Learning By Doing: Insights From Meetings With Decision-Makers

The conference room this past Sunday was full of nervous excitement, tinged with the tiredness that comes from a long day. Chad English and I had just spent an afternoon with the Switzer Environmental Fellows, practicing and preparing for their meetings with decision-makers in the morning. It was the wrap up of a two-month process, and the first time that many of them had shared their research in the context of policy.  As the fellows filtered out of the room, we answered lots of questions, from complicated ones about the role of advocacy in science advising, to more straightforward ones about what to wear and how long it would take to get to the meeting.

No matter where your meeting may be, it’s important to prepare.
Image by Michael Colburn, via Flickr. Creative Commons.

We told the fellows that, regardless of whether it’s a meeting with decision-makers on Capitol Hill, in agencies, or at non-governmental organizations, it’s important to:

  • Do your homework to understand who to meet with and why
  • Prepare your message
  • Understand the culture you are walking into

When we debriefed with the Fellows afterwards, the energy was infectious.  Some had ended up with really specific next steps – people to contact, papers to send. Others had uncovered more of the policy landscape for their issue and insights for their own research.  Here are some of their observations that may help you as you prepare to engage.

What surprised you?

“The level of interest in the topic that the staff member had. We ended with a lot of actionable follow-ups: papers to send, possible letters of support for federal funding, and press support for our work with high school students.”

“I realized that I did have information to impart. As a graduate student, I wasn’t sure how useful I’d be, but I had much more background than the person I talked to and I left feeling helpful.”

How young all the staff seemed on Capitol Hill.”

What was hard?

My meeting ended up being in a hallway because all of the conference rooms were taken, so it was distracting.”

At first it went really badly, but then it got really good. I was flustered at first, trying to remember everything from my original pitch, but when I slowed down and just started talking about my work, it went much better.”

“A fox strolled by the window where my meeting was being held! It was pretty distracting. Strange story, but true.”

Did you feel prepared? What helped get you ready?

Refining my thesis into a short pitch and practicing it made a big difference. It enabled me to quickly get reactions on my work from a wide range of people that I might not have been able to otherwise.”

“I wish I would have prepped more on some of the previous bills that had been introduced on my topic. They asked a lot of questions about those.”

“The message box really helped me. The Senator whose staff I was going to meet with was on the same flight with me, and after I introduced myself it was great to have the first line ready to talk about what I work on.”

Any other reflections?

I noticed that when I mentioned the number of a bill, that was when the staff member took notes. They were engaged the rest of the time, but mentioning the bills really got their attention.”

“It made me realize that I probably don’t want to work in D.C., but I’m glad I know how to engage here.”

My meeting with the World Bank was really fast but really efficient. I was able to talk about my work in 1-2 minutes, then we spent the rest of the 15 minutes talking about other angles for my work and other people I should connect to.”

“Next time I’ll bring a handout. It would have been helpful to have something to refer to and leave with them.”

My meeting with the Forest Service was more conversational and relaxed than I expected. We compared notes and it was interesting to see that she was thinking about the same questions I was, but coming from the Federal agency angle.”

 What insights do you have from your engagement experiences? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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