Can We Talk? Call Me Councilman

How to win a political campaign. 

By Dan Winterburn, DTM

As a Toastmaster for many years, I became accustomed to good meeting preparation and use of parliamentary procedure. Then one day after I retired, I started attending city council meetings in my hometown of Jacksonville, Oregon. Controversial issues were always being debated, and I thought the meetings could be conducted better. However, this was the rural Northwest and few people had even heard of Toastmasters.

So I decided I could help our town by running for a city council seat. As it turned out, my Toastmasters training proved to be invaluable. Let me start by saying that I find Toastmasters to be a kind of training program for life. Techniques we use as members relate to activities we perform every day, such as meeting strangers, speaking to audiences, evaluating what others say, giving and accepting constructive criticism, and leading people in the achievement of team goals. As a former governor of District 4 (in 1980-’81), I also feel that participation in Toastmasters leadership at all levels can be beneficial; for one thing, you get the experience of working with or managing a team of people.

My Toastmasters skills served me very well when I planned, organized and ran my campaign for a Jacksonville City Council seat last year. Little did I realize how much the communication, leadership and motivational techniques I’ve learned over the years would enable me to out-campaign my opposition. These skills can assist you, too, if you ever run for office – at any level.

Here are some tips, based on my own experience:

Write moving speeches that address issues of concern to your audience – the voters. Whenever I spoke to a public assembly (we were always given five minutes per candidate), I always addressed the person who introduced me, then gave an introduction, made my points, finished with a conclusion, and addressed my introducer again. I also produced effective campaign fliers that communicated my goals and purpose – which usually addressed citizens’ concerns. Because I had gained this experience in Toastmasters campaigns over the years, I definitely had an edge. When people asked where I learned to communicate so clearly, I told them, “Toastmasters!”

2 Use the good techniques you’ve gained in Table Topics. This experience is priceless! Every audience on the campaign trail is different. Going door to door and trying to speak spontaneously and “sell” yourself to strangers across town can certainly be an interesting and educational experience. (I spoke individually with more than 300 people.)

3 Present with confidence and a straightforward manner. I often employed the techniques taught in our Advanced speech manuals: salesmanship, humor, short anecdotes, etc. As you talk with people, evaluate their comments and how they deliver them, then record notes of their concerns. This information will enable you to communicate better the next time, the time after, and so forth. It won’t be long until you have your audience analyzed and are able to make more effective speeches, targeted to individuals and groups.

4 Don’t be afraid to ask people for their votes and assistance. With seven people vying for three openings in my council race, every vote counted. If you learn to network and campaign in the Toastmasters environment, as I did, you will be prepared to take advantage of numerous winning strategies. For example, you can recruit and train your campaign team continually. Give them points to make about you and important issues to address.

The election (my first for public office) was close, but I was able to defeat the other candidates – including incumbents – because of the communication, leadership and campaign skills I’ve gained in Toastmasters. So get involved in a Toastmasters election and learn the techniques taught by our organization – you’ll be a better communicator because of it. Some day you may run for public office. When you win, be sure to tell people Toastmasters helped you get there. 

Dan Winterburn, DTM, is a member of the Rogue Valley Toastmasters in Medford, Oregon. His term as a City Councilor in Jacksonville, Oregon, expires in December 2010 – when he intends to run for re-election. Reach him at