How to Trick Your Legislators Into Getting What You Want

Today’s tip is, appropriately, on how to trick your legislators into doing what you want. Get it? Halloween? Trick or Treating? Try and stay with me here. If you think about it, isn’t Halloween really about using your influence to extract resources from people in authority? We can all learn a great deal from some of the 7-year olds in our communities, particularly in their approach to the time honored tradition of trick-or-treating. Following are a few lessons I’ve learned from my experiences with the scariest holiday of the year. Be Adorable: I’m not really the most “kid-friendly” person, but I must admit that when a small child of between 4 and 10, dressed as a fairy princess or spider man or even Hillary (I live in DC, remember) comes to my door on Halloween, I can be suckered in -- especially when they approach all breathless with anticipation at the very idea of coercing candy out of mean old Ms.

Vance simply by lisping “trick or treat.” After dumping half the candy bowl in their sacks, I’ve heard these same sweet little cherubs run screaming down the stairs saying, with no discernable lisp whatsoever, “Yo, yo, yo -- I got some awesome candy at that mean lady’s house.” While I’m not suggesting that you dress in a fairy princess costume to meet with your legislators, I do suggest that you figure out how to be most appealing.

Walking into a members’ office and demanding that since a) you pay their salary with your tax dollars and b) they work for you, they should c) do whatever you say without question or d) you’ll fire them is not so adorable. Try suckering them in with a positive approach – then hit them up for ½ the candy bowl. Stand Out From the Crowd: How many “Spider Man” outfits do you think you’ll see this year? Halo 3? Bradgelina? Guiliani? (Boy, I really DO live in DC). Wouldn’t it be nice to see something different? I remember one year I went trick or treating as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz.

OK, not so unusual except that I took my Irish Wolfhound Megan as Toto. I cleaned up. I was eating free candy for months (or at least what I could extract from my mother). The point is that I stood out from the crowd.

How do you stand out from the crowd of people communicating with legislators? Simply by doing things other people rarely do, such as expressing an interest in the legislator’s issues, telling a personal, thoughtful story (instead of a mass-produced e-mail or postcard) and timing your communication so that it coincides with a decision point in the process. In so doing, you are tricking the system they have in place for dealing with the thousands of communications they get per week – and you will in turn gain more personal attention. Don’t Be Greedy (Or, As a Corollary, Be Grateful): Everyone has had the experience of having a trick-or-treater at the door that wants more than his or her fair share -- and actually has the gall to ask for it. While I’m a huge fan of “making the ask”, I’m not a huge fan of asking for too much. Frankly, it turns me off when, in reaction to my presentation of an appropriate amount of candy, a trick-or-treater says “geez, is that all? Mrs.

Jones down the street gives everyone five pieces.” It doesn’t make me want to hand out more candy. It makes me want to reach into their snot-nosed little candy sack and take back what I already gave (see, I told you I was mean). Anyone “trick or treating” at their legislatures should practice making the ask and then saying “thank you” for what may be received. Effective advocates will wipe that disappointed smirk off their face and maintain a positive relationship with elected officials – next year they may be able to be more generous.

Don’t Threaten: While “trick-or-treat” in the traditional sense is a threat (i.e., if you don’t give me a treat, I’ll pull a trick on you) I don’t recommend threatening your legislators. Whether it’s TP’ing their house or voting against them, threats are not only ineffective, but harmful to your relationship with the legislator. Maintain a Reputation for Having the “Good Stuff”: OK, I know that sounds a little vulgar (and I’ll have difficulty making it through some spam filters).

The “good stuff”, in this case, is the really good candy. You know what I mean. Real Snickers’ instead of the Costco brand generic “Snuckers”. Popcorn balls dripping in honey. M&M’s, Starbursts, Hershey’s Chocolate bars – mmm, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it.

Just as candy is the currency for Halloween, information is the currency for the policy process. As an advocate, it is important to have quality information on the issues you care about. This includes whatever national facts, figures and trends you can get from a national group, state-level information and, most important, stories and statistics about how your policies impact people on a district-by-district basis. Your legislators are eager to know people in their districts that can answer their questions on specific policy issues.

Become one of those people by doing your research – and developing a great reputation as a repository of good information. See? Who knew there was so much to learn from Halloween? Now get our there and engage in a little trick or treating of your own with your legislators – you may be surprised at what treats you’ll get if you ask!.

Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates, works with organizations that want to impact public policy through effective advocacy techniques. She offers training and consulting services on getting government to listen and can be found on the web at http://www.advocacyguru.com

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