How to Engage People on a BIG Issue

I was standing in the queue to vote of all places when someone who runs the local community association nabbed me and asked if I would chair a public community consultation meeting. "Yes", I said.  

I have done this before, the last time standing at the front of a packed local school hall whilst residents tore many strips off developers presenting plans to close the outdoor lido and build houses and an indoor sports centre.  So I am not under any illusion as to what this sort of "chairing" entails when people bring strong views and wish to air them.  A friend remarked to me, "there are a lot of people with horns and tails who will come and have a say about this one."

The topic for discussion is the number one, all time, hottest, most controversial one in my community - a building that stands in our small town centre that is ugly, nasty, out of place, an eyesore of massive proportions (and all sorts of other things).  It has now been sold and will be demolished and there are plans to build something "better" on the site to regenerate it to what it should be as a key building in a small Victorian town.  No guessing why people would be burning to say something!

We held the meeting in the biggest space we have - the local church.  We planned how the meeting would run, timings, briefing the developer and the architect, and how we would engage as many as possible.  We debated how this could happen, as meetings like this usually attract 50 to 80 people and this was potentially an emotionally charged event.  The publicity went out and we engaged local community groups (informal and formal) to publicise also.  The Church volunteered to do tea and cake, various community association members made themselves available.  One good thing about where I live - when this sort of event happens everyone steps up. 

Two days before the meeting the local Town Council met and decided it would go ahead and agree the new plans without hearing what the community had to say.  Ok, a bit of a downer and not the "best" attitude from elected members, but not the end of the world, as planning consultation means everyone has a right to make their own comments.  I wondered whether people would understand this in the heat of the moment and whether this would add to the well stoked fire.

The evening arrived and hoards descended. 235 were counted in and everyone squeezed into the rows of pews. Wow! What a turn out.  Everyone was buzzing and the tea and cake seemed to be on endless tap. Local businesses, shop owners, families, residents, councillors, the Planning Officers, lots of young people from the "Wolverton Massive" came with something to say.    I started on time (important point number one - meet and manage expectations you set).  I realised was going to enjoy this and hoped this was transmitted as I kicked off the proceedings.  My strategy was to harness the crowd from the start.

Rather than stay sitting in pews after the developer presentations I invited everyone to get into mixed groups around the building (important point number two - think about and plan for mixed groups and have it set up and ready to go beforehand).  As people had entered they were handed a coloured strip and around the Church pillars were corresponding ones.  I asked if everyone was up for talking and writing and there was a big "yes".  When the time came to move, everyone stood up and went to their group.  This was good!

Important point number three - set ground rules when you have a big crowd.  I put them up on a slide and spoke to them and asked for agreement, acknowledged the nods in the rows right to the back.  What was great was everyone got stuck in and talked and talked.  Someone volunteered to scribe and get points down on flip sheets. The energy level in the room was high!  The diversity of views being expressed and involvement was excellent.  No fights, no shouting, just expending a lot of energy on discussion.

Important point number four - give instructions on the task and make it simple. Give a time limit and stick to it. Go and walk round and make sure EVERYONE is ok and is talking in every group.  Cajole, use humour, trouble shoot, encourage.  Connect with individuals and validate their involvement.

After the discussions someone from each group came to the front and showed us all what they had discussed and what their questions were.  Some earned applause.  Important point number five - everyone must hear what everyone talked about.

Time to close and I gave lots of thank yous.  The tea ladies got the biggest applause.  I closed on time and next steps were explained. 

How to engage people on a BIG issue in your community - encourage, connect, listen, validate

  • Publicise to everyone formally and informally and cater for high expectations
  • Invite EVERYONE
  • Greet, say thank you, welcome engagement despite the number size - acknowledge the support in advance for self management
  • Stay neutral as the Chair and explain how you intend to run the meeting
  • Afford everyone who turns up the chance to have their say 
  • Manage, plan and cater for all the detail of the structure in advance; have it all ready to go - and then give freedom to enable people to contribute how they feel able
  • Meet all expectations set, exceed them where you can
  • Use a microphone and consciously use the right voice tone and language
  • Keep it simple but don't dumb down
  • Recognise you have a massive crowd,  build rapport with them as a whole and with individuals and be positive from the start
  • Take control then tell, sell, consult, involve
  • Present professionally, make it polished
  • Brief in advance and get help with group work but trust people to step up and manage themselves well all the same
  • Thank everyone for contributing
  • Make sure everyone knows what happens to their feedback - there's nothing worse than making the effort and never hearing back

We gave everyone a form with how to comment on a planning application to take away. Someone typed up all the flip sheets into a report for the Council Planning Officer and this has gone on all the websites we can think of.  

I set out in this blog to record the key points needed to engage a large group of people at a single event in a way that maximises their involvement.   Managing 235 disparate individuals in one go is not for the feint hearted or for those who rock up without good planning and thinking it through.  Chairing is more than getting through an agenda.  Giving this type of group - a local community - room to speak demands listening and engaging.  It includes conscious chairing behaviour that activates mass engagement, process management and attention to language (e.g. invite don't tell, confirm and encourage everyone to speak) and acknowledge it is a hot topic (I did this by personalising it as a co-member of the community). Ultimately if if people don't like it, they will tell you so.   And that's fine too.  Treat it as feedback and adjust for the next time.

One final point - trust the process. I enjoyed chairing the event and yes, I would do it again.