How To Win Friends And Influence People, Local Government Edition

August 19, 2013

stillwater_libraryEvery August, the Stillwater Public Library’s director and board of trustees (of which I am a member) march across 4th Street to City Hall to justify our budget request for the coming year.

It’s arguably the most important milestone of the year for us, and though I’m far from a lobbyist or an expert in the workings of municipal government, I’m eager to do my best to help the cause.

Preparing for this meeting with the City Council is a lot like preparing to argue a case before the Supreme Court: You can dream up all the spiel you want, but the council is driving the bus.

They will ask whatever questions they want whenever they want. And it’s not just about the budget request; any aspect of library operations and decision-making are on the table. After all, they’re curious about how the city’s treasured library is doing these days

The challenge is that the council is overwhelmed with similar requests from several other city departments and is understandably unfamiliar with the inner workings of the library.

You have to know your stuff, and you have to be prepared for anything. Luckily for me, this is primarily the problem of our library director and the board president — but I can’t help but meddle. And as you might imagine, preparing for this presentation/discussion is a like any other challenge in the arts of messaging and persuasion.

Know your audience
Who are they? What’s in their background, personal or professional, that you can put to good use? What are their interests or concerns, and where do they intersect with yours? How are you helping them accomplish their goals? And don’t forget: You know more about your stuff than they do. Get them up to speed quickly without wasting too much time or being condescending. Help them see the light.

Cut to the chase
Sorry. What was I talking about? My attention span, like EVERYONE ELSE’S!, is very short — especially if I start off thinking I’m not particularly interested in what you have to say. Craft single, compelling theme and then identify other important messages to support it. Invert your pyramid!

Roll with the punches
Be well-enough prepared to answer any questions that come up and to respond to your planned presentation being derailed. It makes the difference between competently delivering a presentation and actually having a meaningful discussion with someone. Don’t underestimate the significance of that.

Don’t wait until you need something
This one’s major extra credit. It’s hard to pull off but can be invaluable. In the case the library and it’s relationship with the City Council, we do ourselves a disservice if we visit the council once each August to beg for money. We can work wonders by making brief occasional presentations to the council throughout the year and, as we have for the past year or so, having a council member attend our board meetings. Think about how you can apply this idea to media relations, pursuing new-business opportunities, working with business partners, and so on.