Time trial

Town Council meets next on Wednesday this week, so you’ve got a couple extra days to get your thoughts in order. You’ll need extra time to prepare to address council in the future, if council members adopt new council meeting procedures designed to shorten council meetings. Part of the proposal to trim the butt-in-seat time enforces the three-minute time limit for speakers, and if more than 15 people sign up to speak on one topic, the time limit is cut to two minutes each.

That plan should meet with cheers from people on the dais and in the audience alike. And before you start waving around your copy of the Constitution with the freedom of speech amendment underlined in red, sit down and take a deep breath of reality. When dozens of speakers line up to plead their position to council, after the first person for each side speaks, the rest can boil their comments down to: “Do it,” “Don’t do it,” “I agree,” and “What she said.”

Not all of us excel at public speaking, so a shorter speaking period reduces the discomfort of stuttering through prepared remarks while people in the audience stare at our behinds and the TV camera is set to look down our blouses.

Of course, council members need to hear our input on decisions they are poised to make. But when speaker after speaker trots to the podium to say the same thing that the dozen or two people ahead of them said, council members likely tune out after awhile. Admit it – once you’ve had your say, you do, too.

It may have been Mark Twain who apologized to a friend: “Sorry for the long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one.” When you are speaking before council, think bullet points. If you need to flesh out your argument, do it in an email. Take some time to figure out your strongest arguments, and limit yourself to those points only. If someone has voiced your reasons already, say so once it’s your turn at the podium, then go back to your seat.

Council members will make better decisions if they aren’t exhausted and vaguely irritated by speakers repeating arguments already made and running the red light.

Think. Speak. Don’t repeat.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Many

     /  April 8, 2013

    It has been the structure for public speaking classes for decades. “Tell em’ what your gonna tell ’em, tell ’em, tell ’em what you told ’em” – Paul White


    Tell them what you are going to say:
    Tell the audience the topic of your presentation and the main points that you will share (no more than three…….because the reality is that you are dealing with politicians)

    Tell Them. The body of the presentation:
    “Point 1 with details and evidence,”
    “Point 2 with details and evidence, and”
    “Point 3 with details and evidence.”

    Tell Them What You Told Them. The conclusion of your presentation:
    “In conclusion, the most important things to remember are Point 1, Point 2, and Point 3.”

    Sadly, discourse has been reduced to 180 character tweets….I may be an old and in the way, but it just seems wrong to sacrifice content for brevity, unless that content is redundant.

    Perhaps Haiku can save us 🙂

    Tell them what you say.
    Point and story three times.
    Tell them what you said.

  2. Bonnie Hauser

     /  April 8, 2013

    Mark Twain is right – its very difficult to express complex ideas in 3 or 2 minutes. And its unfortunate that they people in the room are presumed to represent the voters.

    Maybe a better option is to create real discussion forums on important issues such as development or transit,

  3. Terri Buckner

     /  April 9, 2013

    The best way to communicate complex ideas is in writing. No one, not even the most skilled listener, can absorb the issues raised in some of our local public hearings. If you send your thoughts to the elected officials in writing, they can re-read and cross-reference. Saying the same thing as 5 other speakers in a public hearing that goes on until midnight is a surefire way to have the one unique point you have to make overlooked.

  4. Nancy, if you listen carefully, what is often characterized as one speaker repeating another’s point is untrue.

    I’ve seen some rather skillful attempts to express complex issues by breaking them into discrete pieces which are presented both as an issue deserving a clear response and as a part of a greater whole deserving further attention.

    If you look at who complains the most – the exec director of the local Chamber of Commerce being a notable example – about citizens lining up to speak their piece, you will notice a pattern: they want the least discussion on the most complex of issues.

    Why? Presumably on the hope that short sound bite hype outsells good thoughtful sense. It’s a winning strategy. I’ve certainly seen that work with Council – now more than ever.

    As far as Terri’s suggestion to put it in writing. In my experience, few of the Council read any lengthy (more than a paragraph) material provided by citizens.

    Standing before the Council and presenting facts, figures and thoughtful debate serves two broad purposes then: one, makes it harder for the Council to dismiss (unlike the email they flip by) and, two, puts an issue clearly on the public record so that it’s hard to say (though they do it often enough) they haven’t heard anything to the contrary.

    The Council really started with the wrong end of the stick – until they practice their own brevity, they have little right to shut down public discourse.

  5. Many

     /  April 9, 2013

    What Will said 🙂

  6. Terri Buckner

     /  April 9, 2013

    Anything you put in writing to the council goes into the public record, same as if you speak it. If you send it as email, you can verify it’s receipt at:

  7. Name Withheld By Request

     /  April 9, 2013

    The longer you speak the less likely it is people will hear what you say.

  8. Fred Black

     /  April 10, 2013

    Who is “the exec director of the local Chamber of Commerce” and what was the complaint?

  9. Del Snow

     /  April 10, 2013

    There are nuggets of truth in almost all of the posts above.

    Councilmembers are human and, no doubt, tired councilmembers may not make the best choices. Citizens attending these meetings are human too, and the prospect of spending hours waiting for your three minutes may discourage many from even trying to particpate.

    Public comments are intended to evoke a public response. Writing to council ahead of time could help with communication, but, unfortunately, SOME councilmembers do not read their emails or study the staff supplied packets. Writing just for the sake of putting comments in the public record may give some the satisfaction of being able to say “I told you so,” but generally that comes too late. .

    Chapel Hill residents have taken it upon themselves to research and vet proposals which should help the council with their decisions. More times than not, the research work has revealed facts and figures that affect the entire town, not just a specific application. Unfortunately, well crafted fact-based presentations have been literally ignored, leading some citizens to wonder whether the microphones were working. It would help if the points that citizens are trying to make are acknowledged. A very basic tenet of discussion protocol is to reaffirm what you have just heard. Councilmembers “owning” their votes by saying to citizens “I understand your points about this and that, but that my priorities for the town are x and y” would reduce the need to keep explaining the same concerns.

    It is interesting that in contrast to council’s consideration of time limits for citizens, applicants have a platform to speak as long as they like…AND…with the huge presumption that everything say is true. Developer presentations should be time limited; when added to the ensuing question period by the council, there would be sufficient opportunity to describe what benefits the proposal will bring to Chapel Hill. By constraing the time alloted, It may also help to eliminate the long-winded pie-in-the-sky promises that are often made. Applicants should also present their best proposal and elimate the “built-in compromises” discussion dance -another time saver.

    Ultimately, this is about respect. For many citizens who feel as though they are not being heard the choice becomes speaker after speaker trying to find a way to say “please listen.”

  10. JWW

     /  April 11, 2013

    To Del S: Excellent points in your comment.

    Especially “… A very basic tenet of discussion protocol is to reaffirm what you have just heard. Councilmembers “owning” their votes by saying to citizens “I understand your points about this and that, but that my priorities for the town are x and y” “

  11. Scott Maitland

     /  April 11, 2013

    It is about respect. To ensure that everybody gets an opportunity to speak, we have rules. Currently, the time limit is 3 minutes per speaker. Let’s just start by enforcing that rule. In my experience, when arguing cases in Appellate Court, you are given a time limit and are immediately cut-off upon its expiration. It’s the only way an Appellate Court can work through its docket.

    Town council would be well served to follow the same approach. Not everyone can spend unlimited amounts of hours waiting to speak while people flagrantly abuse their time limits. Town Council is not the only place where town discussion can occur. This blog, other blogs, the newspaper, etc. all provide opportunities for discussion and debate.

    In keeping with the respect theme, Will, your comment is way out of line and borders on libel and slander. No organization does more to foster town-wide discussion than the Chamber……and for those of you that want to jerk your knee and disagree, show me another organization larger and more diverse in our community.
    Del, your comment about presumption is not accurate in my experience; the council is often hostile to the facts and figures of applicants. Moreover, the reason why applicants get time is because they are APPLICANTS. Who knows more about the proposal? Who better to lay out the vision than the applicant? Do the Nimby’s really need more than three minutes to lodge criticism? God forbid somebody prepare supporting materials that provide support for the executive summary they can provide in three minutes.

  12. Nancy

     /  April 11, 2013

    Last night, council talked about technology to make meetings more efficient. Maybe it includes air horns.

  13. Many

     /  April 11, 2013

    Maybe you could get Chuck Barris to host.

  14. Del Snow

     /  April 11, 2013

    Hey Scott-Obviously the applicant should have a block of time that is appropriate for laying out the vision. Unfortunately, I have sat through presentations that go well beyond the vision, the numbers, and into the realm of flights of fancy.

    I have also been at council meetings where numbers quoted, such as projected revenue, went unchallenged by council. CITIZENS challenged the numbers and, lo and behold, subsequent paperwork submitted by the applicant reduced projections by 83%.

    Lastly, I hope that I am wrong in assuming that the N-word…NIMBY…that appears in the paragraph started by my name, is directed at me. Surely, a man as professional and passionate about Chapel Hill as you are doesn’t buy into these grapevine smears. You have supported downtown development and so have I. My one and only goal (because I, too, love both yesterday’s Chapel Hill and tomorrow’s Chapel Hill) is for development to be respectful, responsible, and reviewed fairly. Some people may think that data should not enter into the equation, but I’m sure that as a successful businessman, you appreciate the value of numbers.

  15. Many

     /  April 12, 2013


    Scott kept TGI Fridays out of Chapel Hill. Remember?

  16. Mark Marcoplos

     /  April 12, 2013

    As much as we’d like to institute a one-size fits all perfect system for channeling input to elected officials, we can’t do it. Despite assertions that those who speak to the governmental bodies don’t really represent the citizenry, anyone who claims to know who beyond them does represent the true will of the citizenry cannot in any way substantiate it.

    It comes down to showing up, speaking your piece, utilizing public opportunities to make your case, persuading others, and holding officials accountable, ultimately at the ballot box.

    It can get sloppy, but the alternatives are probably worse.

  17. Scott Maitland

     /  April 12, 2013

    Del…….if I had meant you, I would have said it.

    I like your line “respectful, responsible and reviewed.”