Speaking at Public Consultation Meetings

See also: Presenting to Large Groups

More and more organisations are required to consult publicly before making changes to services. For example, hospitals, schools and other public bodies all have to hold public consultations when considering changes.

On a smaller level, planning applications are heard in public, with individuals having the opportunity to speak out for or against an application.

Individuals who want to influence changes in public services need to learn how to engage effectively with the process.

This page provides advice on attending and speaking at public consultation meetings.

Attending Public Consultation Meetings

As a concerned member of the public, you may feel the need to attend a public consultation meeting about some change in your local area.

Perhaps a local school is expanding and you are concerned about the traffic implications.
Perhaps the local hospital has plans to cut certain services and you feel this is bad news.
Or perhaps you want to oppose a planning application to build a supermarket.

Whatever the cause, you need to be confident that you will be able to put your point across clearly and succinctly, and have it heard.

There are some important points to remember when doing so.

  1. You will have limited time to make your point or ask your question

    Local authority planning committees in the UK often have a timer on the desk, so that your time is strictly limited. Other events may be less formal, but your airtime will be curtailed by the chair if you speak for what he or she regards as too long.

    You therefore need to plan very carefully what you are going to say. Decide in advance what are the most important points that you want to make, and make them succinctly.

    If you want to ask more than one question, then indicate that when you start speaking, by saying something like “I have three questions for you. They are…”. That way, you won’t be cut off when you reach the end of the first question.

    Do not waste your air-time by thanking the chair for allowing you to speak, or saying that you support the previous speaker. Just make your point and then stop.

  2. Unless there are very few people present, you are unlikely to be given a second opportunity to speak.

    You need to make all your points at the same time. It’s no good putting your hand up again, or catching the chair’s eye. You simply won’t be called again.

    You therefore need to be confident in making your key point when you are called.

  1. To be called to speak, indicate your intention clearly to the chair.

    You may need to raise your hand, catch his or her eye, or possibly give advance notice, although this is less usual. Try to find out in advance if you need to give notice of your intention to speak, even if you just have to tell the chair at the start of the meeting. You don’t want to miss your opportunity.

    In a crowded room, especially if you are near the back, you may need to do more than simply raise your hand. For example, you may want to stand up, or wave slightly, and make sure that you have caught the chair’s eye.

  2. Introduce yourself, and briefly explain your interest.

    For example:

    “I’m Jane Smith, and I’m a local resident.”

    “I am John Brown, parent of two children at the school.”

    “I’m Sue Green, and I’m a member of staff at the hospital.”

    This not only sets your concerns into context, but also means that those running the meeting have some idea of who is concerned about what issues. This can help them to work out how best to address the concerns, and also who to consult about any changes to the proposals.

  3. Speak slowly and clearly, so that you can be heard

    If there is a roving microphone, wait for it to reach you before you start to speak. If not, speak slowly and clearly. In a big room, try to project your voice. If you are not used to speaking in public, practise beforehand so that you are more relaxed about what you want to say.

    You may also find it helpful to stand while you speak. Standing opens up your lungs and makes it easier to breathe, and therefore to speak more clearly and project. There is a reason why presenters often stand. It also helps those running the meeting to see your body language and therefore reinforces your message.

    For more about this, see our page on Effective Speaking.

  4. Make sure that you are giving the right impression, and that your body language is open and consistent

    It is unfortunate, but we are often judged on our appearance. If you want to project a professional image, you have to look professional. If you have an important point to make, you may want to wear something smart, so that you look like you have made an effort and prepared. It may be a pain, but the effect will be stronger if you do so.

    It’s also important that your body language is consistent with what you are saying. If you are lounging back in a chair, with your feet on the table, as you say “I am really concerned about…”, your message is incongruent. On the other hand, if you are standing and leaning slightly forward, your message is likely to be heard as more urgent and compelling.

    For more about this, see our pages on Self-Presentation in presentations and non-verbal communication.

And finally…

If you don’t get a chance to make your point at the meeting, or have more points to make as a result of the meeting, put them in writing.

It is entirely possible that other people will raise points that you had not considered, and you may wish that you had a chance to say more. If you don’t get the opportunity, you can always put your concerns in writing and send them to the person managing the consultation.

As a general rule, the meeting is not the whole consultation: written submissions will be accepted too.

The exception to this is a planning committee meeting, which may approve an application on the spot. However, these are designed to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak at the meeting, so you don’t need to worry too much.