It takes more than a strong grasp of the issues to be effective in activism. Whether you’re door knocking, phone banking, delivering your elevator pitch or recruiting, the common denominator in these activities is this: Courage.
It can be scary to talk to people you’ve never met, especially about laws, policies and proposals that are often controversial and contentious. Building up the courage to talk about the issues — even to those who are receptive to your message — is half the battle.
In the spirit of Halloween, here are four tips for conquering the fear that every activist has in advocating for change:
1. Memorization won’t make public speaking easier: There’s no quicker way to sound robotic than by committing everything you plan to say to rote memorization, right down to your pauses and use of emphasis. There’s also no quicker way to alienate your audience. And while sticking closely to your lines might help you feel safer and more secure when speaking, it may end up distracting from the point you’re trying to make.
Be sure that while you rehearse your main arguments, you feel free to add your own personal voice, too, while also making sure to avoid those pesky verbal crutches, like “um,” “so yeah,” and “like.” It feels better to speak in your own voice than to commit to what everyone else thinks is an impression of C3PO.
2. Don’t despair the dead air: You’re not on the radio, where even small periods of silence can be deafening. Normal conversation is usually full of silences, large and small. If your conversation has some silent moments, don’t freak out! Most likely, those silences feel a lot longer to you than they do to your audience. There’s no reason to fear — just collect your thoughts and move on to your next point.
3. Learn to take the heat: As an activist, you know that your advocacy isn’t always going to find a receptive audience. You’ll encounter people, probably not infrequently, who will vehemently disagree with every point you make. Some of those people might even be a little — a lot — less than civil toward you.
A couple pointers in case you’re confronted by a less-than-kind critic: Don’t panic. Most important, don’t stoop to their level in anger. Explain, calmly, that while you enjoy engaging on this issue, it would be unproductive when tensions are so high. After all, you can’t gain anything from someone who wants to “win,” but not to listen and engage.
For every loudmouth, there are many others interested in constructively listening to, and engaging with, what you have to say.
4. You’re not going to convince everyone. Get used to it: While there are a lot of people out there who are interested in talking about the issues, and who will always be cordial and civil, they aren’t always going to be convinced by what you’re saying. That’s nothing to be afraid of. Being able to discuss the issues is a victory in and of itself. There’s no such thing as failure in your line of work.
There’s always more to learn about being an activist. For more tips and advice, go to the Grassroots Leadership Academy Blog.