A trip to the local council reminded me of some basic persuasion techniques.
So this week I went along with a friend to his council’s community access session.
He wouldn’t appreciate me going in to all the specifics here, but basically, he needed to go and lobby the councillors directly to get them to delay considering his D.A.
He had gotten word that his D.A was going to get knocked back, because he had these koala friendly trees on his property that he wasn’t aware of when he first put his DA together.
“Koalas?” I said. “Don’t you live alongside and freeway?
“Yep, and there’s pitbulls to the north and 3 cockerspaniels to the south. We haven’t seen a koala in over 20 years.”
But that’s the way DAs work. You’ve just got to jump through the hoops.
Anyway, I went along with him – mostly for moral support – but also because I’ve been through this process more than a few times, and maybe I’d be able to answer any questions he couldn’t.
Anyway, we get there, and there’s two hours allocated to community access, and there’s about 40 people on the list to speak.
Oh my god. I’m looking around the room and already I’m sizing people up. There’s the ex-councilors who are very long in the tooth now, but miss the days when they had something meaningful to do.
Then there’s the obvious cranks. (Why do crazy guys always have crazy hair? Is it part of the job description?) They’ve obviously been working very hard on their presentations because they haven’t found the time to shave or find clean pants.
And then there’s a mish-mash of local business owners and residents, coming along for the first time, and generally looking like they’re out of their depth.
And then there’s the councillors themselves, gritting their teeth and bracing themselves for the onslaught that was obviously about to hit them.
And it was seriously on like donkey-kong once it started.
Crazy pants guy is first cab off the rank and he’s speaking to the plans for a new waste-water treatment. Well he wastes no time going straight to “dereliction of duty”, “abuse of trust” and “legacy of lies and deceits”.
And I couldn’t even tell if he was for or against what was on the table.
Next there was a local cafe owner who had been asked to move his tables of the public side-walk. From what I gathered the previous owner had told him that he was allowed to have tables on the sidewalk, but that just wasn’t the case. But now, this was council’s responsibility and if they were forcing him to move, then he was going straight to the land and environment court.
The there was an ex-councilor. I have no idea what he was talking about. He was reading a prepared statement off a piece of paper, and it was full of technical terms about this that and the other.
In fact, come to think about it, pretty much everyone was reading off a prepared statement.
Now I’m watching the councillors, and they genuinely looking like they’re doing their best to keep up, but it’s obviously wearing on them. Within an hour they’ve been called everything from incompetent to corrupt, and that’s just from the presentations you could actually follow.
They were getting that glazed look in their eye.
I lean over and ask my mate what he was planning to stay.
He shows me the statement he’s prepared. It’s two full A4 pages of size 12 font.
“What? You’re going to say all that? In 5 minutes?”
“Yeah, I’ll read quickly.”
I’m like, “Mate, no way. I’m telling you that’s not going to work. Do you mind if I speak for you?”
He was reluctant but he comes round.
So when our time comes I get up and take the mic, and I look the councillors in the eye and say:
“Look, we’re just here to ask for a delay on the decision for the development application relating to such and such a property.”
“We’ve been working closely with the council planners, and that’s been great, they’re all very professional, but it’s come to our attention that there are some issues with koala habitat that we weren’t aware of when we first put the DA together, so we’d just like a little extra time to make sure we’re doing everything right.
So yeah, if you could delay the decision on such and such a property, we’d really appreciate that.
Thanks very much.”
And then I sat down.
At that point, I had every councillors eyes on me. I had their attention.
Mostly I think they were amazed that someone had only used 40 seconds of their allocated 5 minutes. An hour and a half in to community access that would have felt like a gift from God.
But I was speaking to them as people. I was conversational, I was “off-script”. That made my message easy to hear.
(I actually can’t think of a situation where you’re better off reading a prepared statement… maybe in court. Or maybe when you’re fronting the media to explain why you’re entire first division side has failed their drug test. But generally, that paper locks you up, it makes you sound like a robot, and it makes your message very difficult to receive.)
The other thing I did is I brought myself inside the tent. I didn’t set it up as some sort of adversarial show-down. This comes from face to face marketing. If you have to argue the merits of your product, if you’re in an argument with your customer, you’ve lost the sale.
So I made it very clear that we were happy, we were friendly. We just wanted this little procedural thing to move things along. Easy easy.
Seriously, if you start off with, “I’d like to remind councillors of the oath they took when they took office, which they seem to have forgotten….” how far are you really going to get?
If you cast someone as the enemy, then they’re never going to agree to what you’re saying, no matter what it is.
I would have thought all this was obvious, but after this week’s meeting, I had to wonder.
Oh, and the other technique there is top and tailing. I said up front what we wanted, so everything that followed had a context. And I ended with it so it was left there in their minds.
Anyway, long story short, we got what we wanted. I don’t know how much help I actually was – it was a pretty reasonable request to begin with – but I’m fairly sure my mate’s 2 page epic wouldn’t have helped things.
And I just thought I’d share this. I thought these techniques of persuasion were pretty obvious, but after listening to a dozen accusation-filled rants, I did start to wonder.
Rule 1 – get on the right side of the fence.
Sometimes it’s as easy as being the only friendly (and sane) voice in a room.
Any tips for dealing with council? Or being more persuasive?