I think it’s safe to say that, by now, we all know what a town hall meeting is. Media headlines have ensured even the most casual voter likely knows about concerned citizens gathering in large numbers to voice their complaints to elected officials recently. While the large, vocal crowds certainly get the media’s attention, it’s important to remember Town Hall meetings can actually be a productive way to communicate with your representatives.

This Spina Bifida Association has put together a really nice article on “Top 10 tips for attending a town hall meeting with an elected official“. While some of the content is certainly specific to their cause, there are many that apply across the board. Here are a few of our favorites:

  1. Do your homework on the elected official. Make sure you know a little about the policymaker before you attend the meeting. You should review his/her vote record, read his/her bio, and spend a little time on his/her website so you are familiar with his/her positions, priorities, and orientation to issues regarding issues that are important to you.
  2. Prepare your question/comment in advance and bring materials to give to the elected official and his/her staff. Sometimes, public speaking can be intimidating so writing down the specific question you wish to ask or jotting down a few notes to help you with your remarks is advisable. Since you may only have a minute or two, it is best to focus your comments on one particular item and to “cut to the chase.” Having materials with you that you can give to the policymaker and staff will provide you with peace of mind that everything will be covered, especially in case you do not have the time to make (or you forget) some of your key points.
  3. When you speak, be clear, concise, polite and professional. Be sure to express appreciation, identify yourself, mention your affiliation with any organizations you may be representing at the meeting. It is best to weave together your “introduction” with your question/comment. Here’s an example given by the SBA:
    “Good afternoon. Thank you for holding this important forum. I appreciate the opportunity to speak. My name is Susie Smith, and I live in Oak Brook. I have a daughter with Spina Bifida, which is the nation’s most common, permanently disabling birth defect. I am here today as a concerned mother and a representative of the Spina Bifida Association of Illinois. I know the nation is in an economic crisis, but I am increasingly concerned that federal funding to help people with disabilities is shrinking at the same time the population of people in need is growing. What are you doing to address this challenge?”
  4. Be sure to ask for a response to your question, but do not badger the elected official to answer. Sometimes elected officials feel put on the spot or are not able to give you a specific answer at the time of the public meeting. In some cases they are being evasive, in other situations, it is legitimately because the elected official needs to do some research first or check in with staff. If s/he cannot give you a response, express thanks for the opportunity to ask the question/voice the concern and let him/her know you will follow up with the staff and that you look forward to receiving a response. You are most effective in your advocacy efforts if you are reasonable in your tone and request, even if the policymaker disagrees with you or evades your question.
  5. Be sure to follow-up. Politics and public policy are not different from anything else: “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Within a week of attending a town hall or other public meeting, send a follow-up letter via email or fax to the elected official and/or the staff person. Upfront, be sure to identify yourself as you did in your oral comments and remind them that you were at the town hall meeting. Be sure to include the meeting date and location, since they often hold multiple such forums in a single day or week. This correspondence allows you to restate your question/concern and formally request a response. Also, if there was anything that the policymaker or staff requested of you at the meeting (e.g., particular statistics for the state, a copy of a report) be sure to provide that in your follow-up correspondence.