Tips for Effective Communication

Council Members receive hundreds of constituent letters, emails, faxes, phone messages, form letters, and other types of communications each week, in addition to an avalanche of internal memoranda, briefing papers, meeting notices and agendas, and draft proposals. Getting through this volume takes considerable time and attention from the Council Member and his or her staffers. The following tips are intended to help you get the most out of your communications with Council Members.

Go to the right place.

  • Always direct your communication to the responsible department or division first. Frequently, the responsible department or division can respond to your requests or questions and help address any concerns you have. If the department or division cannot assist you, contact your Council Member for assistance.
  • If you aren’t sure how to direct your communication, start with Minneapolis 311. That agency acts as the central customer service bureau for the City Government and the 311 agents can help you determine how best to direct your communication within the bureaucracy.
  • If your issue is a matter of policy, or if you are attempting to communicate with one of the Council’s Standing Committees about an issue within its jurisdiction, start with addressing the Council Member who is the Chair of that particular Standing Committee. If you aren’t sure who the Committee Chair is, contact the Assistant to City Council for help, at (612) 673-2244.

One letter for one request.

To be most effective, remember: one meeting, letter, phone call, etc., for one request. Resist the temptation to pile on additional issues just because you have the Council Member’s attention. Pushing multiple issues at once makes a lot of “noise” for an elected official. If you present a menu of concerns, problems, and requests, then it is highly unlikely that you will be effective in getting what you want, and (worse) you risk losing the attention of the Council Member. For best results, remember that one request = one meeting, letter, or phone call.

Do your homework, know your subject matter, and be specific.

If you are communicating with an elected official, it’s important to do your homework first. Most people don’t adequately prepare and fail to prepare a well-researched, well-rehearsed request or written communication. For example, you should research the Council Member’s public statements and voting record on the particular subject matter, or at least a closely-related subject matter. Also, you should be thoroughly familiar with your issue—both the benefits and the potential consequences—so that you can anticipate and plan your discussion points in advance. Be sure to present your issue in the clearest and most concise way possible. Remember that Council Members are very busy. Getting right to the point is appreciated. Also, be very clear in asking for exactly what you want, usually structured as a “yes or no” option. For a face-to-face meeting, it helps to take 30 minutes and practice your presentation before the meeting. Also, if you expect a response to your issue, make sure you request a response. Remember—constituents who are prepared, who have thoughtful arguments, solid data, and persuasive stories the help illustrate key points are the ones who get remembers…and have the best impact.

Keep communication brief and on-point.

Written requests should be presented in no more than two pages—and less is better. Attachments are fine for additional details or background, but a one or two-page summary of your request should succinctly summarize your issue and clearly state what you want. Be sure to put your best arguments and strongest points at the beginning of your message. Also, while printed copies are great, if you can provide an electronic copy of your material(s), it will be appreciated. When planning face-to-face appointments, be sure to leave time for the Council Member to ask follow-up questions after you present your issue.

Identify steps already taken.

If you’ve already taken steps to resolve your concern, say so. Those who’ve done everything they can think of before engaging an elected official are actually more likely to get prompt attention. If you let your Council Member know that you’ve already contacted the appropriate City department or division, or that you’ve attempted to talk to your neighbor about the problem, or whatever it might be, it can help your case.

Be polite.

Strong emotion is fine; however, rudeness is not effective and is never appropriate. Even if you are angry about some decision, avoid using insults or aggressive behavior. Thoughtful messages will always triumph over hateful messages. The most effective communications are usually not the most noxious kind. Stick to productive forms of communication and focus on finding a solution together. Also, be polite in your follow-up communications. If the Council Member has helped you achieve your goal, send a written thank you note. Very few individuals or groups ever remember to express their appreciation for the services of the Council Members. So, those who do offer their thanks are remembered—and usually have an easier time connecting in the future.

Show that you understand.

If you’re making an argument in a situation where there are competing interests, it’s a good idea to acknowledge those competing viewpoints. When you respect the interests of others and appreciate the challenge your public officials face, people will be more eager to help you. Also, it’s good to keep a sense of proportion when making a request of a Council Member. You should know the importance of your particular concern relative to the big picture; in other words, are you involved in a dispute between neighbors, or between entire neighborhoods? Are you concerned about having a pothole repaved or an entire bridge rebuilt? Make your request, be clear that the issue matters very much to you, but also keep a sense of proportion.

Offer alternative ideas or solutions.

If you’ve researched your issue, you probably know something about alternatives—including the particular outcome or result that you favor. But elected officials frequently have to find a compromise amongst many viewpoints. If you know of alternative ideas or solutions, let the Council Member know. This will be appreciated. If you have a fresh idea, and you’ve made a good effort to research its viability, present it. Show your willingness to help find more information if it’s needed. This demonstrates that you are a partner in solving a problem.

Last updated Jan. 24, 2014