Local leaders are increasingly being called on to advocate on behalf of their professions at the national level. This requires a degree of knowledge, rhetorical skill, focus, and experience. The best way to articulate a point of view is through the use of narrative. A narrative forces you to combine facts and emotion, which are both needed in advocacy presentations. However, the most important thing to remember is this: if you’re not telling your story, someone else is. So, prepare yourself and get into the game.
Former United States president Lyndon Baines Johnson was flawed, vulgar, misogynistic, nasty, and arrogant. On a tour, an Army officer directed him, saying “Mr. President, your helicopter is right this way.” His reply: “Son, they’re all my helicopters.”
However, say what you like about LBJ, he could cut to the chase. When he talked about solving problems in government, he said this: “Doing what’s right isn’t the problem. It’s knowing what’s right.” Top
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem facing elected official and bureaucrats today. After a few years in government, they discover that it’s never a case of deciding between a good idea and a bad idea. The truly awful proposals have a way of being sifted out. What’s left are six to eight relatively good options in completely unrelated areas — all offer the prospect of doing some good and improving lives.
To make sensible choices, politicians find themselves talking to people with recent experience on the front lines. They ask them about their experiences and their best guess on how this latest idea might work.
Hence, the role of advocates. You have to be at or near the table when the important decisions are being made. Once there, you have to use the short amount of time available to present the most compelling case possible. You must effectively explain why your proposal should be funded at the expense of others. And don’t feel bad about being part of the competition. There was someone there before you and someone after you. They’re both trying to steal your lunch money.
Crafting your message
I believe there were two main problems with most of the advocacy efforts I saw in the political arena: narcissism and the excessive use of abstractions. I’ll start with narcissism because it’s the easiest to remedy. Top
We all like to talk about ourselves. We all like to talk about things we find interesting, like our chosen profession. We speak in jargon. We use acronyms. We find internal organizational processes and decision-making criteria fascinating. However, the rest of us don’t share your enthusiasm. Quite frankly, flaunting your insider expert knowledge is closer to “mansplaining” than anything else. Perhaps we can call it “occupational mansplaining.” We are the “ins” and the people we are talking to are the “outs.”
Avoid this trap. It bores people to tears. Instead, focus on your customer/patient/client. Find a story about an individual who was searching for vital help that only you could provide. Articulate what is called the “unique value proposition”: what can you do that no one else can do, or at least do as well?
Using a narrative structure in your advocacy work is the best way to avoid problem two and move from the abstract to the concrete. People don’t understand trade agreements like Brexit and NAFTA. They want to know if they’ll still have a job. Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, was on a break from politics and running a comic book and gaming store in Virginia when he was tapped to lead the Sanders campaign. Mr. Weaver had a visceral understanding of what motivated people.
In a December 2017 edition of the Washington Post, he said: “Anybody running for office right now has to talk about the reality that people are facing in their own lives. People aren’t interested in abstractions.”1 Top
Advocacy must take as given that politicians like to win. Telling them how your idea will unlock popular support while actually doing some good is key.
Know your audience
Advocacy is nothing more or less than getting the right people with the right pitch in front of the right decision-makers. But it’s not as simple as you think. You need someone who’s worked inside the system to act as a guide. They appreciate the natural rhythms of the political calendar and can highlight times and people to focus your efforts.
Once in, spend a lot of time on your pitch. Rehearse it. Shop it around. What’s obvious to you is opaque to others. Lucy Drescher is head of parliamentary advocacy for Results UK. In a 2016 Guardian article, she emphasizes the need for clear and simple messages that convey passion and promote credibility:
It is important to have evidence to demonstrate the difference the change will make in people’s lives, so do your research. Passion without evidence is rarely effective; conversely evidence alone is insufficient. You need both.2
This is a point made repeatedly in advocacy literature and one explored extensively in Nancy Duarte’s excellent book Resonate.3
You should also understand the limitations of time and bandwidth experienced by your audience. Jess Phillips, a prominent Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley in the United Kingdom, dedicates an entire presentation on her website to the subject “How to lobby an MP.”4
According to Ms. Phillips, the thing people forget is that politicians get dozens of requests every day. You need a definitive “ask”. If you simply appear in their office and make a generic request for support, you may be one of a hundred organizations to do that. Phillips says the key to advocacy is to not be the same as everyone else.
Know your brand
There are side benefits to working on your advocacy messaging: it tends to remind you of the need to revisit your brand. Most of the people I work for firmly believe everyone, inside and outside of their group, understands the brand. Further, they believe here is an internal consensus on the values underpinning that brand. Top
Usually, nothing could be further from the truth. This is particularly true when there hasn’t been a brand refresh in a few years, or a large staff turn-over.
Brands provide people with the information they need to make a decision between one thing and another. Put more bluntly, it’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room. Brands precede advocacy. A discussion about advocacy without reference to the brand will wander and become unfocused.
Brands also push you away from abstractions and toward a story. Embedded in every brand are stories — stories about origin, stories about scarcity or desirability. Clarity of brand will help you develop a narrative that will become crucial in your advocacy efforts. Brands are the words and actions that define you. They reflect your values, which have more to do with your origins, your intentions, and your priorities.
In a recent Quartz article, the author articulates the subtle but important distinction and relationship between brand and values. Walt Disney, the article states, is synonymous “with iconic film characters and the world-famous theme parks that bear his name.”5
Walt Disney’s values were slightly different. Profits are important, but for a reason: “We don’t make movies to make money, we make money to make more movies.”5
Final words of advice
Leave something behind, so that people remember who you are and what you said. Some people learn by listening. Some learn by doing. Others absorb information in written form. Top
Advocacy literature should look different from all other corporate or government writing. It should be colourful. It should have pictures and lots of white space. It should invite people into the words, not scare them away.
You do this by composing short sentences, using simple words. Sentences should be 12–15 words in length, not 50 or 60. If you don’t write like this naturally, there are plenty of websites available to assist you. For example, Grammarly (grammarly.com) is fast and easy and the Hemingway Editor (hemingwayapp.com) is quite visual and emphasizes simplicity of sentence construction.
Good reporters make average editors and often terrible newsroom managers. Don’t think you’ll automatically be good at everything. Ask for help. Top
1.O’Keefe E, Weigel D. Despite recent wins, Democrats remain divided about what they stand for. Washington Post 2017;10 Dec. Available https://tinyurl.com/yxj95ur7
2.Drescher L. Effective advocacy 101: how to bring about change in five steps. Guardian 2016;12 Jan. Available: https://tinyurl.com/y532vgnh
3.Duarte N. Resonate: present visual stories that transform audiences. Hobokan: John Wiley & Sons; 2010.
Ian Hanna, BA (political science), BJ (honours), is director of government and stakeholder relations, Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation. He had a 25-year career in private and public broadcasting before spending 13 years in government, where he served as director of communications in Executive Council, communications advisor to the premier of Saskatchewan, and special advisor in Saskatchewan’s Cabinet Planning Office.
Declaration: The author receives no benefit or consideration from any of the authors, publishers, or online services mentioned in this article.