January 23, 2018

5 Steps to Speaking at Public Hearings or Town Meeting

by Stefanie Coxe

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Town Meeting voters in Provincetown, MA

Sure, “decisions are made by those who show up”, but decision-makers are influenced by who speaks up. If you’re a voter in town, you have every right to have your say. But how do you make sure you’re persuasive?

Just about every proposal needs a public hearing, regardless of where you live in the United States. At that stage, public comment is encouraged before the committee reviewing it makes a recommendation to the “legislative authority”. Speaking at a public hearing is an excellent opportunity to advance or kill an issue in its infancy.

In your local community, the legislative authority may be a City Council. In small towns across New England, registered voters act as the legislative authority and vote on proposals previously vetted at a public hearing, such as the town’s budget, and local bylaw changes at something called “Town Meeting”. Not to be confused with town hall meetings held by a Member of Congress to hear from voters, Town Meeting is a direct democracy holdover from the Puritan days when you could pack the entire voting population of a town into one hall and arrive at decisions about how the town should be run. Voters have the opportunity persuade their neighbors by speaking during the debate.

That tradition of public speaking at Town Meeting shaped the political culture of New England and it can change the political culture of the rest of the country too. Public speaking can be intimidating, but it’s easier if you have a road-map. Here’s the Learn to Lobby guide to giving testimony at public hearings or Town Meeting:

1. Know Your Audience:

Make sure what you’re going to say has value and doesn’t anger or frustrate your audience. The value of your speech is to show you’re one of many who share this view and to get decision-makers, whether they are a town board or town meeting voters, to come over to your side.

To that end, if someone has already made your point, don’t repeat it word-for-word. People get fidgety when they hear the same thing over and over again, particularly fellow voters at Town Meeting. Earlier in the process, at those public hearings (where fewer people show up) you can simply say, “I agree with what has been said about xyz”.

Keep in mind that public testimony usually isn’t a two-way conversation. You may ask a question of decision-makers, but the structure of public comment usually doesn’t allow for a response.

Don’t be combative or overly emotional. Your credibility as a community member depends upon your ability to keep calm and reasoned.

Keep it brief. No one wants to hear a soliloquy. Therefore, you need an Elevator Speech. (If you were in an elevator with the decision-maker, how could you get across your message in the time it takes to get from the top floor to the lobby?)

2. Identify yourself:

Both the decision-makers and the stenographer will want to know your full name and at least your street name or precinct. In some cases, you may be asked to write down your address.

3. Say what you’re going to say:

Give them a one-line preview, such as “I support (your position) the proposed bylaw to change zoning requirements to make accessory dwellings easier to build (issue) because we need more housing (why it’s important).”

4. Say it:

  • “Frame” the issue showing how it will benefit a broad base of people. For example, more accessory dwelling units may benefit young people looking for housing, but seniors will also benefit by having an additional revenue stream and the local economy will benefit from having employees live locally.
  • Talk about what problem it will solve or what gain it will create.
  • Address any false information.

5. Be seated:

  • Reiterate your point
  • Thank them for listening
  • Have a seat

Find your nearest town hall meeting by sending townhall to Resistbot: 50409 on SMS, or available on Telegram and Messenger. 👊🤖

Stefanie Coxe is the founder & principal of Nexus Werx LLC, a political training company launching the Learn to Lobby line of online and in-person training products: Effective Activism 101, Lobbying 101, and Campaigning 101.

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