April 28, 2016
The Netflix series “Making a Murderer” has captured the attention of millions of people. However, I know few individuals who would want to start that 10-episode series, or any series, on episode number four. Knowing how it all begins and understanding the basic framework is crucial.
The same methods are true on Capitol Hill. After surveying of dozens of Hill staff, a whopping 88 percent said that for a first meeting with any group, they would prefer the group assumes the congressional office know nothing about the topic at hand. So, start at the very beginning.
While a group’s issue may be the most important thing in the world from its perspective, and it may even be atop the news, it may also be unfamiliar to a busy staff person trying to juggle a plethora of policy issues.
As one staff person told me, “They should start the meeting at the 30,000 ft level … Many staffers fake that they understand an issue because they don’t want to look stupid … which makes it tough for the staffer to brief their boss.”
If the staff person is unable to effectively brief the boss, despite the group’s best use of intricate details, fancy charts, and interactive graphs, the group’s message will be lost.
Even when asked, “Are you familiar with this issue,” most staff will say yes, even if the answer is no.
More annoying to many staff is being asked, “What do you know about this issue?”
With all that being said, groups need to work with staff. Do not make the meeting awkward, embarrassing, or unhelpful. Allow the staffers to walk before asking them to run.
Some of the more effective ways of accomplishing this is to provide at that initial meeting a one-page summary or a 101 type overview that includes the fundamentals. Diligently avoid the industry jargon.
Make an effort to eliminate the use of acronyms, and if someone in the group does, clarify what it means. Stay out of the weeds. If a group is meeting to discuss legislation, provide the bill name AND bill number, and sponsors upfront.
These are some simple techniques that will allow a group to more clearly convey its message. Plus, staff members are conscientious of time. If they know more about the issue, they will indicate such and encourage the group to move on and go deeper into the weeds.
Finally, as a group prepares for that first meeting, keep in mind some words of wisdom from Albert Einstein, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”