The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society supports legislation to remove criminal and civil sanctions for the doctor-advised, medical use of marijuana by patients with serious physical medical conditions...
-Leukemia & Lymphoma Society

Giving speeches and presentations is one of the most basic ways that an activist can communicate ideas. Every activist should have at least a little experience with public speaking, whether it is at a public meeting, chapter meeting, community group or elsewhere. Public speaking is not the same as casual conversation - although it is always OK to be yourself. Public speaking in the context of advocacy is specifically intended to inform, motivate, and persuade. But do not think you have to be a great orator to be an effective speaker. Just use these tips and keep practicing. For most of us, it is an acquired skill.

The key to being more comfortable with public speaking is to keep practicing. No one starts off as an expert. You just have to keep doing it until you feel relatively comfortable speaking in front of others. Don't feel bad if you're nervous. Even the best and most experienced public speakers feel butterflies in their stomach when they step up to the podium. The famous writer and lecturer Mark Twain once said, "There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars." Feeling some nervousness before giving a speech is natural and healthy. It shows you care about doing well.


Here's how you can control your nervousness and make effective, memorable presentations:

  1. Know the room. Be familiar with the place in which you will speak. Arrive early, walk around the speaking area and try practicing using the microphone and any visual aids.
  2. Know the audience. Greet some of the audience as they arrive. It's easier to speak to a group of friends than to a group of strangers.
  3. Know your material. If you're not familiar with your material or are uncomfortable with it, your nervousness will increase. Practice your speech and revise it if necessary.
  4. Relax. Ease tension by going for a walk, doing some basic stretching, chatting with colleagues.
  5. Realize that people want you to succeed. Audiences want you to be interesting, stimulating, and informative. They don't want you to fail.
  6. Don't apologize. If you mention your nervousness or apologize for any problems you think you have with your speech, you may be calling the audience's attention to something they hadn't noticed. Avoid pointing out your own imagined inadequacies; your audience has a higher opinion of you than you think.
  7. Concentrate on the message -- not the medium. Focus your attention away from your own anxieties, and outwardly toward your message and your audience. Your nervousness will dissipate.
  8. Turn nervousness into positive energy. Harness your nervous energy and transform it into vitality and enthusiasm.
  9. Gain experience. Experience builds confidence, which is the key to effective speaking.

[Adapted from "10 Tips for Successful Public Speaking"]


  • If you don't hear the question or understand it, ask the questioner to repeat it.
  • Try to keep calm, even if your audience is hostile or upset.
  • Always respect the questioner, even if you do not like the question or the manner in which it is posed.
  • Don't feel offended if someone asks you a question that you feel you already answered in your presentation or a previous question. They may not have heard or understood the information previously presented.
  • Honesty is the best policy. If you don't know the answer to something, admit it— you can always offer to contact the person later with an answer.

[From "Handling Q & A"]

There are also some very basic precautions you can take when you have to speak:

  • Plan your comments in advance and take notes with you, even if you don't need them.
  • Practice in front of a mirror, on tape, or with friends in advance.
  • Offer eye contact with the audience, but don't get fixated on any one individual.
  • Smile when you speak. Listeners can "hear" a smile.
  • Go slow, pause when needed, and remember to breathe deeply.
  • Do not panic if you mess up. Just start again as if nothing happened. Most listeners will not remember.

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Talking to the media will almost certainly be a part of your work as a medical cannabis spokesperson and advocate.

After all, most Americans form their opinions about issues from news coverage. Your media work may involve interviews, published comments, or new online media. This chapter is designed to give you some basic skills in using your strategic messages to influence media coverage. News media can be a powerful tool for medical cannabis activism, but you need to know how to operate in the media environment to reap its rewards and avoid its pitfalls.

Consider the three major media formats you will encounter as an activist - broadcast, print, and new media. Each has its own strengths and weakness, but basic principles outlined in this chapter will be useful in all of them.

Broadcast media includes television and radio.

These outlets reach broad audiences quickly, but the amount of time you have to communicate your message is limited. In contrast, print media offers a great opportunity to discuss medical cannabis issues in detail. That matters because print media is still the gold standard in opinion making. Politicians pay attention to influential newspapers and magazines. On the downside, the audience for print media is shrinking as broadcast and new media gain larger shares of the public eye.

New media is a term that refers to new and enhanced media content in the digital age.

This includes the assimilation of print and broadcast media into online formats, but it also includes non-traditional media outlets like web sites, blogs, podcasts, etc. People sometimes use the term new media to refer to social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. New media is a tremendous force for the democratization of media, and medical cannabis activists should embrace it to be effective voices in the media. However, you must never ignore the power and significance of traditional broadcast and print media. A lot of people still form opinions based on network news or the daily newspaper.

This section will give you some tips and tools to use to prepare for a media interview. After reading this section, turn to the worksheet on page and practice turning your strategic message into a sound byte. Then PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.


Logistics and Details

There are several questions you want answered before you agree to an interview.

Some people are hesitant to ask these questions, but the more knowledge you have, the more prepared you will be. You won't lose an interview if you make sure to answer these questions:

  • What's the format of the outlet? Print? Broadcast?
  • What's the interview about?
  • What's your organization's role in the piece being proposed? Are you the focus or just a supporting player? Who else are they interviewing?
  • Which outlet is it for? Ask about the reader- or viewership to determine if it reaches your target audience. You shouldn't necessarily turn down an interview if it doesn't, though you probably won't make it a priority.
  • What's the format of the interview? Is it a one-on-one, a debate, or another format?
  • Are you part of a panel? If it is a broadcast interview, will it be live, edited on tape, is it a call-in?
  • How long will the interview last?
  • For print pieces, do they need a photo? Usually they will take their own pictures, so be prepared if they plan to have a photographer snapping away at you while you speak.

If you are comfortable with the answers to all of these questions, and you feel this interview gives you a good opportunity to get out your organization's messages, go for it. If you don't feel you are the right messenger for the show, consider suggesting someone else from your list of spokespeople who might be more appropriate or who could make a stronger statement.

If the story just isn't on the right topic or won't give you the forum to discuss what you want to discuss, consider turning it down. Spend your time on something that will let you get your message out.

Creating Sound Bites

To have successful interviews, you need to answer questions in a way that supports your messages. If, after an interview, the quotes included in a story do not support your main messages, then you are what we call in the industry "off message." This is bad. You had an opportunity to get out your message and you blew it.

To avoid mistakes, practice interviewing using the messages from your strategic plan. All spokespeople for your organization should be familiar with and proficient in delivering these key messages. Remember: part of getting out messages successfully is picking the right spokespeople. Certain spokespeople will resonate better with your target audience than others. Don't let egos eliminate a chance to showcase your best spokespeople and get the most from a media interview.

Use the Three Cs

CONCISE. Typically, your comments will be edited to about 5 to 15 seconds or a short sentence. Focus on getting your points across efficiently. Avoid long words and lengthy sentences. Also, it is better to pause to gather your thoughts than to rely on fillers like "uhuh-uh," "like," or "you know."

CONVERSATIONAL. Avoid insider jargon and policy-laden language; use words and descriptions that the average reader/viewer will understand. When you must use jargon, explain it - briefly.

CATCHY. The reporter is looking for the catchy phrase or sound bite. To ensure your main points are included, say them in a clever fashion. If you just presented a key point in an unclear or rambling way, stop for a second and make your point again. The reporter needs the quote to make sense.

Say what you want to say

Sometimes media coverage is a double-edged sword. You want to get your strategic message out, but the reporter has another agenda. The most important thing that you can remember is that you have a role in determining how you and the issue of medical cannabis are portrayed. You can turn negative media coverage into something positive. We call this "redirecting" media. There are two basic tactics for doing this - sticking to your sound bite and turning back to your message.

Sticking to your sound bite - Reporters will sometimes try to draw you into uncomfortable territory with leading questions. You must remember that an interview is not a regular conversation. The media outlet is unlikely to broadcast the reporter's question. If you feel the reporter is leading you toward something negative, just repeat your sound bite (strategic message) and don't repeat their question in your answer. Repeating their question will make you want to answer it.

This may feel awkward, but ensure the media will have nothing to use besides your carefully crafted sound bite. Consider this example:

REPORTER: "Isn't it true that most people who use medical marijuana are not really sick? Aren't they just trying to get high?"

ADVOCATE: "Research and experience show us that sensible regulations protect safe access while preventing crime and complaints around dispensaries."

Note that the advocate did not respond to the reporter's accusation, thus denying the media outlet an opportunity to talk about people "just getting high." This may annoy the reporter, but it is what is best for telling the truth about medical cannabis.

Turning back to your message - Sometimes you will be unable to avoid responding to negative leading questions. In these situations, it is best to respond to the reporter's question with a generality, and then turn the conversation back to your strategic message as quickly as possible. This is a good tactic to use when you know the reporter's questions will be a part of the interview. Remember that you want a neutral "turning phrase." You are not trying to reinforce the reporter's bad question. Instead, you are trying to neutralize it. For example:

REPORTER: "Isn't it true that most people who use medical marijuana are not really sick? Aren't they just trying to get high?"

ADVOCATE: "The large majority of medical cannabis patients are not taking advantage, but what we must remember is that research and experience show us that sensible regulations protect safe access while preventing crime and complaints around dispensaries."

Always remember that you should not reinforce a negative message. Take your time to respond. Turn back to your message and stay on topic. The reporter may be frustrated by this, but you are doing the right thing.


Interviews and studio discussions can be a bloodsport, and you, the interviewee, are one of the combatants. So here are some rules and tactics. Practice, as in any other sport, is absolutely critical. If you haven't done many interviews before, get someone to pretend to be the interviewer a day or two before you're due to go on, and get her to give you a hard time.


Be informed. This is the golden rule. Remember, this is an information war, and the best warriors are the ones with the best information. Make sure your information is reliable and stands up to critical examination.

Be calm. Generally the audience sees the calmest person as the winner. This doesn't mean you can't be passionate and enthusiastic - indeed these are good things - but don't spill over into anger. If necessary, take a deep breath before answering the question. Be polite but firm with everyone.

Be concise. Use as few words as possible, and speak with clarity and determination. You should summarize the whole issue in just one or two sentences before expanding on your theme.

It's the answers that count, not the questions. When you go into the studio, you must know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it. Don't be too scrupulous about answering the actual questions - get to the points you want to make.

Don't try to make too many points. Have a maximum of three lines of argument. Any more and both you and the audience will get lost.

Finish your point. If the interviewer tries to interrupt you before you have finished, carry on talking until you've said it. Sometimes it's useful to say "Just a moment" or "If you'd let me finish." Be assertive without being rude. Don't let yourself be bullied.

Simplicity. Make your points as clearly as possible. Use short sentences and simple words. Try not to use sub-clauses (a sentence within a sentence), as you might confuse the listener.

Turn hostile questions to good account. There are several ways of doing this:

  • Deal with the question quickly, and then move on to what you want to talk about. This is the simplest and safest way of handling tricky questions. A good way of going about it is to agree with part of the question, then show that it's not the whole story.
  • Deliberately misinterpret the question. "You're quite right; there were a lot of undesirable elements at the protest. In fact, there's an urgent need to regulate the security industry properly. Do you know that a lot of security guards have criminal records for violent assault?"
  • Undermine the factual content of the question. But always, always, bring your answer back round to the point.

Leave your notes behind. If what you want to say isn't in your head, you shouldn't be in the studio.

Project. You're not having a casual chat with the interviewer or the other guest. This means that you should put more emphasis into your voice than you'd do in a normal conversation. It might sound strange to you when you first do it (and practice it before you do a real interview), but on air it'll sound fine.

Use your body. On TV a good rule is that your head and torso should stay fairly still (which makes you seem solid and trustworthy), but your hands should lend emphasis to what you say (they can help to drive your points home). Eyebrows are pretty useful too.

Humor. If you can do it without making it sound frivolous or irrelevant, a bit of humor can help a lot to win your audience over. Gently satirizing your opponent's position is often quite effective.

Don't hate your opponent. This is absolutely necessary. Whatever you might think about the person you're up against, you must leave your feelings at the door of the studio. If you allow yourself to hate them, you'll lose your cool, lose focus and lose public sympathy. One way of dealing with your feelings is to regard your opponent as someone who has been misled and needs to be told the truth.

[Adapted from "An activist guide to exploiting the Media" by George Monbiot]


Give Thanks. Write a note to the person who interviewed you, thanking them for their time and attention. Regardless of how the story comes out, you want them to know you appreciate the opportunity to talk about your campaign/issue.

Review the coverage. The best way to get better at interviewing is to review your performance and make a list of what to do better or differently next time.

Ask yourself:

  • Were you on message?
  • Did you get your main points across in a concise and easy to understand way?
  • Did your opponents make any compelling arguments for which you will need a good counterpoint in the future?
  • Was the piece in any way inaccurate or unfair?

If the story is inaccurate or unfair If a story comes out with factual mistakes or misquotes, do not call up screaming at a reporter. Instead, calmly point out the mistake and ask for a correction. Consider contacting the editor or news director. Going over a reporter's head is a serious step and should only happen when a major mistake has been made and the reporter refuses to acknowledge his/her responsibility for the miscommunication. If you go over a reporter's head without first speaking with him/her, you will sour whatever relationship you have with that reporter, and it can come back to haunt you.

*prepared from materials produced by Resource Media*

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Elected bodies, including City Councils, County Boards of Supervisors, and Planning Commissions, often host public hearings to find out what constituents think about proposed legislation or other topics. Do not be intimidated by the word "hearing." It has nothing to do with going to court or being on trial. A public hearing is just what the name implies - a chance for elected officials to hear what you have to say in a public forum. Public hearings are a great place to influence medical cannabis legislation, but you need to plan ahead to make the most of your testimony.

The elected body holding a public hearing will usually hear testimony on numerous topics at the same time. You will want to check the agenda for your jurisdiction to find out when medical cannabis is on the agenda. Agendas for public hearings are usually available a few days in advance, although posting and publication deadlines vary from one jurisdiction to another. Most public hearing agendas are available online. You may have to contact the staff for the body holding a public hearing to find out how to check the agenda in your city, county, or state.

In some instances, the elected body will receive a staff report on the topic in advance of the public hearing. The staff report, which is prepared by staff members who work for the City Attorney, County Counsel, legislative committee, etc., will present analysis of the issue to be considered. The staff report is likely to contain a recommendation for the elected body - adopt the ordinance, reject a proposal, do more research, etc. Elected bodies tend to follow the recommendations in staff reports, so it is important to be prepared to support recommendations in the report with which you agree or argue persuasively against recommendations you oppose.

It is always best for an advocate to know what the elected officials will be considering before the public hearing. Always try to obtain the staff report, if any, in advance. It will usually be a part of the agenda package, which will be available a few days before the hearing (policies vary among jurisdictions). If you cannot locate it, ask the staff at offices of elected officials if you can speak to or otherwise communicate with the staff members who will write the report. This can be a useful strategy for influencing the report in advance of its publication. Take advantage of any opportunity to educate staff before they publish a report for a public hearing. It is much easier to support the staff recommendations than it is to oppose them.

You will have a limited amount of time to speak at a public hearing - sometimes as few as one or two minutes. Planning your comments in advance is important. ASA recommends sending written comments to the elected body in advance whenever possible. This will allow you to use your public speaking time more efficiently because you already have your thoughts organized. It is also possible your spoken comments will have more of an impact if the elected officials have already read them in a letter or email.

Whether or not you wrote in advance, you should plan your comments to make the most of limited time. As with all citizen advocacy, you must be accurate, brief, and courteous when you testify at a public hearing. It is a good idea to write your comments, make notes, or prepare an outline in advance. That way, you do not draw a blank when it is your turn to speak. This is especially important for those with limited experience with public speaking.

You should have one or two points to make at a public hearing. Keeping it simple makes your comments easier to remember. If you have more to say, send a letter in advance or follow up with more copious comments. Be sure to look up and write down any facts or statistics you want to relate. These are easy to forget on the spot! Use this simple outline to frame your testimony at a public hearing:

  1. Introduce and identify yourself - "Hello. My name is John Doe. I live in _____, and am a medical cannabis patient."
  2. State your "ask" (what you want) up front - "I am here today to ask the City Council to allow medical cannabis collectives in any commercial zone in the city."
  3. Reference comments you sent in advance, if applicable - "I hope you have had an opportunity to read the letter I sent last week."
  4. Support your "ask" or make secondary points... but be brief.
  5. Restate your "ask" before your time expires - "I urge you to allow medical cannabis collectives in any commercial zone in the city."
  6. Say thank you and end your comments when your time expires.

Be sure to follow up after you testify at a public hearing. You can call your elected official two or three days after a public hearing to ask if he or she will do what you want (your "ask"). Try to be a solution for the representative. Does he or she need a sample ordinance, statistics, or cases studies? Is there anyone else to whom you should be speaking? When will your representative make a decision or take action? Always be polite, but keep pushing for a commitment or concrete action. In politics, the squeaky wheel often gets the grease!

Lawyers, lobbyists, and other professionals sometimes make impressive presentations at public hearings. These may include sophisticated comments, visual aids, and expert opinions. Elected officials do not expect that grassroots advocates, concerned community members, or other laypersons will do so. It is enough for you to be accurate, efficient, and sincere. Keep in mind, however, that public hearings are official proceedings. You need to make a good impression with your comments, appearance, and demeanor. And always remember that everything you say is on the record.

There is a time when you may want professional assistance at a public hearing. If you are participating in a public hearing as a permit applicant or appellant, or if you anticipate being a party to any litigation as a result of the hearing's outcome, it may be prudent to consult with an attorney and have him or her present at the public hearing. In some cases, your legal options as an applicant, appellant, or plaintiff may be limited by the information presented at a hearing. Consult with a qualified attorney if you are involved in a situation like this.

By preparing in advance and using your time efficiently, you can make the public hearing an important tool in advocating for medical cannabis. You can make your testimony even more effective by sending written comments in advance and following up with a phone call afterwards. If you use these time-tested strategies, you will set yourself apart from the large majority of ineffective speakers at public hearings and make a real difference for safe access.

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