Sometimes it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. Sometimes no matter how you say it, it won’t work. How to address the council.
Not only are public meetings live, but they are also often videotaped or preserved on Zoom. Like anything else, how you look, how you dress, how you speak and present yourself, does influence whether or not you are listened to, respected, and considered credible. While I don’t support “acting” a role or presenting information that isn’t accurate, it holds true that respect for others and respect for the offices and importance of the government we create, is best demonstrated by dressing and addressing one another respectfully, from both the lectern and the dais, and between the lectern and dais. It can determine the success or failure of your message.
Here are some tips that will help you more successfully garner the ear of others when speaking in a government setting.
From the dais,
- A hack – provided you never have to rise from the dais, what you wear on your bottom half matters much less than what you wear on the top half.
- NEVER roll your eyes, look bored, or say anything you wouldn’t say publicly – microphones sometimes stay live, and videotaped or zoom meetings are posted indefinitely and can be downloaded and retained for a very long time. You may eventually regret it.
- Speak courteously and respectfully to fellow councilmembers, staff, and speakers. Thank them for participating.
- Don’t use government jargon or acronyms. Speak in plain language that everyone can understand. Say the words associated with the letters of acronyms so the public can understand and follow the information presented.
- Know the difference: the dais (pronounced ‘day-us’ or ‘die-us’) is the raised platform upon which the board or council sits. It is also called a podium, Latin for the word foot. The lectern is the high desk from which members of the public address the council. It is not a podium. This is something you learn in Toastmasters.
From the lectern,
- If possible, attend a few meetings before you speak at the lectern so you can get the lay of the land, or watch recorded or live meetings. You will get much more of the atmosphere by attending in person because the cameras only catch so much of what is really going on. Only in a scripted movie with a skilled cinematographer can film capture the complete mood and players in the same way you can when you attend a live meeting.
- Check the agenda to find out when the subject you wish to cover will be heard and get up quickly to speak, or the chair will move on, and you will miss your opportunity. If your comments are about something not on the agenda, look for the time in the meeting when the public can address general comments to the agency.
- If there are several others in the audience who share your view, rather than each coming up for 2 or 3 minutes, ask them to stand or wave unless they have added information to add. The council will appreciate your consideration of everyone’s time constraints. Remember, like the citizens attending the meeting, in local government many of the representatives are volunteers who also have lives to keep up with outside of the meetings. The longer meetings drag on, the less efficient the business decisions become, because like you, the board can’t function at their best for extended time periods.
- No matter how passionate, upset, or annoyed you are, unless you just want to blow off steam, make your comments respectful.
- Be sure that your comments are about something within the purview of the agency or relevant to the agenda item. Don’t waste your time, their time, everyone else’s time, and video footage with comments over which the agency has no jurisdiction. A good chairperson will cut you off if you are headed that direction.
- Come prepared to speak within the time limit and be sure that you do. It will most likely be 2-3 minutes. Practice and hone your words carefully. It is fine to speak for less if your comment doesn’t need the full time. In these circumstances a short pithy comment can be more effective and more memorable.
- Start off by addressing the council as, “Mayor, and Council” or “Honorable Mayor and Council” or “Chair and Board” and thank them for their service.
- You do not have to be mealy-mouthed. The first amendment allows you to speak your piece in whatever fashion you choose so long as it does not endanger others.
- Humor is appreciated.
- A story from the heart does pull at heart strings, so long as it’s not a “poor, poor, pitiful me” story.
- Always review how you did and how you can do better next time. Ask others for helpful feedback. If criticism would dissuade you from trying again, ask specific questions that won’t leave you dispirited, i.e., “should I have worn a different color?” “Did I speak too quickly?”
TIP: It is OK to record meetings with your cellphone or camera, even with a tripod, so long as you don’t interfere with the running of the meeting, block others’ view, or block access, or get so close to the dais that threatening to those sitting there.
TIP: It is OK to provide paperwork to the board – just be aware that they will have had no time to review it. Photos work best, or short fact sheets. You can also make copies of what you hand the board for the rest of the public to pick up and review and leave those copies wherever the agency has placed copies of the agenda. You can even hold them up as you speak so they are caught on camera. Do not approach the dais without permission. If you have something you wish to give to them, ask first and give it to whomever they designate; usually the clerk or an administrator or the mayor, or the board member at one end of the dais. If you have papers to distribute have someone standing by to take them up to the dais so you can stay focused on speaking and make best use of your time.
REMEMBER: Your message is now public and can be freely distributed and broadcast.
TIP: You do not have to sign in, or give your address, or name. While officials may ask you to for ease of recording your message or getting back to you, they cannot legally require you to do so. However, if there is a speaker request slip, it does help facilitate the meeting if you complete it and if you have no good reason not to do so, provide the requested information. It will facilitate getting your message on the record.
TIP: You can ask that your message be included in the public record with the agenda or minutes. You can also submit your message in person, by mail, or via email before the meeting so long as it is in time for it to be packaged with the agenda. Always ask that it be included with the public record.
Don’t expect a response from the dais. Public comment is not a question-and-answer session, or the time for the council to problem-solve on any matter not on the agenda. It is a time for you to say your piece. The council cannot engage with you from the dais other than to note your comments or sometimes to make a brief correction or assign someone to investigate your concern. Why? Because it is illegal to discuss a matter that hasn’t been agendized and publicly noticed.
NEVER threaten legal action unless you intend to implement it. As soon as you mention legal action your issue moves from the public realm to closed session and the council can no longer engage with you on the matter.