Omar Ahmad: Political change with pen and paper

Recorded atFebruary 10, 2010
Duration (min:sec)05:46
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute225.78 very fast
Readability (FK)59.56 easy
SpeakerOmar Ahmad
CountryUnited States of America
DescriptionMayor of San Carlos, California (1964-2011)

Official TED page for this talk


Want your local politician to pay attention to an issue you care about? Send a monthly handwritten letter, says former mayor Omar Ahmad -- it's more effective than email, phone, or even writing a check. He shares four steps to writing a letter that works.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:15 One of the things that
200:17 defines a TEDster
300:19 is you've taken your passion,
400:21 and you've turned it into stewardship.
500:23 You actually put action to the issues you care about.
600:26 But what you're going to find eventually is
700:28 you may need to actually get elected officials
800:30 to help you out.
900:32 So, how do you do that?
1000:34 One of the things I should probably tell you is,
1100:36 I worked for the Discovery Channel early in my career,
1200:39 and that sort of warped my framework.
1300:41 So, when you start to think about politicians,
1400:44 you've got to realize these are strange creatures.
1500:47 Other than the fact that they can't tell directions,
1600:49 and they have very strange breeding habits,
1700:52 how do you actually work with these things? (Laughter)
1800:56 What we need to understand is:
1900:58 What drives the political creature?
2001:00 And there are two things that are primary in a politician's heart:
2101:03 One is reputation and influence.
2201:05 These are the primary tools by which
2301:07 a politician can do his job.
2401:09 The second one -- unlike most animals,
2501:11 which is survival of the species --
2601:13 this is preservation of self.
2701:15 Now you may think it's money,
2801:17 but that's actually sort of a proxy
2901:19 to what I can do to preserve myself.
3001:22 Now, the challenge with you moving your issue forward
3101:25 is these animals are getting broadcast to all the time.
3201:29 So, what doesn't work, in terms of getting your issue to be important?
3301:32 You can send them an email.
3401:34 Well, unfortunately, I've got so many
3501:36 Viagra ads coming at me,
3601:38 your email is lost.
3701:40 It doesn't matter, it's spam.
3801:42 How about you get on the phone?
3901:44 Well, chances are I've got a droid who's picking up the phone,
4001:46 "Yes, they called, and they said they didn't like it."
4101:48 That doesn't move.
4201:50 Face to face would work,
4301:52 but it's hard to set it up.
4401:54 It's hard to get the context and actually get the communication to work.
4501:57 Yes, contributions actually do make a difference
4602:00 and they set a context for having a conversation,
4702:02 but it takes some time to build up.
4802:04 So what actually works?
4902:06 And the answer is rather strange.
5002:08 It's a letter.
5102:10 We live in a digital world,
5202:12 but we're fairly analog creatures.
5302:14 Letters actually work.
5402:16 Even the top dog himself
5502:18 takes time every day to read 10 letters
5602:20 that are picked out by staff.
5702:22 I can tell you that every official that I've ever worked with
5802:25 will tell you about the letters they get
5902:27 and what they mean.
6002:29 So, how are you going to write your letter?
6102:31 First of all, you're going to pick up an analog device: a pen.
6202:36 I know these are tough, and you may have a hard time
6302:38 getting your hand bent around it, (Laughter)
6402:40 but this is actually critical.
6502:42 And it is critical that
6602:44 you actually handwrite your letter.
6702:46 It is so novel to see this,
6802:48 that somebody actually picked up an analog device
6902:50 and has written to me.
7002:52 Second of all, I'm going to recommend that
7102:54 you get into a proactive stance
7202:56 and write to your elected officials at least once a month.
7302:58 Here's my promise to you:
7403:00 If you are consistent and do this,
7503:02 within three months the elected official will start calling you
7603:04 when that issue comes up and say, "What do you think?"
7703:07 Now, I'm going to give you
7803:09 a four paragraph format to work with.
7903:12 Now, when you approach these animals,
8003:15 you need to understand there's a dangerous end to them,
8103:18 and you also need to approach them
8203:20 with some level of respect and a little bit of wariness.
8303:23 So in paragraph number one,
8403:25 what I'm going to tell you to do is very simply this:
8503:28 You appreciate them.
8603:30 You may not appreciate the person, you may not appreciate anything else,
8703:32 but maybe you appreciate the fact that they've got a tough gig.
8803:34 When animals are going to make a point, they make the point.
8903:36 They don't spend a lot of time dicking around.
9003:38 So, here you go. (Laughter)
9103:40 Paragraph number two:
9203:42 You may actually have to just get very blunt
9303:44 and say what's really on your mind.
9403:47 When you do this,
9503:49 don't attack people;
9603:51 you attack tactics.
9703:53 Ad hominem attacks will get you nowhere.
9803:55 Paragraph number three:
9903:57 When animals are attacked or cornered,
10003:59 they will fight to the death,
10104:01 so you have to give them an exit.
10204:03 Most of the time, if they have an exit strategy, they should take it.
10304:06 "Obviously, you're intelligent.
10404:08 If you had the right information,
10504:10 you would have done the right thing." (Laughter)
10604:12 Lastly, you want to be the nurturing agent.
10704:15 You're the safe place to come in to.
10804:18 So, in paragraph number four,
10904:20 you're going to tell people,
11004:22 "If no one is providing you with this information, let me help." (Laughter)
11104:26 Animals do displays. They do two things:
11204:28 They warn you or they try to attract you
11304:30 and say, "We need to mate."
11404:34 You're going to do that by the way you sign your letter.
11504:36 You do a number of things: you're a vice president,
11604:38 you volunteer, you do something else.
11704:40 Why is is this important?
11804:42 Because this establishes the two
11904:44 primary criteria for the political creature:
12004:46 that you have influence in a large sphere,
12104:49 and that my preservation depends on you.
12204:52 Here is one very quick hack,
12304:54 especially for the feds in the audience.
12404:56 Here's how you mail your letter.
12504:58 First of all, you send the original to the district office.
12605:01 So, you send the copy to the main office.
12705:04 If they follow protocol, they'll pick up the phone and say, "Hey, do you have the original?"
12805:07 Then some droid in the back puts the name on a tickler
12905:09 and says, "Oh, this is an important letter."
13005:12 And you actually get into the folder
13105:14 that the elected official actually has to read.
13205:17 So, what your letter means:
13305:19 I've got to tell you, we are all in a party,
13405:22 and political officials are the pinatas.
13505:24 (Laughter)
13605:29 We are harangued, lectured to,
13705:31 sold, marketed,
13805:33 but a letter is actually one of the few times
13905:35 that we have honest communication.
14005:37 I got this letter when I was first elected,
14105:39 and I still carry it to
14205:41 every council meeting I go to.
14305:43 This is an opportunity at real dialogue,
14405:46 and if you have stewardship
14505:48 and want to communicate,
14605:50 that dialogue is incredibly powerful.
14705:52 So when you do that, here's what I can promise:
14805:55 You're going to be the 800 pound gorilla in the forest.
14905:57 Get writing.
15005:59 (Applause)