The way our communities held public meetings just a few months ago is very different than today. Now we stream city council meetings on Facebook Live, watch the Governor’s press briefings via YouTube and participate in virtual public meetings with Zoom and WebEx. We chat or post our questions – and we’re kind of getting used to it.
As civic leaders recalibrate public meetings to a digital-first approach, we remind our colleagues of these tried and true do’s and don’ts for productive community conversations.
1. Don’t hold a public meeting just to hold a meeting
Before scheduling an online public meeting for your initiative, ask your team these three questions: Are we ready to listen and be responsive to public input? Can we present meeting content in a way that is both easy to understand and allows the public to weigh in? Will this meeting allow everyone to feel heard and understood? If you answer yes to these questions, it’s time to start planning your meeting!
2. Do hold a dialogue, not a monologue
Engagement is interactive. It is more about listening than telling. In a digital environment, explore the platform’s ways to invite conversation like a chat, Q&A or “raise hand” function. Zoom and other platforms allow breakout discussions in separate “rooms”. At minimum, arrange your presentation content into a few short topic areas, then allow time for discussion between each topic. Insert a “discussion” slide with just two or three specific questions for participants. This helps focus their input and allows you to probe for the input and ideas needed to shape the effort. (“Any comments or questions?” is too vague and can intimidate participants who are still learning and figuring out their positions.)
3. Don’t make it about you
As you think through your meeting goals, it’s easy to fall back on “I need to tell them…”. Instead, begin with what you need to know from them, what they need to know to provide informed input, and what concerns they have already expressed. Be prepared to reflect back what you have already heard to demonstrate you have been listening. Frame all meeting content with their needs in mind first.
4. Do make your presentation visual and easy to understand
As always, less is more on presentation slides. If your sentence starts with, “you can’t see this but…” – it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Use fewer words and more pictures. Research has shown that reading comprehension gets lower as sentences get longer. This is even more important on a digital platform: reading and listening occur in separate areas of the brain. Challenge yourself to convey content with small words and active verbs. Eliminate jargon which, after all, is a foreign language to most. Think again what content will allow participants to give you informed input without overwhelming them. Keep it simple and visual!
5. Don’t lead with data
Let the human element lead the way. People are more persuaded by stories than data. Explain your initiative’s goals in a personal way that paints a vivid picture that everyone can relate to. Why is this initiative so important to the participant’s safety, health or financial stability? What’s in it for them? Remove complicated charts and use data sparingly to support your primary points.
6. Do be kind and respectful of even the most negative questions
Negative comments have a kernel of truth at their core. Listen quietly then acknowledge the question’s valid points. Answer in a calm, kind and respectful way. Validating passionate concerns with empathy can defuse anger and build trust. Maintaining a non-judgmental stance and remaining honest and open garners appreciation from all participants. For a virtual public meeting, invite written questions before the meeting and invite comments in the chat box during the meeting. At minimum, have a moderator read the questions then have presenters respond. If technically possible, allow participants to voice their comments so all can hear them.
7. Don’t over promise
It’s easy to create unrealistic expectations when you sound definitive on things not entirely within your control. By using phrases like “what we hope to accomplish is…” and “how we plan to get there is…”, you manage expectations. It’s perfectly okay to say, “we don’t know yet.” Especially during a time of COVID-19 uncertainty, being upfront about what you don’t know actually makes you more credible. Inviting public input before you know all the details – even when it’s slightly uncomfortable – is what enables the public to shape an outcome they can support. This communicates we’re all in this together and builds trust.
8. Do remember to include those without the internet
Include a dial-in option so participants can participate even without access to the internet. Be sure to distribute meeting notifications in ways that don’t rely on access to a computer. For example, post fliers in high visibility areas like grocery stores, mail meeting announcements to underserved areas and reach out to organizations that work with low income neighborhoods. Ask them to help get the word out about the public meeting or see if they can help you talk directly with those who can’t participate in the official meeting. Include a contact phone number in notification materials so participants can call with comments or questions.
While it may feel like a new world with the sudden all-in commitment to digital engagement, these “old world” principles still apply. Tell your story clearly, seek and listen to diverse points of view, and develop your initiative based on that input. Engaging our communities remains as critically important as ever.
Marie Silver Keister, APR, AICP also contributed to this article.