"Secret" Tips: Making the Most of a Town Hall

August 14, 2012
by RESULTS San Fernando volunteer Al Sheahen

On the August 2012 US Poverty Conference Call, RESULTS San Fernando volunteer Al Sheahen shared his expert tips on getting called upon at a local town hall meeting — a focus of our August US Poverty Action Sheet. The following is adapted from his remarks on the call.

I find that it is challenging to get face to face meetings. So find out about town hall and go there. I live in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California.  We have a unique situation in that both of our long-term, Valley Congressmen — Brad Sherman and Howard Berman — have been redistricted and have arrogantly chosen to run against each other.

So they are being very active, holding Town Hall Meetings and showing up at park festivals, birthdays, bar mitzvahs and more whenever they are in town, from now to November.

So I was able to go to a Town Hall Meeting of each of them last week.

I tried to follow the excellent suggestions in the August Poverty Action Sheet, page 2.

First, I made some notes and wrote out what I planned to ask, if I got the chance.

Second, I got to each venue a few minutes ahead of time to get a parking space and a decent seat.

Both Congressmen did some announcements and give about a 20-30-minute talk.  Then they each took questions.

Berman had two staffers roaming the audience with microphones, calling on whoever they felt like.  Sherman’s staff issued one stub number to anyone who wanted to ask a question.   Another staffer would then ask an audience member to draw the other end of the stubs during the Q&A session.

With the Berman format, you want to be sitting in an aisle seat and, as Results suggests, always raise your hand “first, fast, and high.”   Most people are reluctant to ask the first question, so they hold back.  Then it becomes very difficult to get in because too many hands are up.

With the Sherman format, it doesn’t matter where you sit.  If your opposite stub number is not chosen, you will not be able to ask a question that day.  I was lucky.  My number was chosen.  I like to follow rules.  However, once, a year or so ago, when I really wanted to ask something and my stub number was not drawn, I just went up to the microphone anyway.  The staffer did not look at my stub number and let me ask my question.  But that won’t always work.

As RESULTS suggests, I like to hold the mike, myself, to make sure I’m speaking into it.  But both staffers for Sherman and Berman clung tightly to the mike and my words did not have the same impact as the staffer moved the mike back and forth — or maybe as I moved my face back and forth for emphasis.

My memory isn’t so hot, so I have experimented with writing my comments on paper and reading it, lest I forget key points.  I have decided that doesn’t work as well as just memorizing as best you can and speaking ad lib.  You will forget a few points, but the overall effect will be stronger and you will be able to maintain eye contact with your Congressman.

Both Sherman and Berman strongly support our issues such as Head Start, Earned Income Tax Credit, Food Stamps, and more. Berman is slightly more liberal, supporting single-payer health care. 

So I first thanked them for their strong support of these programs and got applause from each audience.  I challenged them to make these issues a priority

RESULTS also suggests we follow up after the event with a call or email and remind them or a staffer of the issue.  I have not yet done that, but will.

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