Sixth-generation Vermonter Susan Clark, co-author of All Those in Favor, is the town meeting moderator for her hometown of Middlesex, Vermont. Needless to say, she knows her stuff when it comes to effectively participating in municipal discussions. So with town meeting season coming up in early March, take Clark’s advice and speak up for your community with these town meeting tips.
1. Make a Name for Yourself: Some old-timers like to tell new residents not to speak at their first or (gulp) even first five town meetings. Nonsense, says Susan Clark. But picking your speaking spots is important. “There’s a trust that needs to develop,” she says. “If you just go in there and say, this is how we did it where I used to live, you won’t find fertile ground for those seeds.”
2. Eat Up: Clark once attended a town meeting that lasted more than seven hoursÂ—which is to say, if you don’t come prepared, you may go a long time without eating. Food can also serve as a peacemaker between citizens divided over an issue. “You can go up to that person you’ve disagreed with and say, Try this macaroni-and-cheese my wife made for Town Meeting,” Clark says. “It helps break the tension.”
3. Ease Public Speaking Jitters: It’s not an uncommon situation: You’ve got something you want to say, but you’ve also got a healthy fear of public speaking. One way to ease the pain is to forgo using a microphone. “[Equipment] emphasizes that this is a public moment,” Clark explains. “And that’s scary.”
4. Limit Your Speaking Time: “Unless you’re an expert brought in by the town to speak about something, keep what you have to say under three minutes,” Clark notes. “That’s about how long somebody is willing to listen to somebody else.” Put another way: If you see people shifting in their chairs or talking to one another, it’s time to finish up. Fast.
5. Question Authority: Whether it’s a request for a procedural clarification or a specific question about a warrant article under discussion, Clark says you should never hesitate to voice your confusion. “If it’s something you want to ask, somebody else is thinking the same thing,” she adds. “That’s what we’re there for: to strengthen our decisions by making our decisions better informed.”