How to Have an Effective Visit With Your Policy Maker

Published Jul 17, 2007

Meeting with your members of congress is one of the most effective ways that you can influence the legislative process. Members are more likely to support positions that their constituents feel strongly about, and there is no better way to display your passion for an issue than by taking the time to have a face-to-face meeting. Once you have your meeting set, you'll need to prepare and know what to expect. Here are some tips to ensure you have a productive meeting:

Getting the most out of your meeting

  1. Identify your main message. Before the meeting, determine what the main message that you want to convey to your legislator is. For instance, "please play a leadership role in advancing policies to reduce the threat of global warming” or “please vote for bills that will reduce global warming pollution."
  2. Determine roles for participants. If more than one person is meeting with the legislator designate a group leader to open and close the meeting and a different person to present each issue or main message.
  3. Prepare and practice for the meeting. It's always a good idea to run-through what you intend to say before the meeting itself. If you are meeting with a group of people, have each person practice their part in front of the group. Time permitting—hold a dry run of the entire meeting. Remember to dress nicely, business attire is appropriate. If you are meeting in Washington, D.C. business/formal dress is required in the Capitol building.
  4. Introduce yourself. Tell your legislator or staff person your name, where you are from, and that you are a constituent. If you represent an organization, note its name, where the group is located, and the size of its membership. If you are associated with a specific institution, identify it and your field of study (i.e. ecology). If you have any family, social, business, or political ties to the legislator, mention them as well. If possible, thank the member for a good stand they recently took on an issue and/or mention if you voted for the member. At a minimum, thank them for taking the time to meet with you.
  5. Take the initiative. State clearly and concisely what issue you want to discuss, what your position is, and what action you want the member to take. Follow this with facts about why they should take your position. Ask questions the legislator can respond "yes" or "no." Press politely for a commitment, unless the member is clearly opposed to your position or to making a commitment.
  6. Make a local connection. Stress how the issue will affect the legislator's district or state and, if possible, tell a personal story that highlights your experience with the issue and why you care about it.

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Additional tools and resources

  • Follow up. Always follow up with a prompt thank you letter. In the letter, reiterate your key points and any commitments the legislator made to you. Include all follow-up information you promised to provide.
  • Let us know how it went. Be sure to let us know the results of your meeting. The more details you can provide us with the better.
  • Bring a "leave-behind" document. Give the legislator a brief fact sheet (one to two pages) that outlines your position and explains what the bill does (if there is one) and why they should support your viewpoint.
  • Drop names. Mention any other organizations, important individuals, government officials, and legislators that support your position.
  • Don’t answer what you don’t know. It's okay to not know all the answers. Answer questions to the best of your ability, and if you don’t know an answer, admit it. This ensures you maintain credibility and it provides an opportunity for a relevant follow-up letter to provide any additional information.
  • Don't get discouraged. Members of the legislature are very busy and could be called out of the meeting—or not available at all—leaving you with their legislative aide that handles the issue. Don’t let this discourage you. Meeting with a staff member can be equally or even more productive than meeting with the member. Staff can have tremendous influence over legislators and in many cases know far more about the legislation than the legislators themselves. Be sure to ask the staff person to convey your views and legislative requests to their boss.
  • Stay on topic. The legislator may hijack the agenda or waste valuable time by bringing up unrelated issues. While it is important to be cordial and flexible, this is a meeting for you to relay your concerns to an elected official. Quickly acknowledge and address their issue and redirect the discussion back to the agenda. Don’t let them take you off-course for more than a moment.