By Knight Stivender
This political season (or any other, for that matter) you might meet someone whose passion for a cause or candidate inspires you to say, “Yes! Add me to your list of volunteers!”
First of all, count on that person to actually add you to their list. People working to change the world are under no illusion they can do it all by themselves. Trust me.
So when they do, in fact, add you to the list, please, PLEASE respond when the call (or email) comes asking you to do something real in terms of volunteering.
If the request is to pick up the phone and make unsolicited phone calls or – even scarier - go door-to-door asking total strangers to support your cause (this is called canvassing in the political world), here are some things you can do to make this a much less frightening situation for both yourself as well as the people to whom you’re speaking.
I base this on advice provided by a wonderful field director who’s been instructing volunteers at each of my friend Courtenay’s canvassing events, as well as 20 years working in journalism, marketing and advertising – fields in which it’s tremendously more helpful to be a good listener than a smooth talker, despite some negative stereotypes to the contrary.
1. What to wear. Consider context when choosing your wardrobe. Don’t wear overalls to a neighborhood you think will be dressed up for church. Don’t dress like a banker to a picnic on a farm. At the same time – be comfortable and be yourself. People will know immediately if you’re “putting on airs”. Most of the time, you will be knocking on doors for 3-4 hours, so make sure your shoes are comfortable and that you are dressed for the weather.
2. Intros. Know your person’s name in advance and address them as Mr. or Ms. (not Mrs. or Miss; don’t make assumptions about marital status). This is just basic manners and shows that you’ve done some homework but haven’t made too many assumptions. In a professional campaign, this information will be provided to you by the field director.
3. Set expectations. Introduce yourself immediately and let them know quickly what you are doing and that you will just be a few short minutes. “I’m Knight Stivender and I’m working on behalf of my friend Courtenay Rogers, who is campaigning for state representative in your district. I’m just out here today to see what people think of this area and to get a feel for the community. I promise not to take up too much of your time…” They’ll connect that you’re helping out a friend (surely they, too, have friends), and they’ll also know that this won’t take up too much of their time. You’ve also insinuated that you plan to listen more than you plan to talk.
4. Ask questions. Ask questions rather than give a pitch. This way you don’t feel like a salesperson, and the person to whom you’re speaking doesn’t feel like they’re being sold. Instead of explaining why So And So is a great candidate or Such And Such is a worthy cause, ask them what they think about your person or your cause. If you don’t think they know much about your candidate or cause, ask them more general questions that might lead to a more specific discussion about your agenda, or that might help your candidate be better informed about the community she or he is hoping to represent. In doing this with Courtenay’s campaign, we’ve learned that our community cares a great deal more about healthcare and affordable housing than we had initially imagined.
5. Rating questions. For issues that are likely to be a universal concern, ask people to give you a rating rather than to tell you whether they’re bothered by them in general. For example: Instead of “What do you think about traffic here? Or, is traffic a problem here?” – ask “On a scale of 1-5, how bad do you think the traffic here is?” You’ll likely get a more specific answer than a generic, “Yeah, traffic is bad” answer that you’ll likely get from most everyone.
6. Magic wand. Ask at least one “magic wand” question that causes people to think a little more creatively or personally and provides an opportunity for your candidate or cause to make an immediate, tangible difference in someone’s life. For example: “If you could wave a magic wand and fix something really frustrating for just one family on this street, what would it be?” I love that question in particular because every now and then there’s a chance the fix is one you could actually help tackle. At minimal, it gives you something specific to take back to your candidate or team, and you have a natural conversation starter for a follow-up call with that contact.
7. End with a thank you. This is Courtenay’s idea and I embrace it fully: When you’re wrapping up the conversation, always thank the person for something you genuinely appreciate about them, regardless of whether you felt the conversation was successful or not. Courtenay likes to say, “Thank you for being a voter”. At times in my career I’ve said, “Thank you for being a reader,” or “Thank you for being the kind of person who cares about this stuff.” You can always find something to be thankful for, I promise.
It can be intimidating to talk to total strangers, especially if you’re concerned they may not agree with your position or platform, or if you’re worried they’re too busy or you’re barging in on their day.
But one thing I have learned – and I know many others have, too – is that when you show genuine interest in people’s problems and joys, there is something to be gained all the way around. Good luck and happy campaigning!