WACD’s Director of Member and Legislative Services, Ryan Baye, offers some helpful insights on communicating in person with legislators.
Meeting legislators can be terrifying. After nine years of regular interactions with state and federal representatives (three years working for the state legislature and now six with WACD), my stomach still fills with butterflies. I know lobbyists who sit down with a dozen legislators every day and still get nervous. So if the idea of meeting with legislators makes your stomach drop, please know you’re not alone.
From the other side of the table, legislators expect you to be nervous and will try to be graceful. I met with many constituents on behalf of my senator, and I tried to make folks feel at ease however I could. We know you’re passionate enough to drive to Olympia and schedule an appointment, and we want to hear what you have to say.
When the nerves hit, I find it helps to be able to demystify what you’re likely to run across so you can anticipate and plan ahead. To that end, here are three potential stumbling blocks to watch out for when preparing to sit down with legislators:
- Assume legislators know nothing about your topic until they demonstrate otherwise. The legislators I worked with usually scheduled fifteen to twenty appointments a day, five days a week, during legislative session. Between those meetings, committees, and voting, brains fill with information very quickly, and blind spots develop in their memory banks. If a representative can forget his wife’s name (I swear this really happened), be prepared for an otherwise learned expert who’s been out on several site visits to need a one- or two-minute explanation about your topic.
- Don’t strictly adhere to your talking points. Plan what you will say but let the conversation flow naturally. If a legislator wants to ask questions or seems to be interested in a particular topic, be willing to set aside the piece of paper in your hand and engage. I’ve seen groups come in, sit down, and proceed to talk “at me” for the entire meeting. Five minutes after they left, I couldn’t remember a single thing they said. You can always leave behind reading material or follow up with an email, but capturing their attention means they’re more likely to be amenable to your message. So come prepared with those bullet points but don’t get locked in.
- Be direct and specific with your ask. Make sure your audience knows exactly what your call to action is. Your time with a legislator, or a legislative assistant, will be short and may end unexpectedly. Ensure that your request is worked into your conversation very quickly and pointedly. If you must use a big neon arrow or shine a proverbial spotlight, do it. The goal of the meeting is to persuasively share your perspective, if your legislator doesn’t know that by the end of the meeting then you’ve failed.
Hopefully, this information helps you feel a little more prepared for meeting your legislators for the first time. As always, WACD is available to assist and support our member districts.