January 28, 2015

5 Tips for Generating Support through Street Canvassing

When preservation is on the ballot or otherwise up for public discussion, canvassing the street to talk issues with community members can be an effective way to get the word out and garner support for saving places.

But despite enshrinement in grandpa’s toolbox of American public activism, pounding the pavement and pumping the flesh can be tough; we’re not all born with political busking in our blood. Here are five tips to a better showing on the streets.

Choose your location carefully. Some high-traffic areas are more productive canvassing spots than others.
Choose your location carefully. Some high-traffic areas are more productive canvassing spots than others.

Location, Location, Location

When choosing a place to talk to community members, it’s pretty obvious you want to be in a high-traffic area. But finding the right high-traffic area isn’t so simple.

During the National Trust’s Yes on Issue 8 campaign to save Cincinnati’s Union Terminal, Community Outreach Manager, Grant Stevens set up shop on downtown’s Fountain Square in the throes of morning rush hour.

“Downtown Cincinnati is great for all sorts of reasons, but one of the things we struggled with there was that people are going straight into work and don’t want to listen to your spiel,” he says.

It’s better to look for a neighborhood during lunch and evening hours. A heavy concentration of restaurants and bars where people are wandering and waiting for a table is usually a good bet.

Also look for places like public transportation stations and ATMs. “We had some of the best conversations with people at the bus stops,” says Stevens.

Approach

Getting people to actually talk to you is all about technique. It’s more effective to engage people with a question, rather than a statement, because it solicits a response. “Do you know about Issue 8?” generally works better than “Vote Yes on Issue 8.”

One question to avoid, though, is “Can I talk to you about...?” When you ask for permission, “no” is often a reflexive response.

Also, if you’re a bit shy, a prop or two can go a long way. In Cincinnati, the National Trust employed a giant, wearable cardboard model of Union Terminal. The results were hilarious -- and effective.

“People know exactly what you’re going to talk to them about,” says Stevens. “And it’s almost comical. It breaks down this barrier.”

This wearable cardboard prop of Union Terminal was an effective tool for canvassing during the Yes on Issue 8 campaign in Cincinnati.
This wearable cardboard prop of Union Terminal was an effective tool for canvassing during the Yes on Issue 8 campaign in Cincinnati.

Energy Level

When canvassing the street, people will draw conclusions about your issue from their interactions with you. A bad attitude can lose a lot of support. Fast.

Stevens recommends striving for being “fun and approachable.” Focusing on what others are saying, instead of just trying to force your message, is also important.

“We’ll listen to anything that people want to talk about -- whatever their story is or their memory is -- because it really turns me off when you’re talking to somebody about their issue and then they don’t want to hear your side of it,” Stevens says.

Handouts

Always have something to hand out to people. Even if people aren’t willing to talk to you, they’ll usually accept an item that will link them to more information and opportunities for action.

Ideally, the item will both explain the issue and advertise the individual’s support. Buttons, stickers, and postcards are all good.

“Within the first couple days of canvassing, it becomes pretty apparent what questions people are going to ask,” says Stevens. “So have materials ready to respond to those questions.”

Don’t let any interactions go to waste, either. Even if someone isn’t a voter on the issue, it never hurts to give them a handout and encourage them to contact others who may be voters themselves.

Ideally, a handout will explain the issue and advertise the individual’s support.
Ideally, a handout will explain the issue and advertise the individual’s support.

Goals and Targets

As with any venture, it’s important to set goals.

Set a goal for the number of people you want to reach by the end of your campaign, then break that figure down between the number of canvassing events you plan to have. This will help you stay motivated to hit daily targets that contribute to overall success.

It’s also important to consciously try to target a diverse segment of the community. Though sometimes you might know you don’t have, for example, enough women between 25 and 45 supporting your issue, it’s generally a good idea to talk to everyone you can.

Combine these five tips in your next street canvassing event, and your campaign should be off and running.

For more information on preservation campaigns and the National Trust's work in Cincinnati, visit the Preservation Leadership Forum blog.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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