Advocating on Transportation Issues: Present Your Story in Their Context

Story-telling is an important aspect in lobbying Congress on transportation issues. Image – REUTERS, Yuri-Gripas

This advice comes from a column about leading and managing, and I think it’s relevant to advocating for transportation issues.

“Corner Office” is a column that appears in the Sunday New York Times. Each week a top profit or nonprofit executive is interviewed about the challenges of leading, managing and hiring and, often, their path to success. It’s always interesting to learn about a person’s often crooked and unorthodox path to success, and operating style. I read it religiously.

Last Sunday a CEO described an insight he gained while selling computer hardware “that was probably more valuable” than his MBA.  I found the insight directly relevant to lobbying:

“You have to present your story in their context, not yours. They don’t really care if you’re standing on top of a robot and quoting equations. If they’re in the deep part of the forest, you’ve got to talk the language of the deep forest.”

How does that translate to advocating for a transportation investment or project?

When talking to an elected official about a project or program, talk about the benefits to the official’s constituents and/or communities in the district or region. Here’s a personal example from quite a few years ago.

A regional manager wanted me to submit a grant application for an intersection/road expansion project. He called the project something like “Highway ABC Intersection Improvements, Milepost 1 to 5.” (The project name is changed to protect the innocent/unknowing.) There was no way I’d submit that to a Member of Congress. Reading through the project description, I noticed there were safety, congestion, and goods movement issues. And all those challenges and benefits were described very eloquently at the end of the application, but few if any Congressional staffers would read that far into the application.

So I changed the title to “Highway ABC Congestion Relief, Safety and Freight Mobility Improvements.” The title alone changes the entire conversation. We moved the benefits paragraph to the beginning of the application. We removed all “engineering-speak” which few Congressional staffers and other non-engineers would understand.  We added photos to help people immediately visualize the safety concerns and congestion. It became easier to talk about the challenges constituents and businesses in that area face, and how they could benefit from the project.

The “context of the story” became how to help the Member’s constituents, instead of an engineering project. And, subtly but not coincidentally, how the Member could be viewed favorably by constituents for addressing their challenges.

Alas, we did not get the grant that year. But we did receive a number of grants and earmarks over the years with this strategy.


Source: “The First Rule of Brainstorming: Suspend Disbelief,” Adam Bryant, The New York Times, January 20, 2013

If you’re interested in more advice and insight from a variety of very successful CEOs, check out the archived interviews on The Corner Office page on the NYT website. Also, Bryant has published a book (“The Corner Office,” Amazon link) that synthesizes the information into the sections “Succeeding,” “Managing” and “Leading.”