Okay, so this should really be filed under “how not to”.
In class this week, we’re tackling the challenge of effectively communicating our fantastic policy ideas to elected officials, potential coalition allies, opinion leaders, agency bureaucrats.
To a large extent, it’s easy to overstate the importance of the policy presentation, as a finite act. Really, influencing how people think and talk about a particular social problem is an organizing challenge; people are much more likely to change their approach to a given issue based on their relationships with others than even the most cogent presentation of facts. So, I guess, that’s kind of lesson #1–what you do in all of the time outside of the presentation is way more important than what you do with that time. For many of the people to whom you are to present, who you are and who you know are still much more persuasive than what you say.
But, still, I’ve certainly seen minds changed based on legislative testimony or even a really compelling written presentation of facts, and it’s also certainly true that there is a lot of ambivalence among the general public and even our more targeted audiences about the issues with which we grapple as a society, and you have an opportunity with every policy presentation to elevate your perspective and move someone off the fence and firmly into your camp.
But, since my students and I will spend time this week looking at examples of policy presentations and talking about what makes different types succeed, and since there is so much anxiety about any kind of policy presentation that involves ‘oral arguments’ (why is it that putting our writing forward isn’t as scary? In some ways, I think it should be more so, because it’s there, staring at us, in near-perpetuity!), I have dedicated this particular post to:
My Five Biggest, Most Disastrous, Missed Opportunity, Worst-All-Time Policy Presentations
I’ve tried to pull out some lessons from each of these debacles, and it is my hope that readers will not only gain some insights from my failures but also be emboldened and encouraged to hear about the spectacular ways in which I have, well, flamed out. AND, I’d especially love it (and be very grateful!) if anyone would be willing to share a lesson learned from a presentation gone bad of their own, too. It’s all for my students’ learning, here, people!
Here they are, yes, in reverse order of awfulness. I’ve saved the best/worst for last:
5. Stunted Expectations
One of my biggest failures may have looked like a success. I gave a public presentation in Garden City, Kansas on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. My presentation was well-attended and well-received, and almost everyone there signed the postcards to Congress calling for progressive immigration legislation. So, what was the problem? Well, several, actually. Most significantly, I totally failed to tailor the presentation to the audience; I had been on a circuit around the state for a week, giving essentially the same speech, and so I failed to account for Garden City’s unique history and political tradition regarding immigrant inclusion. I should have asked much more–organize events in the city, do delegations to their elected officials, perhaps become part of the New Sanctuary Movement. It was also a perfect (missed) opportunity to try out some of my harsher critiques of the status quo; instead, what was nearly revolutionary in some communities sounded tepid in Garden City.
My diagnosis? Laziness, timidity, and forgotten context watered down my message for this audience and, as a result, I missed the chance to turn supporters into activists, passive believers into active campaigners, and the committed into a powerful leadership. We can’t be guilty of expecting too little from those to whom we present.
4. The Wrong Messenger
This failure felt wrong from the moment I agreed to do it, and it just kept feeling wrong. I was invited by a high school in Topeka to talk to a large group of immigrant students about higher educational opportunities, Kansas’ new instate tuition law, and leadership/advocacy. And I totally should have said, “no.” See, this is exactly the kind of thing that the immigrant young people who led the effort to pass the instate tuition law should have done themselves; who better to inspire other high school students than high school students? And, yet, maybe because it was during the school day, or maybe because I knew I’d already be in Topeka, or maybe because, after so many days of talking to hostile audiences, it sounded kind of fun to go to be thanked for the work…I said, “yes.”
And, it was okay; I mean, they were awesome students and excited about the new law, and they had some great ideas for how to advance organizing in their own community. But all of that just reinforced to me how it could have been wonderful, and, instead, wasn’t, because I took the easy way out and put my own considerations ahead of the cause’s. Would it have been more work to manage the logistics of getting permission for one of the student leaders to miss school and blah, blah, blah? Sure. But it would have lived my values of empowerment, and helping people speak for themselves. And it would have worked a lot better, too.
3. Round Peg/Square Hole
I’m including this one to demonstrate that I have even spectacularly failed in policy presentation in multiple languages and in more than one country! I had been asked to be on a panel at the Coalition for Justice in the Maquiladoras conference. I was to speak for 20 minutes about the prospects for immigration reform and workers’ rights in the United States, in Spanish, with simultaneous translation into English. I prepared my remarks, but, when the day of the panel arrived, the organizers told me that I’d actually only have 10 minutes, because the conference was running late. And that’s where the problems started. To try to fit in everything, I raced through, barely noticing the reaction of the translators in the back of the room. Soon, one actually left the booth, waving her arms frantically over her head. I was speaking so quickly that they couldn’t keep up; some of the attendees had absolutely no idea what I was saying, and I was probably losing many of the others with my rapid pace.
And, while I admit that I still speak quickly, far too quickly at times, this experience (and its humiliation) stayed with me; when presenting, especially orally, we have to know exactly what the parameters are, and never assume that we’re above the rules. The most profound of our remarks won’t have any impact if people aren’t around anymore to hear them, or if they’re said unintelligibly, or if the dominant message is that we’re inconsiderately disregarding the needs of those around us. And pay attention to body language and feedback cues from your audience. Nodding heads are good. People flagging you down is usually a very, very bad sign.
2. Totally Blindsided
So I actually did quite well on this one. My testimony fit exactly within the time limit and covered all of the key points, and I had great delivery, and…it really didn’t matter at all. Because I forgot that, sometimes, it’s what everyone else says that counts a lot more. This was a hearing on our bill that would restore undocumented immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses, a right that was stripped in 2000, nearly restored in 2001, and then definitively halted after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, out of national security concerns. I thought that I had done everything right for this hearing, in January 2004. Our bill had cleared the House the year before and was now in the Senate. The Judiciary Committee Chairman supported it, as did several of the members, with whom I had already spoken. I had lined up a strong list of supporters: faith groups, law enforcement officers, two eloquent immigrant leaders, an insurance agent…it looked very solid. It snowed more than 6 inches the night before, but we still had about 1000 people in Topeka to show their support. As proponents, our testimony went well. And, then.
Things first went bad when the final person to speak as a proponent was the one person on our side with whom I hadn’t spoken in advance. His argument still rings in my ears: part of it was, verbatim, that “Hispanics are having more babies than white people so, watch out, we’re going to take over.” Um, can you say “opposite of what we wanted to say?” Lesson that, sometimes, even your ‘friends’ can hurt you, if you haven’t done the work in advance. But, still, if it had just been that, we probably could have rebounded.
There was just one opposing testimony. From a father…whose son was killed in the Twin Towers. Now, I’m sorry for his loss. Obviously. As was everyone else in the room, which went silent when he began to speak. But I so wish I knew then what I found out about 5 minutes after leaving the hearing, which is that he was actually a representative of a group affiliated with the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform. We had, in fact, already done a lot of work discrediting FAIR within the Kansas Legislature, but I was totally unprepared for this conferee, and, so, even later, my efforts to clarify and explain to our media contacts and friendly legislators were the classic “too little, too late.” Even the Chair whispered to me on the way out the door, “I don’t think we can save this.”
We have to acknowledge that we don’t set the agenda and often can’t control the conversation. That means that any successful policy presentation must include intelligence-gathering on those who oppose our understanding of the social problem and our strategy to solve it. Our message should not simply react to this opposition, but it must account for it, diffuse it, and effectively counter it. Otherwise, you’ll be like me, listening in shock as everything I said was completely wiped from the minds of my audience, and even my friends shook their heads in disbelief.
1. You Can’t Convince Everyone, and Sometimes You Shouldn’t Try
So I promised a real nightmare for this last one. One year, I agreed to do a call-in show on a conservative talk radio program about immigrants’ rights. It was on a Saturday morning–my birthday!–at 8AM. So that sets the stage. Now, I’d done my research, and I knew that this host and his listeners were quite hostile to my position, but I had a lot of faith in my persuasive abilities, or something. Anyway, I dutifully called in.
I was, of course, defeated from the beginning; the host was deliberately rude to me, refused to let me finish a sentence, distorted the few words I managed to get in, and, then, after about 15 minutes, directed his listeners to “call in and tell me if this is the stupidest person we’ve ever had on this radio show or not.” Seriously.
Either my Protestant guilt or sheer shock kept me on the phone, long past when I should have just hung up. The only redeeming moment was when one woman called in to say, “no, I think there was someone stupider on once,” but then the host talked her into conceding that I was, in fact, “actually way stupider than that guy.”
Easy lesson from this one, of course: there are many people who may be receptive to at least parts of our messages of social justice, especially when we couch them in the language of shared values and common aspirations. And we shouldn’t shy away from controversy or be afraid to debate.
We should also not allow ourselves to be exploited by those who have no interest in truth or dialogue, especially when we’ll be so baited that we may, actually, do something that could turn off potential allies. Or, when there are much better things we could be doing with our time: organizing our “choirs”, so that they’ll actually “sing”; honing our messages; researching our policy alternatives; reaching out to those undecided middles; or, even, celebrating our birthdays.
Your turn–please share lessons learned from your own policy presentations gone bad. Really. It will make me feel better.