Effective Communication

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

-- Mark Twain

Clear communications are critical to successful advocacy. The perfect fact sheet, with just the right arguments, that’s easy to read, and gives legislators the perfect solution will do no good if it never gets to the right legislators. The perfect action alert with all the right information delivered, just before the vote will do no good if it is missing the legislators’ numbers for advocates to call.

Decide what you are trying to communicate

What do you want them to do? You may want something passed, something stopped, want them to learn something, attend a public hearing, change a tax or fee, or add money to the budget for a program?

Decide whom you are trying to reach

Who is the audience? The same flyer may work both as a fact sheet for legislators and as an action alert for advocates, but it may not. The same fact sheet may not work for all legislators – some will want to know what a program will do to reduce the number of uninsured, others want to know if it works in other states, others want to know what it will cost, and others will want to know which agency should run the program. One fact sheet with all those messages may be too busy.

Frame the message

This will follow from the answers to the first two questions. Keep the message simple - a headline of just a few powerful words. Test your message on a few people from the target audience.

Choose a few facts or a story to make the point

Less is more. Graphics are better than numbers. For help, go to Research and data

Design your communication

Word of mouth can be extremely effective. If you want to address a misconception among legislators, the best way might be to enlist a few friends in the legislature to have a conversation with your targets.

Written communications can be effective – they are permanent and you know that the message doesn’t change as it goes out (unlike personal communications). You can include artwork and/or color to attract attention.

According to our policymaker survey, both legislators and staff prefer short, one or two page fact sheets. Brief memos were a close second.

For fact sheets and action alerts:

• One page is best, few readers will turn the page over
• Keep the text brief – no one wants to read reams of information in small font
• Keep the most important information in the first paragraph – what the issue is, what action is needed, and label the main message
• Give references for more information with links
• The fact sheet must be self-contained - do not refer to previous documents or assume they remember what they said to the media
• Use bullets when you can
• Leave lots of white space
• Make it very clear what you want them to do – Bold, text boxes, and graphics add emphasis
• Give them all the tools they need – do not say “call your legislator” instead give them the numbers; give legislators the bill number you want them to vote for

Decide how to get it out

Unfortunately, there was no clear answer from our policymaker survey about the best universal means to effectively communicate with policymakers. Some prefer emails, some mailings, and some only personal communications. Timing or your resources may decide for you. If the vote is tomorrow, mailing won’t work. You may need to enlist someone to go to the Capitol to hand fact sheets to legislators. For an action alert to advocates, you may not have the money for a mailing and have to rely on phoning or emails.

Timing is critical

Not only must the alert arrive in time to make a difference, but there must also be preparation for it. Sending alerts only when you want people to do things is about as effective as politicians who only visit the district at campaign time. Send regular updates informing people about the issue. However, only send information when you have something to say. Don’t send empty, worthless updates, or readers won’t open the next one.

Send regular updates

Keep people informed about the issue. But only send information when you have something to say. Don't send empty updates with nothing new, or readers will not open the next one.

Evaluate

Find out if your alert or fact sheet got the action you wanted. If not, revise your communications strategy.

Related articles

Writing op-eds and letters to the editor

Tips for public speaking

Tips for talking with reporters

Research and data

Writing to elected officials

Fact sheets and alerts

Coalitions and collaboration

Links

CT Media links

Connecticut health policymaker survey

Media advocacy, from Community Catalyst

Communications Toolkit from the Center for Rural Health, University of North Dakota