There are several strategies to town hall meetings — both for representatives who masterfully use these events to create good PR and for constituents who use town halls to express their beliefs and to try to get answers from their representatives. However, these two goals often conflict and can leave constituents who hold any different opinions from their representatives feeling unheard and angry.
Emotions about political issues are warranted and natural. But they can interfere and backfire when it comes to conversations with our legislators (and with their staffers, by the way). An attacked representative is more likely to put up defenses and pivot away from disagreements than cave to angry constituents.
Remember, a representative’s goal at a town hall meeting is to look good to the voters who elected him, and he will use several tactics to deflect, ignore and even demean protestors in the process, resulting in little progress for dissenting opinions and a show of strength for the representative.
So what are the most effective ways to participate in town halls? Action Utah’s strategy is based on our belief that civil discourse is the most productive path to getting answers and being heard by our representatives. Here is a list of tips we’ve gathered from our experts to help you get the most out of town hall meetings:
1) ARRIVE EARLY. Representatives like to pack town halls with their own supporters, who also arrive early and save seats for other supporters. An early arrival gives you a better chance at getting a seat where the representative can see you — or getting a seat at all! Early, by the way, can mean two hours in advance, depending on the representative, expected size and location.
2) DON’T BRING SIGNS, MATCHING T-SHIRTS, HATS, OR ANYTHING THAT IDENTIFIES YOU AS PART OF A GROUP. In fact, don’t even sit together as a group. Spread out, sit far apart and look like you’re alone. You are much more likely to be called on for a question if you don’t appear to be part of a coordinated opposition group. SEATING TIP: location is key — sit as close as you can to the front and sit near the microphones so you can get in line to ask questions (or sit close to the aisles so staffers can bring microphones to you).
3) ACT CALM AND INTERESTED. Do not join in the protests, chants or any other antics. Look engaged with what the representative is saying, and even enthusiastic. It’s not likely your representative will call on anyone in the audience who appears antagonistic, and antics will likely cause him to dig his heels in deeper rather than backpedal. If you want to ask a question, then be sure to raise your hand right away when it is time for questions, raise it high and keep it up.
4) ASK TOUGH, BUT NOT ANTAGONISTIC QUESTIONS. Try to ask good, researched and tough questions, but without using strong or antagonistic language. Use civility and respect when asking questions. You can start by briefly thanking the legislator for something good they have done. Do not embarrass the legislator. NOTE: some town halls have audience members write their questions on cards rather than voicing them in person.
5) ASK QUESTIONS THAT REQUIRE A SPECIFIC ANSWER rather than an open-ended questions where the representative can pivot. Yes or no questions are particularly effective. Be prepared with any information and statistics to back up your position, including specific dates. Make sure your question stems from a reliable news source or government site.
6) POLITELY REQUEST AN ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION. Try not let allow your representative to move on until your question has been fully answered. If this doesn’t happen, politely say, “I would like a firm answer to my question from the Representative.”
7) ASK QUESTIONS, DON’T GIVE STATEMENTS. This is not the time to make a speech about your beliefs. This is the time to get answers. That said, framing your question within the context of factual data and/or your personal experience or story around the issue is particularly effective. Be concise, but try to use powerful words and imagery to convey your question.
8) RECORD THE MEETING. Designate one person in your group to be the recorder, and try to record subtly. Sound bites are great to share over social media to let other constituents know how their legislator feels about specific issues. They are also great to use for asking questions during the meeting.
9) DON’T EXPECT TO CHANGE YOUR REPRESENTATIVE’S MIND. Remember that politicians are good at town halls, and you won’t likely get satisfactory answers from them or change their mind. Town halls are publicity tools that are often highly controlled (particularly tele-townhalls) in order to make the representative look good. Try to get something else out of the event, such as:
10) WIN POINTS WITH MEDIA AND/OR STAFFERS. Audience members who calmly, articulately and respectfully state questions and comments are more likely to get interviewed by press afterwards for a statement on your perception of the representative and the town hall meeting (a real bonus) and to connect with staffers in order to facilitate future conversations that can influence policy decisions (an even bigger bonus).
11) FOLLOW UP AFTER THE MEETING IS OVER. Get a handshake with your legislator at the end, and maybe even a photo op. This can be a great opportunity to ask a question to your legislator one-on-one. PRO TIP: Hold their hand until they answer your question. If you are passionate about a specific issue, actively seek out the media. If there are issues that did not get attention during the meeting, this is your chance to bring them up and elaborate on why they are important. Giving brief interviews with press is a great way to build relationships with them for the future. You can also try to meet a staffer. Bring a fact sheet or supporting information to give staffers, and make a plan to follow up with the staffer a few days after the meeting.
12) REPORT BACK TO ACTION UTAH. We want to know how it went! Write to us and tell us your perception of the event, what you learned about your legislator that would be helpful for the future, or information that would be helpful to share with our members when they follow up with the legislator.