Politics is the art of persuasion; we enact new policy by persuading officials to support it. But too often, progressive advocates act as if the only way to persuade policymakers is to educate them in all aspects of our issue. Progressives tend to think, “if they only knew what I know.”
For that reason, our side tends to drown policymakers with facts and figures. And yet, facts themselves do not persuade, arguments do. (Any policymaker who wants more facts will ask for them.) In an advocacy campaign, you use facts to illustrate your campaign’s talking points. And quite often, those talking points are not about policy specifics. E.g., “People are upset and demand action.”
With good messaging, you can gain the support of many officeholders even though they know few of the relevant facts and figures, even though they don’t particularly understand the overall issue, and sometimes even though they don’t actually like the policy. In fact, this happens all the time.
For a full and practical explanation, we recommend that you read our messaging book Voicing Our Values: A message guide for policymakers and advocates (3rd Edition). Here are the key rules of persuasion for advocacy campaigns:
Begin in agreement with your listener(s)
In the course of an advocacy campaign, you can’t change people’s minds about deeply held assumptions or beliefs, and it is foolish to try. If you challenge those beliefs, listeners will engage their emotions instead of their intellects and reject whatever you say. You lose that vote.
So, start the discussion from a point of agreement, usually about the failure of existing policy or the overall purpose of your policy. Then show how your solution is based on something they already believe. You’re not trying to change your listeners’ minds, you’re trying to get them to realize that you’re on the same side—that they agree with you already.
Begin, for example, with: “We need to generate better jobs and a stronger economy.” Or “we’ve always been proud of our state university system.” Or “our criminal justice system ought to make us safer.” Or “residents really want us to clean up that parkland.” Or “our bridges and roads need a lot of repairs.” In other words, start with your shared goal rather than your solution.
Stay in agreement with your listener(s)
As you explain how your solution achieves your shared goal, use values. Values are words and phrases that, in their own way, everyone supports. Freedom, privacy, equal opportunity, fundamental fairness, level playing field, security, safety, protecting children and the elderly—these are all values. Use data and anecdotes to illustrate that your particular solution is consistent with their preexisting values and beliefs.
Work around roadblocks, e.g., “Of course we have to ensure this doesn’t harm small businesses.” And perhaps most important, never say or imply “you’re wrong.” Your listener will simply stop listening. As Dale Carnegie explained 80 years ago in How to Win Friends and Influence People:
In talking to people, don’t begin by discussing the things on which you differ. Begin by emphasizing—and keep on emphasizing—the things on which you agree. Keep emphasizing, if possible, that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.
It’s like fishing. You have to throw out a line with bait in order to reel them in. If they don’t like your bait, you’ll leave empty-handed.
Show your listeners how they benefit
Demonstrate to policymakers how supporting your issue benefits them—either by advancing their own policy goals or by helping them with their constituents. Show that you’re not asking for a favor, your policy is a win-win for them.
No policy passes entirely on its merits. If it did, you wouldn’t have to generate all those calls and letters! So, understand each official’s policy and professional interests and address those. Tell them about groups that endorse your legislation, cite public opinion polls, and explain why this vote will help in their next election.