How to talk to the board of regents (or city council, or...)
November 7, 2007 2:03 PM   Subscribe

The regents of my university want to redevelop the land holding the student apartments where I live. There's a public meeting on the subject this Friday and I've signed up to speak. I'm fine with speaking in public, but I'm clueless about participating in local politics — never gone to a school board meeting or called my congressperson or anything. What can I do to make my comments as effective as possible?
posted by nebulawindphone to Law & Government (17 answers total)
A lot is going to depend on the context of your speech. Are you for it? Against it? Are you trying to convince people to support it or oppose it or fund it and if so, why should they do that (have some good reasons). How does it impact locally? How will it improve student life? What are the selling points of the project from your point of view as a student? Be concise, know any facts and sources you cite to be accurate and be relatively brief. They will probably have other speakers lined up to represent other interests so you should probably focus on your role as the voice of "student" or "resident" and go from there. Good luck!
posted by 45moore45 at 2:20 PM on November 7, 2007

Find out if there's a time limit for speakers. Sometimes there is and sometimes there isn't. But if there is, know it and prepare your comments to adhere to it. i hate going to public meetings where the speaker just sort of drifts off at the end or starts talking really quickly at the end because their worried about the time. Practice what you want to say by saying it out loud several times. That will help a lot. If it's a controversial topic (sounds like it might be) they'll be listening (or not listening in my experience) to LOTS of people and they ones who speak clearly and present an on-topic, targeted presentation are a welcome relief. You might be required to get there early and feel out a speaker card to get you a place in line. So go early if that's the case and be prepared to sit around and wait for your turn.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:22 PM on November 7, 2007

Best answer: Find out how long you'll be allowed to talk for. It'll be short and will go by quicker than you think, so prepare for that.

Wear a suit.

Appeal to what they think is important. Frankly, I doubt they care where you live, and if they can make a lot of money for the university, they'll probably see that as far more important for the university than some postgrads trying to find new apartments. Instead you might focus on how the availability of graduate student housing made a difference in where you chose to attend. Compare with peer institutions that the university aspires to the status of (like Berkeley).

Ignore the cynical interpretation that they are doing this to help their cronies: if it's true, any argument here is hopeless anyway.

Remember that some of these regents will be sworn in tomorrow, so they'll be pretty new to this too.
posted by grouse at 2:23 PM on November 7, 2007

Umm, FILL out, not feel out a speaker card. Don't feel out the person coordinating the speakers!
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:24 PM on November 7, 2007

First off, be prepared... know exactly the message you'd like to convey and then practice conveying it.

While a few days isn't enough time to really read the book "Made to Stick," you can still work in the principles into your speech.

Determine the message you're wishing to convey and then convey it to people by making it simple, include an unexpected element (an example is "it takes 3 gallons of gas to transport one case of bottled water*"), be credible (be prepared to back up any stats you find), find an emotional hook, and tell a story.

It might take some finagling to find a story to tell, but if you can pull it off, it'll be more effective.

Finally, focus on being concise, the more you ramble the less people will pay attention.
posted by drezdn at 2:28 PM on November 7, 2007

Response by poster: Lots of good stuff so far. To answer two implied questions — I'm against it, and I'll have three minutes to speak.
posted by nebulawindphone at 2:34 PM on November 7, 2007

If what you have to say is up to the three minute mark and they gavel you quite, a buzzer goes off, etc. Do not stop in mid-sentence! Either finish your sentence quickly - or stop and simply say, "please, do the right thing." To stop in mid-sentence hands them complete control and it registers with them. As a citizen, they are accountable to YOU, remember that. They will respect you more if you can stand up and finish (within seconds) what you have to say rather than meekly shut down like a robot on cue. It's a psychological thing.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 2:50 PM on November 7, 2007

Best answer: Seconding grouse. Politics is a many-sided demon and people who get up and passionately espouse a one-sided position that fits their own world view but not that of the council are not very effective.

In your particular case you have to balance the concerns of the students against the financial wellbeing of the university as a whole. If your school is at all like mine, it's facing massive budget shortfalls and is desperate for cash - the very survival of the institution may even be at stake. Calling it a cash grab, as students at my school have been known to, is insulting, when to the people that run the university it's more like a life raft. Not that I imagine you're planning on doing making such a characterization; just keep in mind that people that do so can be easily dismissed as not understanding the situation. Take care to consider the other factors that these regents have to battle when they're making their decisions.

To increase your effectiveness, be as professional as possible. Present evidence to back up your opinions - research other schools to see what kind of positive and negative impacts might arise from this decision and explain why you believe the negatives outweigh the positive. Try and nail it down to three key arguments that you can summarize quickly at the end of your speech. Stay on point and be concise. Good luck!
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:13 PM on November 7, 2007

I disagree with "wear a suit" -- you are opposed to the redevelopment, and are representing student interests, so you should look like a student, not like one of the regents on the dais. Go for "neat and studious": button-down oxford shirt, chinos, sportscoat or blazer if you think it necessary.

Start by thanking the board/council/regents for their time, and for considering the views of the students and residents as they make the decision. It warms them up and gives them a reason to feel positive toward you.

As your emotional hook, use the personal, real-human-being angle. The redevelopment is presumably to build something that will make the university more money, or be more attractive to prospective students and faculty, and those are both valuable goals too (more importantly, very easy to support and quantify) so don't be intellectually dishonest by slagging on them... but find a clear, memorable way to illustrate how you as a real person (speaking on behalf of your X hundred other real-person neighbors) will be affected.

Personify the David vs. Goliath angle. You and your neighbors are the little guy; the university is the mean, heartless, money-grubbing behemoth trying to put you on the streets. Don't say that with your words, of course, which will ring insincere and naive, but with your demeanor and your indirect message.

Look through your comments and make sure you are including a strong takeaway sentence. Try to make it a value proposition that doesn't come with a yes or no answer or an easy rebuttal. Ex: "Where we live is an important part of how we learn"... "Regents U. has a history as a school that supports the whole student, let's keep it that way..." ...that sort of thing (I'm sure you can do better, this is off the cuff and I don't know the background). Start and finish with it; try to underline the idea a couple of times as it's likely to be the one message that people remember.

If possible: Prepare and bring a one-page handout that bullets your talking points and includes your contact information. Distribute it to the regents before you begin speaking. Don't ask for permission up front on this, or you'll get told no -- I say have the copies ready in the folder you carry with you, and if you see an opportunity to distribute them, do so. It might mean that some of them will be looking at the paper while you're speaking instead of you, but this isn't "American Idol" -- you want them to get out the door with your remarks in hand, not forgotten due to the 15 other people that spoke after you.

I think what will make you the most effective in this setting is using your three minutes to demonstrate subconsciously to the regents what a nice, well-spoken, heart-warming sound-bite you could make on the 6 o'clock news. Be the face of the Ideal Student of Regents University, the one that no one wants to disappoint. You are representing the student residents who are about to possibly be displaced and disenfranchised, and you want to make them feel that your position is a credible threat, so that they don't dismiss you out of hand.

Already said but quoted for truth:
"It'll be short and will go by quicker than you think, so prepare for that."

"focus on being concise, the more you ramble the less people will pay attention."

Good luck! Come back later and tell us how it goes...
posted by pineapple at 3:22 PM on November 7, 2007

Best answer: The meta view is that while it is very important that you showed up to speak, it will probably not be because of the content of your comments. The decision to do this or not will probably end up being some political calculation about number of people in favor vs. opposed, likelihood of being sued, do they have to do this for some reason?, etc. And all this will play out over months or years, so staying involved is important. I'd find out who is coordinating grassroots participation (how did you find out about this meeting?) and get on their mailing list or even volunteer (you could call around to try to get high turnout at the next meeting).

That said, I've been to a lot of city council meetings, and some people's comments have made a big difference in helping create a chorus of objection that the City Council listened to. Those were generally when they clearly captured the zeitgeist of the community's feelings (one guy labelled some premature digging in a toxic area as "opening a can of worms," and everyone following him linked their vaguely phrased objections to that clear image.)

Other guidelines: Have a point and make it concisely. Appeal to values or beliefs the people there are likely to share. You want to seem reasonable and not too ideological ("this doesn't make financial sense" vs. "you money-grubbing corporations!"). Don't feel like you have to have it all figured out (one comment I remember was someone who just asked a series of rhetorical questions that showed her concerns; she had no evidence at all). If you can find out what the regents' issues are (what arguments are they sympathetic to? who is their constituency?), that might help.

If you're being kicked out, it would also be reasonable to speak from the heart about "where will we go?" and include some appeals to fairness like "no one gave us warning about this, we would have moved somewhere else if we'd known."

On preview, Percussive Paul's suggestions are great -- especially the idea of bringing in information about how other places have handled this. Most groups like this haven't had time to get lots and lots of information, and they don't want to be the odd one out.
posted by salvia at 3:24 PM on November 7, 2007

Speaking as one who has wielded the gavel at this kind of meeting, I can tell you that the only people who seem credible to the decision making body are those who understand the system and the rules that govern how they make the decisions. So the fact that you or other students are going to be inconvenienced is probably irrelevant in terms of the factors that they have to (or even are entitled to ) consider.
In three minutes you can get across relevant issues that they should consider or factors that have not been raised that they need to be aware of.
Also, it would help to buttonhole one or two after the meeting and seek a private mieeting with any oneof the board members that seems sympatheic to your position. They can help you to be more effective as the process plays out.

Bring in a bunch of other people with you so you look like you have an "organization",and are not just one voice say you represent "Clever acronym for your position" coalition.
Look neat and sensible, you don't have to wear a suit, but be at least business casual, don't go for dramatics, don't repeat what others have said. ask if you can submit written comment at a later date.

Figure out the process, you can't win any game if you don't know the rules. Good luck!
posted by mmf at 3:26 PM on November 7, 2007

have a call to action, and make sure you are asking people to do something they can actually do. i've been through too many of these sorts of meetings where public speakers have not understood what the group they were addressing could even do.
posted by jimw at 3:48 PM on November 7, 2007

As someone who has been on the dais for several hours of three-minute speeches from students, the few that wore suits stood out. The message it sent was that this was something they took seriously. I'm not saying it is a minimum requirement by any means.

The regents have six year terms and historically consider themselves accountable to no one. They will see themselves as stewards of the university rather than beholden to any constituency.
posted by grouse at 3:50 PM on November 7, 2007

Have they given thought to where the students currently accommodated in the residences will go? Do they know what the surrounding residential environment is like, in terms of public transport to/from campus, rental availability, rental rates, etc? How many people will be dislodged?

Talk to local real estate agents (presumably they'll profit from this in the long term, and their advice will be biased as all hell, but they can at least give you a sense of what it will do to the rental market). If there's something like a tenants' union or association in your city, talk to them.

Arm yourself with facts and figures. Due to the short time limit, you're going to need to cherry-pick a few facts, and allude to others. Being able to back up what you say will vastly increase both the legitimacy of your argument and your confidence in delivering it.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:15 PM on November 7, 2007

Response by poster: The more I read, the more I like grouse's idea of focusing on the effects this may have on recruiting. (Quality-of-life stuff was a big factor in persuading me to come here, so I feel like I can use that as my topic without winding up talking out of my ass.)

The tips on building a movement are nice, but I suspect they're overkill. I get the impression there will be a good number of students objecting to this already. Mind you, if I'm wrong, knowing how to drum up support would be helpful, but I don't think it'll be an issue.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:17 PM on November 7, 2007

Response by poster: Well, I didn't think it went so well, but then I got my name and a good-sized quotation in the campus paper this morning, so I guess I did something right. Thanks, everyone!

(FWIW, I wore slacks and a dress shirt and felt decidedly underdressed. There was a real visible difference between us grad students in our shirtsleeves and the Respectable Citizens in suits, and in hindsight I probably should have worn a suit after all.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:45 PM on November 12, 2007

Hey, good for you! Congratulations!
posted by salvia at 7:45 PM on November 12, 2007

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