Three Options: Write a letter, contact your representative, testify before the Legislature
Jason Probst, former opinion editor at The Hutchinson News, reads lots of letters to the editor. As many as 20 to 25 a week, which adds up to more than 1,000 a year. But he says a really good letter – one that’s effective at informing and persuading – tends to stand out in the crowd.
Even in a world where anyone can express opinions on social media, the art of writing a powerful letter still matters. A Facebook post can garner lots of instant reactions, but the platform’s content distribution is controlled by an algorithm that determines what’s most relevant to you and others based on habits and relationships. As a result, it’s a rare feat for your opinions to reach very far outside of your circle of friends, family and acquaintances. A Twitter post can conceivably reach millions. But it’s more likely to get lost in a sea of messages and reach dozens instead.
The letter-to-the-editor format, as old as the American newspaper itself, allows you to craft your writing to reach a useful audience – thousands of reasonably engaged and well-informed readers in your area. There is still something powerful about having your views appear in print with your name underneath them (newspapers usually only print letters signed by a verified individual or group of individuals). But if you want your letter to be noticed by others, Probst suggests a few guidelines before clicking send on your email.
1. Be Pithy.
Many newspapers put a word limit on submissions (it’s 500 words at Probst’s paper), but you don’t need to use all 500. Probst suggests being as direct as possible and doing the job in 200 to 300 words if you can.
2. Check your Facts.
Make sure you’re confirming the information your opinions are based upon, citing sources where necessary. And be careful about making personal attacks – they’re rarely persuasive and newspapers won’t print content that is untrue or malicious.
3. Know your Audience.
Don’t just share your opinion, but think about the people you hope to inform or persuade. That requires thinking a bit about what they care about and what might persuade them to agree with you.
4. Treat it like an Ongoing Conversation.
The best letters build upon topical issues or other recent letters. Don’t just repeat what’s been said, but try to add new insights as if you are part of a larger conversation. And be willing to acknowledge the existence and validity of other points of view.
5. Speak from Personal Experience.
Dig a little deeper and explain the reasons why you think the way you do about a particular issue, referencing how your own experiences have helped shape your views. Readers are more likely to take you seriously if they’re able to understand the foundations of your beliefs.
6. Empower the Reader.
Probst’s favorite letters lay out a direct point or opinion and then invite other people to take action. You want readers to be inspired to take action after finishing with your letter and not just sit there nodding their heads.
HOW TO: Have a Conversation with a Legislator
We live in a republic, in which elected representatives make decisions on our behalf. In Kansas, each of us is represented by at least two people at the Kansas Statehouse (one in the 125-person House of Representatives and another in the 40-member Senate). If you want to influence the decisions being made in state government, you have go through them.
Although there’s a lot of talk in the media about protests these days, that shouldn’t be your first instinct, especially when dealing with those representatives closest to you. In fact, you’ll almost certainly be better served by being well-mannered and respectful when presenting your views. Think about how you can build a relationship with your lawmakers.
Timing is also crucial, says Kimberly Gencur Svaty, founder and principal of Gencur Svaty Public Affairs, which represents clients professionally in the Statehouse. “Engagement with policymakers when lawmakers are either out of session or during a scheduled in-district meeting – when it is not mission critical – can be the most effective, as it provides an opportunity for
hands-on learning and experience,” she says.
While productive meetings can occur when lawmakers are in session, there’s way too much going on for lawmakers to devote much time to any one constituent. Gencur Svaty’s advice: “Spend the time up front to make sure that your policymaker understands your issue/organization,which minimizes scrambling during the session.”
Gencur Svaty suggests planning for any meeting with a policymaker by outlining the key points you wish to discuss, along with real-life examples. Be knowledgeable about your facts and figures, be ready to show them and provide a concise handout for them to use. If you have an immediate issue, such as a pending vote, it’s best to pick up the phone and call. (Legislators list office and home phone numbers at www.kslegislature.org/. Senate info can be found here; House info here). Keep calling until you reach someone. You can often leave a message with office staff.
If you can’t talk to legislators when they’re in the district, in-person communication at their Statehouse office can work, too – but keep your expectations reasonable, because they’ll likely be pressed for time.
Gencur Svaty thinks it’s always imperative to thank a legislator – or anyone with whom you are speaking – for their time and consideration, regardless of whether they will vote your way or not. If you want to leave a stronger impression, be sure to follow up after the issue is resolved.
“Legislators receive scores of email, phone and written communications on issues generally prior to a vote,” Gencur Svaty notes. “It is the constituents who continue to politely and respectfully engage on the subject after the vote has occurred that will leave a lasting impression on the lawmakers.”
A good conversation, she says, might flow like this:
1. Politely introduce yourself. Thank the lawmaker for taking time to meet you. Make sure he or she knows you are a constituent. If you are not a constituent, then explain how the issue directly impacts the lawmaker’s district.
2. Confirm the amount of time available for a conversation.
3. Explain what you want to talk about, citing a specific bill number, if necessary.
4. Ascertain if your lawmaker is familiar with the issue. If so, you can provide more nuanced details. If not, provide a concise overview and explain why the matter is important to you. If speaking to legislators who share your views, reiterate the importance of the issue (you want them to be stronger advocates). If not, ask how they came to that opinion. You can reiterate the significance of the issue to their district and ask them to seek out views of others they trust.
5. Give all sides of the story. State and local policymakers don’t have much in the way of support staff. They depend on you being honest and straightforward. But they are likely to verify what you tell them.
6. Answer all questions honestly and respectfully.
7. Thank them for their time and willingness to meet.
HOW TO: Testify Before the Legislature
Testifying before a legislative committee about a policy that personally affects you can be a powerful intervention to advance something you care about. And you don’t have to be a registered lobbyist or insider to get on the list to share your views.
Anyone and everyone should be allowed to testify before a state legislative committee, according to Raney Gilliland, director of the Kansas Legislative Research Department, although as a conferee you should expect to face time limits.
To find out what bills are coming up for committee hearings, you will need to check the schedule for the upcoming week, the agendas for which are typically published on Thursday for the following week, Gilliland says. However, you will likely need to contact the assistant of a particular committee to learn about timing. (You can reach this person by calling the office of the legislator who is the committee chairwoman or chairman.)
You may also search for committee hearings online at http://kslegislature.org/li/b2017_18/committees/hearings/. However, it may be just as useful for you to keep track of issues that interest you through an established group with a Statehouse presence, such as the Kansas National Education Association or the Kansas Chapter of Americans for Prosperity, who can keep you apprised of when there will be opportunities to testify.
Being in touch with the committee assistants is important, because they’ll be able to tell you how to get on the list to testify. Normally, Gilliland says, you’ll be asked if you wish to testify as a proponent, opponent or as neutral. Most will accept testimony as a PDF so that it can be attached to minutes or copied if necessary. (All testimony, once minutes are approved, is available in an electronic format.)
When testifying, there are rules of decorum that must be observed. Those can vary from committee to committee. But in general, address your comments to the chairwoman, expect to face restrictions about how long you can testify and be prepared to summarize rather than read your testimony. And definitely arrive early and turn off the ringer on your cell phone. Be sure to ask the committee assistant about any specific rules that might apply.
The Community Tool Box, a service of the Work Group for
Community Health and Development at the University of Kansas,
has a lot of useful tips for submitting good testimony, such as:
Begin by stating your name and making a statement about yourself
and why you are interested in the policy up for discussion.
Describe how the situation affects your everyday life.
Display a good public speaking presence (eye contact, pauses,
speak audibly and at an appropriate speed).
Read more tips at http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/advocacy/direct-action/personal-testimony/main
This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.