How to Attend a Congressional Town Hall

Taking part in a public or town hall meeting is a great way to build a relationship with your Member of Congress and his or her staff and to raise the profile of the rare disease community to policy-makers.  Such events generally take place in your community or district throughout the year and provide an opportunity for Members of Congress to hear from constituents on a wide range of concerns.

To find out information on upcoming Town Halls go to your Member of Congress’ Website or call the office if there is no information online.  To find out who your Members of Congress are go to:

Tips for Preparing to Speak

  • Determine the purpose and tone of the event. Find out what the overall agenda of the meeting will focus on, who else is expected to participate or make a presentation, and the anticipated “tone” of the meeting. This will help you to prepare your remarks and delivery style.
  • Use your network. Share information about the meeting with other advocates, partners, and coalitions.
  • Encourage as many rare disease advocates to attend the town meeting as appropriate. This will lend support to your efforts and demonstrate to your policy-maker the extent of the community support for people with rare diseases.
  • Be prepares with accurate, timely, and relevant information.

Tips for Presenting

  • Work to present your position or statement as early in the meeting as your are able, as press is more likely to attend and cover the first part of the event.
  • Keep your presentation brief. Limit your statement to three clear and concise points. Provide persuasive facts to assist participants to understand and remember your points.
  • Practice your statement to ensure you are comfortable and convincing when sharing your points with a larger audience.
  • Provide written copies of your statement to policy-makers, his/her staff, and the press.
  • Inform your fellow advocates and RDLA staff on the outcome of the meeting.

Insider Tip:  Arrive 20 minutes early to the Town Hall.  Congressional Staff always arrive early to the events to set up.  Introduce yourself to the staff and let them know why you are there.  Be respectful and polite and give them your contact information with a photo of your child or family.

10 Strategies for Using Congressional Town Hall Meetings to Advance Your Legislative Agenda

Brad Fitch
CEO Knowlegis

The best political education I got didn’t come from a graduate school course, or even from working the committee rooms of Capitol Hill in Washington during my time as a congressional aide.  My best lessons came when I had to travel off “the Hill” and attend my congressman’s town hall meetings.

As a press secretary to a suburban Maryland congressman, I worked the legislative issues by day and went to more than 100 town hall meetings at night over the course of five years.  It was at the VFW Hall in Glen Burnie, Maryland, and other venues like it that I truly learned how to influence legislators.  I saw first hand how constituents could press their case, face-to-face with their Member of Congress, which strategies got our attention, and which arguments led the congressman to say in the car ride home, “We have to look into that person’s issue tomorrow.”

I’ve also learned from our customers who are using our town hall meeting database to connect their members/supporters with legislators.  So what are the best ways to use town hall meetings to advance your legislative agenda?  Here is the top ten list:

  1. Be Prepared.  Most people don’t present their Member of Congress with a well-researched, well-rehearsed pitch.  They just say what they think – which has value.  But those who come to town hall meetings with thoughtful arguments, good data, and persuasive stories always get remembered.
  2. Tell a Personal Story.  This is why Members of Congress hold town hall meetings – to get first-hand accounts of the impact of policies on their constituents.  Think in advance of how a policy might affect you, your family, your business, or your community.  Whether the congressman supports you or not, they want to hear your story.
  3. Use Numbers If You Have Them.  Politicians live for one thing:  50% plus 1.  This keeps them re-elected and in a job.  Nearly every person to come before a Member of Congress represents more constituents either by a class or as a spokesperson.  Use these numbers.  “I have 50 employees,” “I represent 100 people in my union,”  “There are 500 people in my community that think just like me.”  The legislator is trying to do the political math the minute you stand up – make it easy for him.
  4. Be Respectful.  You’d be surprised how many people start a conversation with “I pay your salary so you better listen to me.”  It doesn’t matter if you’re talking to your grocer or a public official – starting any conversation with another person in a rude manner is no way to persuade them.  Members of Congress want to hear your views, you don’t need to badger them to get your message through.
  5. Go in Groups.   Nothing says “listen to me” to a public official like a mob.  This is not to suggest that you should bring pitch forks and torches to your next town hall meeting.  But a chorus is better than a solo performance.
  6. Talk to Staff.  Every congressman brings staff to town hall meetings.  They may seem to blend into the woodwork, but a sharp citizen seeks them out.  Talk to them before the meeting, get their business card,  and tell them your story (as well as asking a public question at the meeting).
  7. Leave Paper.  Town hall meetings are usually staffed by district-office staff who do not deal with legislative issues on a daily basis.  If you leave background memos or talking points, they’ll likely be faxed to Washington to the legislative assistant who covers your issue.
  8. Follow-up Politely.  Politely persistent people persuade politicians.  Congressional offices are harried, so they often respond to the squeaky wheel – the one who just follows up with a phone call after attending a town hall meeting.
  9. Get People to Multiple Meetings.  This is a sure bet to get noticed.  When we got the same obscure question in Glen Burnie as we did in Crofton, my Member of Congress said, “We’d better look into that.”  Hearing the same thing in different places signals to a politician there may be a deeper problem afoot.
  10. Demonstrate You’re Not Going Away.  If you continue to show your presence at town hall meetings, the legislator must deal with you…if only to avoid an uncomfortable encounter at a future town hall meeting.

Finally, do not underestimate the power of raising a question at a public meeting and getting a public official on the record.  If a Member of Congress says to a constituent in public setting, “I’ll look into it,” I guarantee you the issue immediately goes to the top of some staffers to-do list.  Politicians are terrified of being accused of not following through on a promise.  And a Member of Congress making a pledge to a constituent at a town hall meeting is one of the biggest promises they can make.

The author is the CEO of Knowlegis, part of the Capitol Advantage family of companies.  Knowlegis researches and provides data on upcoming congressional town hall meetings.