serves their needs as well. Successful speakers try to build a "win-win scenario" for good reason.

Know Your Subject
The members assume that you know your subject. After all, you requested the opportunity to speak. Sometimes, though, the members will ask probing questions. This is usually a good sign. They are listening to you. Your best tactic for answering questions is to know your subject inside and out. Anticipate possible questions and make sure that you have the answers. If two or more questions are asked at the same time, answer them in order.

If you don't immediately know the answer to a question, don't offer any excuses. It will make you look bad in front of the members. Just tell them that you will respond in writing then make sure that you do just that. Walnut city council member Tom Sykes advises, "If you say you'll respond in writing, then take the time to thoroughly research your comments for accuracy and verify your sources before you respond back to the council." If you are asked an antagonizing question by an irate board member, always maintain you composure. Never ramble; It looks like you are being evasive. Again, you will lose credibility.

Practice Until You Get It Right
If you've been a Toastmaster for any length of time then you are familiar with a simple, but powerful principle: practice, practice and more practice! This one concept can the make difference between a great presentation and a mediocre presentation. A poor presentation will reduce your effectiveness. If your speech is written out, then read it aloud several times until the words flow effortlessly. As you hear yourself speak, you'll detect the need for small changes that will make your speech sound more professional. It's even better if you can practice in front of someone. Ask for their feedback and act on it. Pretty soon, you'll sound like you've been doing this all of your life.

Remember, you have one chance to shine, so make it good!

In Summary
There you have it a short course on how to get your government agency to vote Yes! You already knew about presenting a solid opening, middle and closing in every speech. Now, you're also acquiring a tactical plan to help your remarks win votes from elected officials, such as city council members. Your objective is to get the members' approval. For that, you'll use your eight strategies:

    1. Dress up and make a good impression.
    2. State your name, address and purpose.
    3. Don't tell jokes or be flippant.
    4. Check with the clerk of the board.
    5. Don't get caught unprepared.
    6. Make your audience a winner.
    7. Know your subject.
    8. Practice until you get it right.

The theory behind all of this advice is that it is better to go into a public meeting with a plan rather than a hope and a prayer. Having said that, however, be warned that even with a plan, things can wrong.

Several years ago, I stood up before a rather large and powerful state board to discuss how I was going to manage one of their programs. Twelve board members were seated behind the dais and about three hundred people were in the audience behind me. Talk about intimidating! But I was well-dressed. I had practiced my presentation about a dozen times, and I had anticipated all possible questions. I was ready to go. About two minutes into my presentation, suddenly, one of the board members, an irascible, elderly lady who was known for putting speakers on the spot, asked me why I thought I was qualified to do this job.

What? I had just assumed that the board members knew my qualifications. The room became deadly silent. All eyes were on me. My mind went blank. I felt dizzy. I bought myself a few extra seconds to think by asking her to repeat the question. There's that Toastmasters training again. Then, finally, I managed to compose a feeble answer and wiggle my way out of trouble. She let me off the hook, but that experience taught me a valuable lesson anything can happen!

Ultimately, the members may not approve every proposal or recommendation you bring to them, but they'll certainly take what you have to say very seriously. Can anyone ask for more than that?

Gary King is a Toastmaster in California.

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