When it comes to speaking up on political and social issues, knowing how to effectively communicate is key to making sure you can make the best case of support for your cause. Writing letters, whether emails or posted mail, to your local officials is one of the most common ways to do so.
Here writing and rhetoric instructor Vanessa Calkins ’12MA, who teaches Writing for Social Change and earned a master’s in rhetoric and composition from UCF, shares a few tips.
Communicate in the Format That Works for You
VC: I don’t have any actual data on this, so I don’t have a sense that any type of contact — whether that’s a phone call, email or auto-generated text — is viewed as more effective. From my perspective, the most effective medium is the one you’re most likely to use. Even services, like Resistbot, work better than nothing if it gets you to actually reach out.
Each correspondence is also tracked. For example, if there is a fax, email, phone call and letter all about the same issue, from different people, those are logged individually. This helps [representatives] to see the amplification of a particular issue. For example, if everyone is contacting them about issues around public health, that is a clear signal they need to address this with their constituents.
Know Your Audience and Their Power
VC: Audience awareness is crucial. While it’s typically a representative’s staffers who actually read letters, you should aim to appeal to the official since it still goes through his or her office.
Not knowing who to address, or how to address them holds [people] up from doing the social change writing they want to do. It is important to be aware of the rhetorical situations in which you’re writing and to analyze power dynamics before crafting a message for social change.
If you’re writing to a local or state official about something but don’t know if they even have the power to make the kind of change your letter calls for, what policies that person has supported or where they stand on the issue you’re addressing, then you’re not giving yourself a fighting chance at being successful.
Mapping out the power dynamics around the issues that matter can help you align your goal with the individual who can actually make that change — and it gives you insight into how to approach them in your writing.
Figure Out the Best Method to Support Your Stance
VC: Sharing personal details or stories can be a rhetorically effective tool and might make a piece more likely to get passed along, but without knowing the official and their staffers, it’s hard to know if they’d be most persuaded by ethos (your credibility), pathos (emotional appeals, such as a personal story) or logos (logic, data, etc). The best way around this is to learn more about the official (your audience) and use that information to make the best decisions you can.
Keep Your Writing Focused
VC: I think the best approach overall is to make sure each individual correspondence has a clear goal. When I do my own emails to officials, I try to stick to a single issue and I have been pleased to frequently get responses. Just like the rest of us, people in public office likely get a lot of email/mail and having a clear focus in what you send makes it easier for them to know how to respond.