Bored with boards at public meetings

23 02 2011

My greatest pet peeve about public meetings is an open house where someone attends but doesn’t speak to anyone. To me, this is a complete failure of public outreach and defeats the purpose of holding a meeting. What is the point of holding a meeting if you don’t take advantage of face-to-face discussion?

To avoid the silent attendee syndrome, I have shifted my public meeting philosophy to be less about boards and polished presentation and more about equipping staff to answer questions and engage people in conversation. I organized a public meeting this week with meeting materials comprised of five boards and two maps for an anticipated crowd of 100 people. These maps and graphics were tools for staff to refer to as speaking points or to help explain what is happening in the area.

I have planned public meetings in the past with umpteen boards with review after review and edit upon edit to get it just right. It is not fun to plan and I think it is not fun to attend a meeting where you take time to be in-person only to learn about a project from a series of display boards.

Here are my suggestions for effective presentation boards at public meetings:

–          Focus on visuals and graphics rather than text. Utilize boards to support sharing a message through conversation rather than relying on the board to tell the message.

–          Utilize the same images and messages in different formats. Content of handouts for take-home should match what is on display boards or in a PowerPoint presentation.

–           Print duplicate boards or maps if you anticipate a large crowd. Again, these are visual aids for staff. I like to plan meetings so that project representatives speak with small groups of people and answer their questions. Having duplicate boards allows several conversations to occur concurrently.

–          Prepare public meeting staff. Hold a pre-meeting to talk through information and anticipated questions. Let them know what visuals will be available to support their conversations.

Public meetings are about meeting people, introducing yourself and your project and hearing the questions and concerns of people who are affected by a project or decision. Interpersonal communication is still the most effective method to deliver difficult or complex information. So speak up!


Beyond civility: From public engagement to problem solving

4 02 2011

The National League of Cities (NLC) recently released a 10-page “Civility Guide” as an “action guide for city leaders.” Thanks to the blog at for highlighting this new publication. It provides practical and thoughtful tips along with quotes from representative local government leaders and examples of the seven principles they put forward.

NLC Executive Director Donald J. Borut wrote, The  following action guide draws on NLC’s continuing work on this topic to present cities and city leaders with ideas and a framework for action to promote democratic governance. As NLC defines it, democratic governance is “the art of governing a community in participatory, deliberative, inclusive and collaborative ways.” This isn’t easy work, but it is essential to the effective functioning of our cities and our society.

The publication is succinct and easy to follow. For P2 practitioners, there is nothing stunningly new in its content, but it is refreshing to hear proponents for meaningful public participation coming from within local government.

One of the most striking statements in the document was acknowledgement that city officials, staff and citizens need training and/or some kind of better understanding of effective public engagement. In a 2010 NLC survey, about half of all city officials and top staff surveyed said that neither they nor their constituents have the skills and experience needed to carry out effective public engagement. To me, this is a call to action for P2 folks to rise to the challenge of equipping our clients and communities! I am convinced that once someone has experienced “effective public engagement” – meaning, that citizens feel heard or decision-makers feel they have a better outcome because of public input – people become believers in and advocates for meaningful public processes.

I encourage you to check out this guide and share your thoughts on what is most compelling to you.