Advocacy is, in many respects, a different beast than other social strategies such as community organizing or grassroots activism, and it may have more in common with negotiations and even marketing than other civic engagement strategies.
The goal of advocacy is ultimately to persuade policymakers and the public, while other strategies like community organizing focus on amassing and leveraging power. Advocates, then, rely on a set of skills geared toward effective communication. Nonetheless, organizers and activists have a lot to learn from advocates and vice versa.
Many have written about the art of advocacy, negotiations, and persuasion. Today, studies on these subjects are growing as evidenced by the endless TED Talks dedicated to the art of communication. The basics have not changed much, though. While social scientists are discovering fascinating things about human behavior and social interaction every day, the fundamentals of human connection have been known among some for a long time.
Below is a collection of 27 of the most timeless pieces of advice for advocates. While Street Civics would love to claim credit for these tips, these ideas come from both common knowledge and two classic books on advocacy. (As a bonus, this post is peppered with some of the best TED Talks for advocates.)
The first three tips are what is commonly known as the “ABCs” of advocacy – something every advocate needs to know. Tips four through twenty-three are “updated” summaries of tips shared by Dale Carnegie in his famous book How To Win Friends and Influence People. If readers are interested in diving further into the art of persuasion, I recommend starting with this book for a start on the fundamentals.
The last four tips come from the Harvard Negotiation Project. These tips were outlined by Roger Fisher and William Ury in the book Getting To Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. The book is another good starting point for beginners.
ABC’s of Advocacy
1. A stands for ‘accuracy.’
Always stick to what you know. Don’t embellish, lie, obfuscate, or manipulate the truth to gain short-term advantages. In the long run, you’ll only lose your credibility. If you’re asked something you don’t know, say “I’ll have to look into that and get back to you,” and follow up with the information when you have it. Try to avoid saying “I don’t know,” but no matter what – never lie.
2. B stands for ‘brief.’
Advocates deal with very busy people. Most especially, policymakers and government officials will only have brief moments available to discuss issues. So, advocates must be succinct in their message. Making it personal and/or humanizing is important, it just needs to be done quickly. Advocates should come to every meeting (especially with policymakers and officials) with three things: 1) an anecdote, 2) facts or figures, and 3) an ask. Advocates should be able to get through all three in under ten minutes.
3. C stands for ‘courteous.’
Advocacy is all about building relationships even with the opposition. To do this, you must be polite and show respect to everyone you encounter, including the intern! (As a side note, it’s probably worth thinking of being brief as an extension of being courteous. Time is valuable and being conscientious of someone else’s time constraints demonstrates good self-awareness – something that will be noticed.)
“Updated” Tips from How to Win Friends and Influence People
Note: Carnegie’s book was written in 1936 and truly pioneered an industry. It became one of the best selling books of all time shortly after being published and it is still often found on popular lists of influential books. While much of the information is still good advice, some of it is couched in the terminology and perspectives of a bygone era. So, some of the tips below are “modern distillations” of Carnegie’s work.
4. Be firm, but non-confrontational.
It’s a good idea to be as matter-of-fact (though enthusiastic) as possible by avoiding criticism, condemnation, or complaining. While this can be difficult if emotions are running high, attacking the opposition can cause them to entrench their views further. It’s good to avoid telling people that they are “wrong” directly, doing so will likely trigger a defense mechanism, shutting down the conversation. Nonetheless, advocates should remain firm in their talking points and asks.
5. Show genuine appreciation and gratitude.
Gratitude is a powerful thing. Giving appreciation to others has benefits for ourselves as well as for others. It even improves workplace productivity. So, find something to say “thank you” for even if it’s just for their time.
6. “Arouse an eager want” or “get buy-in.”
Carnegie maintained that to make progress with someone, it’s necessary not only to get them to agree to a point of view but to get them excited to do something about it. The aim, then, is to align interests in a way that both parties win. To do this, it’s important to build genuine relationships and to see the issue from the perspective of the other person’s interests.
7. Be curious.
Curiosity is an important trait for advocates. To align interests, you need to understand where people are coming from. So, advocates should be curious about the relevant actors and their colleagues. Getting to know their interests, knowledge, and opinions helps map out pathways to success. Curiosity is also a great way to stay humble as it can replace reactionary judgments of the opposition with thoughtful reflections of different perspectives.
8. “Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
This is the original wording from Carnegie’s book because there’s no better way to say it. This tip is a bit more specific than the rest, but it’s such a powerful piece of information that it belongs on any basic tip list. Only recently have researchers truly discovered what happens to us when we hear our name. What they have found was that Carnegie was way ahead of his time and hearing one’s name causes neural activity that triggers a strong response. It’s so powerful, patients in vegetative states still show these responses. Make sure to use people’s names or address them appropriately. If they have an official title, add the last name (i.e. “Hello, Congresswoman Smith”).
9. Listen – give plenty of opportunities for others to talk and invite them when necessary.
Perhaps, counterintuitively advocates need to listen more than they speak. Building good listening skills can not just help build better relationships, but can also help advocates reach their objectives quicker as it becomes easier to identify interests. Be self-aware of how much floor time you take up, but don’t lose your voice and make sure you speak up when necessary.
10. Frame the conversation (or “ask”) in their interests.
As much as possible, advocates must link their demands or “asks” to the interests of those to whom they are advocating. If the appeal is solely self-centered, it becomes harder to get others to take action – even if the action is justified.
11. Don’t bully. Lead others to the same conclusions.
A good advocate can persuade someone by outlining an argument and letting them draw conclusions about what should be done. Arguing over solutions or forcing a demand on someone can backfire. Consistently reinforcing the same message and letting someone come to the same conclusion will have better results over the long term.
12. Stay humble.
Social change is a tricky business. No matter what issue advocates work on, they face a lot of challenges to their work. Left unchecked, those constant challenges can cause advocates to become callus and short with opposition. Dropping judgments and trying not to take things personally, can help advocates think more clearly, build better relationships, and have more fun with their work. When (not if) you’re wrong, admit it and be quick to apologize. These acts have real impacts on how others see you in the long run and help establish more credibility. Again, curiosity is the best way to stay humble. Think in terms of “why would they say that?” Instead of “how could they say that?”
13. Try to keep it light and positive.
When appropriate, keeping things light as possible is a sure-fire way to build a cooperative atmosphere. I’ve done hundreds of group meetings between constituents and lawmakers. After a few dozen of these meetings, I noticed that when I could crack a small joke either before or during a meeting, the outcome was always better. I always lightened up a bit more, other participants seemed more fluid, and officials would be more receptive. Advocates should always “read the room” and stay away from jokes if inappropriate; remaining polite and gracious can be other ways to keep it positive.
14. Steer the conversation.
Officials, experts, bureaucrats, and anyone else who advocates deal with are usually clever people. Many are well-versed in the art of making people feel heard without making any concessions. Don’t let charmers sidetrack conversations or make blatantly empty statements. Again, be polite but firm.
A common tactic among some officials is to make the conversation about the advocate as an individual, asking personal questions and trying to elicit rambling digressions. If advocates aren’t paying attention, it can feel like the official is very interested in them and so it’s natural to go along with the conversation in the hopes of building a strong relationship. But, this is a trap. It’s a tried and true tactic to avoid difficult conversations. Before long, time is running out and you only have a few minutes to discuss what you came for in the first place.
Don’t let officials sidetrack difficult conversations through too much personal talk. Allow some time for introductions, but quickly hook it back to the issue at hand.
15. Try to see it from their perspective.
Advocates should be routinely running a mental exercise to see the issue from the perspective of the opponent, policymaker, general public, etc. This seems to go without saying, but it’s rarely used as a planning tool for advocates. Perhaps, because it can be difficult to see things from other viewpoints if we don’t have a good handle on their experiences, priorities, or values. Nonetheless, advocates should be constantly challenging their own views on a regular basis. It helps evolve proposals and messaging; it also makes advocates better suited to identify interests.
16. Appeal to values.
In an age of deeply divided politics, it’s easy for any issue to become politicized. This is a real challenge for advocates as some issues may be exploited by ulterior motives. To hedge against this, advocates should first try to appeal to the values of policymakers and the public rather than depending solely on a rational argument.
While, of course, your proposal should lay out a logical plan for dealing with your issue, it should also aim to get others to agree on the values underlying the proposal. Assuming basic (and culturally appropriate) values in the middle of a conversation is a good device to prompt important psychological responses.
For example, “of course, you agree that we should do everything we can to save lives,” or “I know that you’ll agree with me that we must find a way to get homeless people reintegrated into society.”
17. Be enthusiastic and emphatic.
People have short attention spans in today’s world. Microsoft found in a study that the average person now has a shorter attention span than the average goldfish (eight seconds for humans, nine seconds for goldfish). On top of how new media has shaped our lives, officials are being constantly bombarded by information on a range of topics by a variety of actors. So, you must put some effort into keeping their attention by letting your enthusiasm show (in a professional way). No need to be melodramatic, but certainly good to show your passion for the issue – let them know you will be around until the problem is solved.
18. “Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly.”
This is another direct quote from Carnegie’s book. People don’t like being wrong and they especially don’t like losing face. If you call people out for being wrong directly, they will associate you with the feeling of being wrong and embarrassed. So, mistakes must be identified in ways that don’t put the fault on anyone.
19. Make the ask (or proposal) a question, not a demand.
While public communication materials like flyers and reports should list demands, they should be put in question format for in-person advocacy. For example, “we’d like you to vote yes on this bill; is this something you can commit to?” Or, “ we’d urge you to introduce this bill, is that something you will consider?” Questions are the best way to flesh out verbal commitments from officials. (But, keep in mind, it’s always best to push for a public statement reiterating that commitment.)
20. Don’t embarrass people; shield them from criticism if possible and appropriate.
As mentioned above, if you embarrass someone, they will associate you with those feelings. It can cause relationships to break down and stall otherwise successful campaigns. On the other hand, embarrassment is specifically used as a means of political resistance by community organizers as a way of isolating opponents and undermining their political and social capital.
While the strategy of embarrassment can work, it can also have long term negative side effects on relationships and plunge communities into divisiveness. It also only works if there is a very strong, active, and an extremely fired up grassroots base, which is something advocates may or may not have. In order to build long term relationships, try to let people save face as long as it’s not at the expense of others or the issue.
21. Give credit where credit is due.
This can be difficult for advocates especially if they are in highly entrenched issue areas. When the opposition suddenly makes a step in the right direction, it can seem like a miracle on one hand and something very suspicious on the other. While suspicions may be valid, advocates can still help push opposition further by giving them credit for any improvements in their position or policy.
Always take the opportunity to say something to the effect of “we welcome these developments and look forward to working with them on the remaining parts of this very important issue.” Advocates should also be fully prepared to give other people credit for their work as well. If an official gets credit for an advocate’s proposal, that’s a massive success!
If the plan becomes attached to a public official, you’ve created a champion. It’s good to feed them praise and attention to increase their political and social capital.
22. “Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to.”
Another direct quote from Carnegie’s work. In the same way, one can assume values in a conversation (mentioned above), one can assume character traits.
For example, “I know that you are a reputable person with a strong background on this. So, I know you’ll help us achieve this very important proposal.” Or, “We all know that you are looking out for the best interest of our community. We hope you’ll live up to your reputation and get this done.”
This must be sincere, however. Advocates should not look to “butter people up” with false praise. Instead, find something you genuinely respect about the person to whom you are advocating and link the issue to that character attribute. It’s very effective, but people will know if it’s insincere.
23. Make it seem like an easy problem to fix.
The way you talk about an issue is contagious. If you make it sound like a complex problem with no easy solution, don’t expect much action from anyone. Advocates should be ready with a few solutions – or, at least, baby steps toward a solution – that sound like “no-brainers.” Make the lift very light for officials by discussing the issue in a way that makes the problem seem fixable.
If your issue is complex (and most are), boil things down to what is most urgent at that moment. Don’t pile decades of community inequities on an official in a ten-minute meeting. Focus on a few areas that, if possible, can be fixed without much effort and give everyone some small wins off the bat.
Tips from Harvard’s Negotiation Project
24. “Separate the People from the Problem.”
Advocates should avoid steering into smear tactics or making anything personal. The minute someone’s ego is attacked, the chances of successful cooperation go down dramatically. If emotions do arise, it’s important to acknowledge them as valid. If your opponent gets heated, cool things down by stating that you understand why they feel so strongly. Here again, it’s worth noting that this is a tip that is the opposite of what some community organizing strategies promote. Some strategies promote isolating a target and making them look as if they are the problem. While it may work in the short-term, it can have nasty side effects on individual relationships and whole communities.
25. “Focus on Interests, Not Positions.”
This is a common tip among all social change strategies. To make a change, you need to find what interests will lead people to take action. While the book uses the word “positions,” one could easily substitute the word “politics.” It’s important that advocates not get too drawn into politicking and instead focus on harnassing the interests of those in power. Debating on political terms is a surefire way to end a conversation and sometimes a relationship. Looking for mutual interests, on the other hand, can help build momentum toward real change.
26. “Invent Options for Mutual Gain.”
Here again, the importance of aligning interests is evident. Finding proposals that allow everyone to gain are probably the most sustainable ways to make progress on your issue. The authors note that to do this, advocates need to have a very clear understanding of who they are negotiating with. It shouldn’t remain an abstraction like Congress or City Hall. Find who exactly can make that change and find out what their interest could be in your issue. Framing the proposal as the right thing to do can increase the benefits for the other party.
(Note: if you’re looking to map out interests and influence, you might want to start with our post three things to know about advocacy.)
27. “Insist on Using Objective criteria.”
This last tip was originally geared more toward negotiators in the book Getting to Yes, but it’s an important one for advocates too. Just as getting others to agree on values and framing a proposal within those values increases the likelihood of cooperation, presenting a set of objective criteria to assess the rationale of proposals can be very effective.
In other words, advocates can explain the problem to officials and then lay out what is needed in a solution. For example, cost-effectiveness (always think about cost), safety, timeline, etc. Advocates can ask if officials think other criteria should be included. If they say “no,” your proposal will seem like a no-brainer! If they say “yes,” take it to heart and use the criteria to assess your solution with the official. If it doesn’t measure up, say you’ll be back to address those criteria.
It’s genuinely a win if you can get in the head of an official by seeing what they would use to assess a solution to your problem. If that’s all you walk away with, that’s a success that will keep on giving.