Persuading Government: How To Say It

agressive-manPresuming you already know just what you want to convey, there’s always a right way and a wrong way to say it – get it wrong, and you have blown the meeting and maybe your whole project.

We’ve stressed already the need to present your whole case in three minutes, but there’s many more things you need to do to maximise your chance of success.

Regardless of whether it is Ministers or public servants you’re dealing with, you need to be respectful of their personal and individual constraints:

  • Time – in spite of belief to the contrary, most are very busy, and you need to minimise the demand you are making on their time: e.g. if you’re asking them to investigate something, can you provide a credible head start?  And why are you giving the Water Minister a lecture on the facts of the water cycle?
  • Timeframes – there are many reasons why public services decisions take time, and you need to understand what theirs are, get in early if you are on a deadline, and make their decision as easy as possible;
  • Priorities – Ministers, Chief Executive Officers, senior public servants – everyone – have work priorities, hence time and resource constraints, imposed from above.  You need to be sure that what you are asking of them can be accommodated;
  • Policy – some of those constraints are things they are and aren’t allowed to agree with (perhaps on account of a prior or impending Cabinet decision they are not allowed to discuss with you), things that were committed by a more senior Minister, things promised in an election campaign, and so on.  While this goes to content, it is also relevant to how you express and argue for your idea, and how flexible you are;
  • Community – can your proposal be reshaped or pressed in a way that might minimise community opposition and maximise community support?
  • Codes of conduct – make sure you know how what you are asking will pass the tests imposed by relevant codes (ministerial or public service) and any higher personal standards your decision-maker might apply.

Whatever you say needs to meet a few criteria, before it gets proper attention and the respect you are showing them is reciprocated:

  • Truth – make sure you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth: if you are later found to have misled, directly or indirectly, even inadvertently, your credibility may never recover; inflating your claims is as bad as deliberately lying;
  • Add value – you need to be sure that every single thing you say adds value to the Minister’s/public service’s priorities, as that’s the best way to get attention and support: things that don’t add value are ignored or undermine the other things you say;
  • Respect – you might feel the person with whom you are dealing is an incompetent, evil, wastrel, but if you show anything but respect then there’s every chance your proposals will die there and then; it’s also the case that very few Ministers or public servants are as bad as some in business paint them, so you need to take on board that while you may not think so currently, it’s possible they deserve respect; if you think women should stay at home and mind kids, for example, you’re the wrong person to wheel in an important proposal to a woman CEO – you can all too easily let your feelings show;
  • Aggression or excessive emotion – is nearly always disrespectful, and suggests your approach to policy is selfish, emotional, or irrational;
  • Demeaning – don’t demean anyone; you never know how they might be connected to the person on the other side of the table, and it demonstrates an unprofessional approach – it makes decision-makers suspect your genuineness, motives, and credibility; it’s usually fatal to your cause to deliberately or accidentally demean the person you’re talking with;
  • Objectivity – it’s best to avoid partisan superlatives and try to couch your case in reasonably empirical and objective terms: while you need to convince the person you’re talking with, don’t forget that they in turn have to convince others, so your argument needs to appeal to cool heads remote from the debate.  In particular, how does it service Government priorities?
  • Non-partisan and non-political – whatever you propose might well advantage one side of politics or the other, but rest assured you are dealing with someone smart enough to work that out without the point being laboured – and political professionals often hate being lectured by amateurs, lust like most other professions;
  • The front page test – would your proposal survive, if your discussion with a decision-maker was plastered across the front page of the local Murdoch rag?  If not, your approach is wrong and you’ve failed one of the earlier tests.
  • Jargon – you have to find that happy spot between presuming your audience are entirely ignorant, and presuming they know everything already.  Good luck with that!

Finally, tell a story.  Stories are memorable, and help others intuitively understand what you are saying.  If you haven’t read and applied Winning the Story Wars, or something similar, to your presentation, then you should read it and recast what you are saying.



About Mike Smith

Partner in Ethical Consulting Services:; Ethical strategies and programs which get you where you need to go ... * Exceptional government & stakeholder relations, * Thriving governance systems, * Specialised project facilitation, * Inbound investment assistance, * Successful marketing, communications and PR campaigns ... and customised training in each of these areas.

Posted on May 20, 2015, in Change, Communication, Culture, Culture change, Democracy, Government decision-making, Government Relations, how to lobby, Lobbying, Lobbyist, marketing, Political tactics, Politics, Public service, public service decision-making, Stakeholder engagement, Strategy and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. “Add value – you need to be sure that every single thing you say adds value to the Minister’s/public service’s priorities, as that’s the best way to get attention and support: things that don’t add value are ignored or undermine the other things you say;”

    This is an interesting one Mike. Don’t you think that ‘value’ here will nearly always be seen in economic terms. Let’s face it, the priorities are nearly always short term jobs and economic growth.

    • Thanks for getting involved in the discussion, Denis. I think there is more to it, while agreeing that economic growth and jobs are big drivers. Some Ministers and public servants in some Governments want a quiet life, so value to them is eliminating current problems; some are ambitious for promotion, so want to be seen as creative and competent; some are lagging behind where they should be, and want rescuing; some are serviced by an uncreative and hidebound Department and need fresh ideas; quite a few are committed to principles of social justice, or free markets, and welcome ideas that help deliver those outcomes; and so on.

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