How to Effectively Communicate with your Legislator
Your elected officials want to hear from you. This document contains information that will help you understand the process and communicate effectively with your elected representatives.
About State Legislators:
- Members of the Colorado House of Representatives (“Representatives”) serve two-year terms. There are 65 Representatives in the Colorado House of Representatives and each represents a legislative district that contains approximately 77,500 people. Representatives are limited to serving 4 consecutive 2-year terms, or 8 years in a row.
- Members of the Colorado Senate (“Senators”) serve four-year terms. There are 35 Senators in the Colorado Senate. Senators are also limited to serving 8 years in a row, or two consecutive terms.
- The General Assembly convenes each year no later than the second Wednesday in January and adjourns in May. Constitutionally legislative sessions may not exceed 120 calendar days.
- Being a Representative or Senator is not a full-time job. Legislators take time away from their regular professions to serve in the legislature. Thus, in addition to the time they spend in Denver during the annual legislative session or in pre-session committee weeks, they have “real life” work and family responsibilities just like the rest of us.
- Because Representatives and Senators are often traveling to Denver and balancing their legislative and personal responsibilities, it may be challenging to get an appointment to speak with them face-to-face. You may find that you are only able to speak with their legislative assistant, but they will pass on your concerns to your legislator so it is still worth meeting with them if you cannot see your Representative or Senator directly.
- It is often easier to meet with your legislators in their hometown rather than traveling to Denver. These hometown meetings (“in district meetings”) are often less pressured and rushed than a meeting during the hectic legislative session, thus it may be easier to get an appointment and the legislator may be able to devote more time to your meeting.
Requesting an Appointment:
- The first step is identifying your Representative and Senator. If you don’t know, you can use these links to look them up:
- These links will also provide you with their contact information, legislation they have sponsored, and committees they have served on.
- You will then need to call the office and request an appointment. The person answering the phone will want to know what the purpose of your meeting is and what topics you would like to discuss. If they offer to have you come speak with the legislative aide, you should politely but firmly request to meet with the legislator personally, even if the appointment won’t be for several weeks. If they are unable to give you an appointment with the legislator, you should make the appointment with the legislative aide. Often the aides are the eyes and ears of the legislator, and some have significant influence. You can always try to arrange a follow-up meeting with the legislator after you’ve met with the aide.
- Suggested script:
- “Hello, my name is ____. I am a constituent of Rep. _____ or Sen. ____ and I would like to request an appointment to meet with him/her at his/her next available opportunity.”
- [What is this in regard?] I would like to speak with (him or her) regarding comprehensive sexual health education in our district.
- [I’d be happy to take your information and pass it on] “Thank you, I appreciate that, but I’d really like to meet with Senator ____ or Representative ____ in person.” (State why this issue is of particular importance to you). “I know that his/her time is valuable, and I certainly don’t want to waste it” or “I know ____ is very busy, and I won’t take up much of his/her time” “but this is an important issue to me because …”/ “but this issue is personal to me because …”
- [If you get the appointment] “Thank you so much in advance. I won’t take up much of the Senator/Representative’s time, but this means so much to me. I appreciate it.” Confirm the meeting date and time and directions, if needed.
- Find out how much time the legislator can set aside for you. It is typically around 15 minutes, though it might be as little as ten minutes or as much as an hour. Knowing in advance will help you prepare.
- [If there is no way the schedule will permit a personal visit with the legislator, but you are able to/willing to meet with the aide] “I appreciate the Senator/Representative’s busy schedule. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me in his/her place. If a date and time do become available, can you please pencil me in?” Confirm the meeting date and time and directions, if needed.
Preparing for the Appointment:
- Research the legislator. Each legislator has a webpage on the Colorado General Assembly website: https://leg.colorado.gov/legislators For example, you can find information about Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver at https://leg.colorado.gov/legislators/leslie-herod. That page will provide you with some information about what bills she has sponsored and what committees she sits on. You can also learn a lot about them by doing a Google search of them and reading some of the media stories about them. You can also look them up on Facebook or read their Twitter feeds to see what they have been up to.
- Some things to know before you go might include: Do they represent your same political party? What is their background? How long have they been in office? Have they sponsored, or been supportive of this legislation before? Knowing this type of information will help you find things you may have in common with them and make it easier to establish a connection with them.
- Practice telling your story and explaining why this issue is important to you and, if applicable, how it has touched your and/or your family’s lives.
- Be familiar with the proposed bills and the issues you will be discussing with them. Know the facts, statistics, and talking points. Are there pros and cons that will be brought up? If the legislator opposes it and brings up negatives, do you know what to say to combat that position?
- Know the talking points about the bills. Have a handout with facts and figures to leave with him or her.
- The day before the meeting, call and confirm that the meeting is still on and confirm how much time you will have. Sometimes their schedules change at the last minute, and they may forget to let you know. If that happens, try to reschedule for the next available time. Be polite and patient.
- Practice your presentation ahead of time so you know whether you will be able to get all your points in the time allotted. Adjust your presentation to fit the allotted time.
Meeting with the Legislator:
- Be on time. Their time is valuable, and they may have scheduled a number of appointments back to back. If you’re late, you may miss your opportunity.
- Dress appropriately. You don’t necessarily have to wear “business attire” but certainly dress conservatively or tastefully. Nothing flashy, nothing ripped or dirty, no graphic tees with inappropriate sayings on them. Know your audience as well. For example, you might not want to wear your “Feel the Bern” t-shirt to meet with a Republican legislator. Ball caps and gum chewing may be seen as disrespectful or unprofessional. If you are representing a group or organization, it is ok to wear their imprinted shirts. If you are coming from or going to work, it is ok to wear your work clothes and explain that you are on your way to or from your job.
- Keep to your time limit. Know how much time you have been allotted and be respectful of that amount of time. Get your message across in the time you have. Be flexible. If it appears that the legislator is losing interest or is interrupted and you end up having less time than you planned, review the key points first so that you have maximized your opportunity.
- Be succinct and to the point. Avoid rambling and getting off-topic.
- Be polite and friendly. If the legislator is of a different party, or if you didn’t vote for them, or if you don’t agree with some of their other issues, don’t bring that up. Don’t be antagonistic. Be as nice as you can be. The goal is to have the legislator listen to your story and want to help.
- Good eye contact is important! Exude confidence even if you are nervous, but acknowledging that you are nervous will sometimes help as well. Knowing your subject really well will help you to feel more confident.
- Sharing a personal story, or reason why the subject is important to you will make more of an impression on the legislator than simply lecturing on the subject.
- Be respectful but also remember that your Representative or Senator is not a mythical creature but a regular person just like you.
Proposed Script for In-Person Meeting:
- Hello, Senator **/Representative **, thank you so much for meeting with me today.
- My name is ***, I am one of your constituents. I live in ***. I’m here to speak with you about comprehensive sexuality education bills that are pending/will come before the legislature this year.
- Refer to talking points about bills
- I’m particularly passionate about *** because ***
- Can I count on your support for these bills when they come up for a vote?
- Is there any information I can send to you that would help you support these bills?
- I really appreciate your meeting with me today. I know how valuable your time is, and these bills are really crucial to [me] [my organization/family/community].
After the Meeting
- It’s always a good idea to follow up your meeting with an email or letter, again thanking them for taking the time to meet with you, and reminding them of what you discussed.
- If there was any further information you promised to send, send it with the follow up.
- When the committee meeting approaches, if they are on the committee, or when the full Senate or House will vote on it, send another follow up email or make a phone call reminding them of your meeting and their proposed support, if they gave it.
- Let us know how things went. Please report back to your point person or send email@example.com an email describing how the meeting went and whether or not the Representative or Senator expressed support or opposition to any of the proposed reforms. Please go into as much detail as possible.
Speaking at School Board Meetings and Other Public Meetings
Why is speaking at a public meeting an effective tactic?
- Directly influence decision makers by giving public testimony – similar to meeting with elected officials in person, this is your opportunity to make the case directly to people who may be the decision makers on your campaign. Your persuasive arguments and compelling personal stories can make the difference.
- Show public support – when you organize a large coordinated group to sit through tedious public meetings, public officials take notice.
- Get press attention from local press that is typically present at these meetings. This creates more public pressure and can be a way to bring others into your campaign.
- Pass resolutions in your favor or block bad policy – you’re attending an event where decisions get made, and you can pass resolutions in favor of your campaign or block potentially bad policy.
Types of Public Meetings
- School board meeting
- State Board of Education meeting
- Agency hearing
- Issue-specific forum held by elected official
What to Expect
At a typical meeting, members of the public will be given an opportunity to comment on meeting agenda items. There is also typically a section of the agenda reserved for meeting attendees to speak to the council about whatever issues are on their mind, even if it is not on the agenda. Be prepared: these kinds of meetings can go on for hours and you may have to sit through lengthy discussions agenda items before they get to public comments.
Before the Meeting
- Find out what’s on the agenda. For public meetings, you can likely find the agenda online. If you can’t, call the office organizing the meeting and ask for a copy. You should also make sure to find out how many minutes members of the public are allowed to speak during public comment and what you have to do to sign up to offer public comment.
- If comprehensive sexual health education and related issues aren’t on the agenda, ask your elected official if there is a way to add it. If you can’t get it added, don’t worry – use the open public comment section to demand that your elected officials address CSHE.
- Identify speakers who have a compelling story. Everyone who attends should speak out in favor of the campaign during the public comment section, but it’s ideal to have some people who are directly impacted by the issue. Ideally, a mix of parents, teachers, students, and community members would be speaking.
- Prepare and print talking points. You want everyone who speaks to be concise and on message. If you write up your full remarks in advance, bring a copy to provide for the official record.
- Be aware of the goal. What is it you want your elected officials to do – vote for or against the bill? Make a commitment to introduce or co-sponsor legislation? Schedule a hearing? The leave-behind will provide a specific “ask” for each issue. Be sure to consult our materials and stay focused on the goal. Asking your elected officials to do something specific will allow us to follow up with them later!
During the Meeting
- Arrive early and sign up to speak. Greet other activists as they arrive, explain what they need to do to sign up to speak, and help them get on the list.
- Be visible. That could mean bringing signs, wearing the same color, wearing buttons, etc. – anything that makes it clear who in the crowd is in favor of CSHE.
- Take photos and video. Designate several people in your group to take photos and video that you can distribute to the press later. Videos of compelling speakers can be especially useful, as can videos of elected officials responding to public comment.
- Stay on message. Make sure to distribute talking points to all the activists at the meeting so that everyone is concise, factually accurate and to the point. Remember that you aren’t speaking on behalf of the ACLU, but are representing yourself, your community and our cause.
- Be courteous, yet direct. Conduct yourself in a way that is consistent with the seriousness of our cause. If your elected officials say something outrageous or offensive, speak truth to power and let them know you disagree.
- Saying “I don’t know” can be a smart political move. You need not know absolutely everything on the topic you are discussing. It is fine to tell the elected official/staff that you will get further information for him or her. Never guess at an answer to a question – giving wrong or inaccurate information can seriously damage your credibility and that of the ACLU!
- Keep it short and focused! In most cases, you’ll have only 3 minutes to speak. Make the most of that brief time by sticking to your topic, and pointing out the specific requests for each issue. If you run out of time, be sure to ask the legislators to review the handout that you’re leaving behind.
- Introduce yourself, and be sure to point out that you’re a constituent and/or member of the community (assuming that you are). Being a constituent is a powerful thing. Pointing out that you’re a constituent will make it more likely that your elected officials will listen to you.
After the Meeting
- Follow up with local reporters. Email them photos and video from the meeting and any other important information, including the number of people who attended and spoke out in favor of your campaign’s legislation.
- Follow up with your elected officials. Ask them to put out statements of public support. Use the show of public support at the last meeting to move them toward support for your goals.
- Follow up in a timely fashion with any requested materials and information.
- Whenever possible, send a personal thank-you note to the legislators who heard your presentation.
- Compare Notes. Right after the meeting, briefly compare notes with everyone in your group, if a group attended.
- Plan your next tactic and event. Continue your good work and plan your next action.
Writing Letters to the Editor
Why is writing letters to the editor an effective tactic?
Submitting letters to the editors of your local newspapers is a powerful and effective way to get the word out about your campaign to a wide audience, including the paper’s readership, community leaders, and elected officials who often read letters to the editor to learn where their constituents stand on the issues that affect their community.
Tips to keep in mind while writing
- Know the word limit and keep it concise. Most newspapers will only publish letters that stay within a certain word limit — usually 150-250 words. You can check the word limit on the Opinion page of your paper’s website or sometimes on the print version in the Opinion section.
- Follow this outline. Introduce the topic, state your position, tell your personal story, state a few key statistics or facts about the issue, and conclude with your call to action. You only have a bit of space, so stay focused!
- Mention your elected officials by name in the letter. Elected officials take notice when their name is in the paper and you can really get on their radar if you address them directly in a letter that gets published.
Submitting your letter and next steps
- When you’re ready, submit your letter. Go to your local newspaper’s website and search for directions for submitting it online. If you can’t, send it to wherever your newspaper receives physical mail.
- Call the paper the following day to make sure they received your letter. This call will help bump your letter up in the line. You can follow this script: “Hi, I am calling to make sure you received my letter to the editor and ask if you know when it will be published?…Great, thanks!”
- Check the paper each day after you submit your letter.That way, you’ll know as soon as your letter has been published and you can begin sharing it on social media and email listservs so it reaches an even wider audience.
- Post a picture of your letter to the editor on your social media. It furthers your reach for new community members to learn about your campaign.
- Email or mail a copy to your campaign target. If your letter is published, send a copy by email or print to your campaign target, such as an elected official, and make your next ask (a meeting, introducing specific legislation, etc).
- Email a copy to the ACLU of Colorado. Keep us updated on actions happening in your community!
- If your letter isn’t published within a few days, make some tweaks and submit again. You can also try submitting the same letter to another paper — just make sure not to submit the same letter to the same paper in the same 1-2 day period. Take what you create and space it out over different publications and at least a week’s time.
Letter to the Editor Sample
In the state of Colorado, there is no standardized sexual health curriculum for public schools. This means every individual board of education has the sole power to decide what topics will be covered in their own institutions.
As an undergraduate student, I have been researching this issue and find this alarming and very disturbing. The fact that sexual health information in schools does not even have to be medically accurate should concern every parent in Colorado. Boards of education that choose an abstinence-only curriculum over a comprehensive one deprive their students of vital knowledge that can prevent the spread of disease and unwanted pregnancies.
If Coloradans genuinely want an effective program that promotes health for their children, I urge U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner as well as Reps. Jared Polis, Dianna DeGette, Mike Coffman, Ed Perlmutter, Doug Lamborn, Ken Buck, and Scott Tipton to work with their colleagues and Gov. John Hickenlooper and support standardized, comprehensive sexual health education in Colorado. We are all after the same goal, so let us all be aware of what we can do for the safety of future generations.
How to Start a Petition
Why is collecting petition signatures an effective tactic?
- Create public support by having conversations with community members during your petition gathering about your campaign and issue.
- Build a list of supporters for your issue that you can ask to take action in other ways later on.
- Show public support and put pressure on elected officials by making the breadth of support for your campaign visible to your target.
- Get press attention by making an event out of your petition delivery. Press coverage will help your campaign reach more people and put more public pressure on your target.
Before your event
- Create your petition with all of the information you will need– your ask, space for name and contact information to get back in touch with the signer, and jurisdiction that your signer lives in to show they are a constituent of your targeted elected official. Check out this ACLU People Power sample petition that you can use as a template.
- Prepare all of the materials you will need – Multiple blank petition sheets, pens, clipboards, any information about your issue that you want to hand out (keep it simple).
- Choose a busy location you will collect petitions – in front of public libraries, grocery stores, community college campuses, or other high traffic public areas.
Note: You can also collect petitions by going to public events like county fairs or going door to door canvassing. You can also set personal goals for your team to collect in between team meetings – ask your friends, family, people at church, school, or anywhere!
During your event
Train all petitioning volunteers. Some people in your group may have experience petitioning. Others may not. The point of a group training is to make sure everyone understands why they’re petitioning, how to do it, and why it’s going to make a difference. A good training has the following components:
- Give context – Why are you collecting petition signatures today? Why is this campaign important? How does collecting petition signatures help you win?
- Give tips on how to be successful at collecting petitions
- Be friendly and greet everyone with a big wave. A big wave and smile will increase the number of people who stop to sign your petition! Make a strong, direct ask – for example, “Hi, Hi, can you sign a petition to support comprehensive sexual health education in our school district?” If you’re going door-to-door, wear name tags and introduce yourself.
- Make sure to get complete contact information–Half the goal of collecting signatures is to build a list of community members who are with us and that we can contact later on to get involved. Be direct in asking for the person’s phone and email if they don’t initially write it down. Something like, “Can you put your contact info down so we can keep you updated on important developments with our campaign?”
- Review materials that all the volunteers have in their hands. Talk about what a completed petition signature looks like.
- Practice – have volunteers practice the script you’re using, or just practicing stopping people, asking them to sign petitions, and answer a few basic questions.
Send volunteers to their petitioning locations. Have people go to locations with lots of people to make sure you’re asking as many people as possible. Send people in pairs so that they stay motivated and have a better experience. Give each pair a goal of how many signatures they should collect.
Check in with your volunteers throughout the volunteer shift. Ask them how it’s going, remind them how important the work they are doing is, thank them for all their hard work, and give them a big high five. Collecting petitions can be discouraging because if you’re doing it right you get many “no’s” — because you’re asking so many people! Part of your role as an organizer is to be a cheerleader for your team, remind them how appreciated they are, and help keep them motivated to keep going.
Take pictures. Share on social media to spread the word about your campaign, post them in your Facebook group later as a way to publically thank your volunteers.
After your event
Collect your materials and debrief with your volunteers. Ask your volunteers to meet back at your meeting spot at the end of their volunteer shift with all of their materials. Make sure to get all the signed petition sheets back. Ask your volunteers how their experience was. Remind everyone how important their work today was, and thank everyone multiple times.
Engaging with Community
In the process of advocating for CSHE, you will frequently connect with community groups. It is important to take advantage of opportunities to connect with community stakeholders and build support for the movement for CSHE.
Do research on opportunities
- Community groups often meet at a certain time each month. Look for meeting calendars to see what dates are coming up. Make a list of meeting information and contacts.
- Events can be excellent venues for education. Are there upcoming events related to education?
Make a decision
- Think through your next actions: Are you preparing a presentation for a school board meeting? Are you working with school administrators to adopt a new curriculum?
- Think through capacity. Speaking to a community group at their monthly meeting is a great way to collect petitions and educate people on your issue – it also doesn’t take much time or effort to accomplish! Planning a community forum is an excellent way to educate many people at once and develop relationships by asking other groups to sit on a panel or having a school board member or parent speak about the importance of CSHE- it can be totally worth it but it does take time (~1 month) to plan a big educational event like this.
Get out there!
- Regardless of what venue you are in, you can use a simple structure to speak about your campaign.
- Introduce yourself
- Give the basic background/description of the problem (Why are you here to speak to them today?)
- State your call to action goal (What can we do about this problem?)
- Tell them how they fit in (What can they do to help?)
- Make a strong and clear ask to take action (Come to a school board meeting! Write a letter to their school principal!)
- Feel free to add in why you care about this issue and any personal stories that connect to the issue.
- Make sure you always have a way to collect names and contact information. Education is only the first step – action is the next – and you need information to get people involved.
It is helpful to see this simple structure in action. This is an example based on a voting rights campaign working to pass a state bill on early voting. The content of your pitch will vary depending on the issue and specific policy you are working on. Example:
- Hi, I’m ______, thank you for letting me speak to your group at the start of your monthly meeting!
- Our students need comprehensive sexual health education. Right now, our schools are not providing young people with the tools they need to make informed and healthy choices. All students must be included in sexual health education, and they must be empowered to make informed choices for themselves. A strong sexual health education curriculum is essential for public health.
- That’s why our community group is working to change the sexual health curriculum in our school district to be compliant with Colorado law. Students need to be able to access information that is medically accurate and culturally sensitive.
- Many Colorado school districts have been providing comprehensive sexual health education for years—don’t you think it is time that we do too?! I have a petition asking our school board to do exactly that. We are working to collect 1000 signatures this month to deliver at the next school board meeting.
- I’m going to pass it around and make sure to fill out all the fields so your school board representatives know that you are in the district, and make sure you put down your phone and email so we can stay in touch.
- Thanks so much!