I have recently had the joy of attending a number of forums, meetings, discussions, and roundtables regarding policy in Georgia. I recognize a lot of folks may not enjoy these, but I definitely do. I like to build consensus, I like having multiple voices heard, new ideas vetted, and innovative solutions considered. I attend these sort of events to learn, sometimes to share, and most importantly to connect in an area of interest I have, both for the benefit of my clients and (my aspiration) for the benefit of my state.
Unfortunately, I also attend meetings that could have been handled in an email, attend forums that are a waste of time, and discussions that are more echo chambers than actual conversation. As a result, I thought it might be helpful for me to identify for others what makes a compelling, interesting, and well organized meeting or forum. Consider this your free #protip.
- Location, location, location. It’s not just important in the real estate business. If you are discussing policy, be near the policy makers. Find a spot where parking is either free and/or easily accessible, or expect few people to show. Georgia Voices has held several informative meetings in the Blue Room at the Freight Depot, across the street from the Capitol. It’s not just proximity to power; it’s an easy way to invite the decision makers. Which leads to my next point…
- Invite lawmakers. If your organization is attempting policy change in Augusta, by all means, invite the Mayor, commission members, and their staff. If you’re really good, you’d include their biggest donors and family members. She/he who has the ear of the lawmaker AND could potentially be supportive of your cause is the person to invite to all of your tables. And while I recognize email is far more efficient, make the extra effort to drop into their offices and leave a printed invitation for their staff or scheduler. In the land of mass communications, the personal touch counts!
- Invite staff. The staff are the gatekeepers of policy as it is made. While many do not value the administrative assistants of the world, I value them more than the legislator. I have gone through a number of legislators. That staff member who reports to them may have been in that office for twenty years and never changed. In the Georgia state Capitol there is an Aide I met who is far senior to me in both age and wisdom. She is professionally retired from full-time work but has served the Senate State and Local Government Committee for almost twenty years. I had the pleasure of hearing her committee Chairman call upon her for both her opinion and procedural knowledge many times. She is humble, but also the only person I have ever met in the Capitol whose phone number travelled with her, no matter in whose office she found herself serving. Institutional knowledge holds a lot of weight in the peach state.
- Know your audience. I find a number of nonprofits bring in speakers from other states like Massachusetts or cite statistics from New York and California. In Georgia, the majority of legislators are both conservative and of Southern origin. The phrase, “you’re not from around here” applies to these meetings, their speakers, and their stats as much as in personal relationships here. While I personally wish my state would pay more attention to best practices of all fifty, Georgia legislators from city councils to the Governor seem to predominantly care only about what Southern states: Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and the Carolinas are doing. You say I left out Florida? Yes…Because everyone knows Florida has more snowbirds than Southerners there anyway. Bless their heart.
- Please do not host a meeting in Atlanta beginning at 8:30 or 9AM. Set the time at 7:30AM or 10AM. 8AM-9AM is a peak traffic time and every single person you invite will either be late, disruptive, or generally in a bad mood by the time they arrive. Trust me.
- Provide caffeine and nibbles. I have never been in any political circle where caffeine was not prevalent. I have never been to a gathering in the South were food was not offered. You don’t have to break the bank- some cold cokes and pimento cheese are better than nothing.
- Have mics that can be turned off remotely. Like the presidential debates, moderators of good meetings should either employ microphones that can be turned off remotely or are strong enough to interject themselves when questions turn into lengthy purpose statements. Be savvy and cut longwinded or irrelevant commenters off ASAP, before attrition whittles your crowd. Echo chambers do not an effective meeting make.
- Social Media=Earned Media. Don’t have a big budget for promotion? Social media is every nonprofit and schoolboard’s friend. Use it to disseminate information and do not be afraid to direct conversations off social media to phone conversations or face to face. Provide hashtags in every document you provide to your audience and in marketing materials prior to the event. Not only does this provide free promotion for your organization, but it also makes it easy to gather photos, statements, and highlights later for recaps as well.
- Provide break-out sessions. Want people to return? Allow them to chart their own course and interact more personally with other attendees. In a world of apps and keyboards, the face to face connection matters. Even if you do not have time for a full break-out, at least give people breaks so that they may talk among themselves and network.
- Invite people who disagree with you. While this may be counterintuitive, invite people who offer a differing point of view to highlight what not only separates your group from another, but also what common ground you both may have. I find panelists who differ with one another civilly to be the most engaging and thought provoking. Good policy does not know a specific demographic, party, or location. Good policy is developed through thoughtful consideration and realistic compromise.
These were my top ten. I would love to hear what readers have found to be helpful at their meetings as well. While my suggestions focus more on state level meetings, they could equally be applied to local government meetings just as well. I do not find these general rules are applied often enough. As a result, a number of organizations with well-founded policy ideas never get heard, taken seriously, or make an impact due to simple tweaks that could be made. Hopefully this will make some of those future meetings/conferences/forums/ discussions/roundtables more enjoyable.