Notes from the Field (Organizer)
About a month from now, America will vote in the high-stakes 2018 midterm elections. If you have turned on a TV recently, you know that campaigns are working hard to grab your attention and earn your vote.
Five years ago, before my days at Grisko, I was a part of that great American voter outreach endeavor, ahead of a special congressional election in Massachusetts.
Armed with a few clipboards, an old Honda, and an excellent pair of walking shoes, I worked as a field organizer leading campaign volunteers and connecting with voters through door-to-door canvassing.
Along the way, I learned some lessons about effective communications. In trying to avoid having a door slammed in your face (it happens) – while aiming for that prized moment when you are asked to come in for a drink and have a chat about the campaign (rare, but possible) – you learn a great deal about what it takes to connect, persuade, and inspire.
Here are a few takeaways from the field – a three-point platform for better communications:
Listen, Then Customize
Being prepared with a great pitch for when that door opens is helpful – but making sure you let your new conversation partner take the lead is essential.
After giving enough information to introduce yourself, immediately asking something like “did you know there’s an election coming up?” or “is there any issue that’s particularly important to you right now?” was always key to breaking the ice.
On their turf – literally and conversationally – a good chat was much more likely to break out. And when it did, you can bet that I tried to offer up a few policy points relevant to where our conversation had meandered to – not necessarily hewing to the scripted messages on my clipboard.
In spaces outside of canvassing, the principle holds – have great messages ready, but don’t push, preach, or go “one-size-fits-all” if you can help it. If possible, better to get a sense of your conversation partner, let them take you to the space they feel comfortable speaking in, and then chat on their wavelength as best you can.
Establishing a trusted communications channel is great, but of course it’s what you broadcast on that channel that will really determine the success of your conversation.
In trying to make the most out of an interaction, I would often keep the “3-30-3” principle in mind.
In political circles, a good piece of campaign “lit” passes the “3-30-3” test if it has something positive to offer to a voter who gives it a look and throws it away (3 seconds), a voter who gives it a quick scan (30 seconds), or a voter who wants to learn all they can from the leaflet (3 minutes).
Likewise, a successful interaction on the doors usually included a positive initial impression (3), icebreaker chatter (30), and then a more substantive discussion about the election (3).
Keeping this rule in mind with any sort of communications effort forces you to present messages that can captivate a range of personalities. This approach engages the fleeting listener and the more dedicated observer, in a way that can move the needle for your cause on a variety of fronts.
Be Consistent and (Gracefully) Persistent
Unless your persuasive powers rival those of Lincoln, most interactions on the doors aren’t going to win over hearts and minds immediately.
That’s why it’s crucial to be consistent and (gracefully) persistent.
This means staying on message as you continue to connect, signaling competency and building trust.
It also requires a commitment to strategically staying in touch. I can’t tell you how many times I had a breakthrough with a potential voter after the third or fourth conversation, or how often folks who we’d long thought were “in our camp” had actually shifted allegiances since we last spoke.
To me, this is a great mantra for communicators of all stripes. It means sticking to a message you really believe in, even if you initially receive some negative feedback from your audiences (if you consistently receive negative feedback, though, remember platform point #1 – really listen!).
And it demands that you don’t just settle for great one-off interactions, but rather continue engaging in different spaces to build your reputation, foster loyalty, and inspire action.
To those field organizers working to connect with voters right now, I salute you. May you have fewer “no solicitors” signs, and more warm rapport at the grassroots of our democracy.
And for those seeking support for other good causes, I hope these notes from the field bring you success through November and far into the future.