One Former Mayor Explains How to Deliver an Effective State of the City Address

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Former Mayor Mike Nelson reveals how city leaders can make policy problems relevant to their constituents and shares four concrete guidelines local officials can use when preparing a public speech on just about any topic.

During the ten years I served as mayor of Carrboro, North Carolina, I learned a lot about using a public forum to communicate with my residents. My role as a leader was to articulate high-level community needs in a way that busy citizens found relatable, which meant distilling the essence of policy choices and drawing analogies between our immediate challenges and the challenges residents face in their day-to-day lives. In other words, I made policy problems relevant to them and their needs.

The most important job of being mayor is setting the tone. As mayor, you are positioned to spotlight challenges, articulate options, and propose consensus solutions. You’re the bully pulpit, minus the bully.

As I think about sitting mayors who use State of the City addresses to highlight complex community goals, I am reminded of one particularly difficult speech which I gave. It was a hot-button land use matter that intertwined legal issues, taxes, growth management, annexation and equitable financing for community needs. To make matters worse, it ran headlong into the closely held ideology of a vocal political minority in the community.

A key requirement of leadership, however, is peering around the corner, seeing what’s coming, and preparing your community for imminent challenges and opportunities. Since our decision would shape the community for decades, there was a lot riding on getting my remarks just right — winning the votes of my colleagues, persuading editorial writers and bloggers, and asking our citizens to stand behind a controversial action.

To weather the political fallout, I needed to convey that our decision was principled, not capricious, so I prepared remarks that aligned with community values, reflected the core principles of well-managed communities, and were supported by data. Even though my speech involved a highly-charged topic — which created an atmosphere very different from the friendly environment in which most mayors deliver a State of the City address — I believe it served as an example of how city leaders can use principled, clear arguments to lead a community through a difficult decision-making process.

Not only did I win the vote, but I also won praise from editorialists and community activists. I used my bully pulpit to set the tone of the discussion, draw attention to a problem, articulate options, and propose a responsible solution.

Here are some of the speechwriting guidelines I’ve adopted over the years:

  • Maintain a clear ideological framework — Don’t adopt one rationale for one argument and another for the next argument. A clear, consistent ideological thread through a State of the City address will help your community digest your arguments and accept the path you lay out.
  • Connect the dots — Your residents lead busy lives. Distill complex information so they understand how seemingly disparate facts impact one another (e.g. how that $1 million needed for sewer improvements means that the city can’t buy new playground equipment for a neighborhood park).
  • Start where they are, not where you are — Most won’t understand the issue in question in a manner as in-depth as you do. That’s OK. Understand where your community is on an issue and then articulate a path forward, explaining why every step of the way.
  • Give them time — President Bill Clinton used to say that Americans almost always came to the right decision when given enough information and enough time. Your State of the City speech is an opportunity to lay out long-term goals; use your speech to build support for future decisions, not the council vote next week.

Your State of the City address has great potential to both inform your community and rally them to action — and success depends on the quality of your speech and its delivery. To help with your efforts, the National League of Cities (NLC) has developed a guide, “How to Deliver an Effective State of the City Address,which covers everything from developing content to drafting language.

Want more State of the Cities content? Join NLC tomorrow in-person or via Facebook Live stream at 9:15 a.m. EDT for our annual State of the Cities event. CityLab’s Rob Bole will host an in-depth discussion on city priorities with NLC Second Vice President and Gary, Indiana, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Tampa, Florida, Mayor Bob Buckhorn, and NLC Senior Executive & Center for City Solutions Director Brooks Rainwater.

Featured image from Getty Images.

About the author: Mike Nelson is the program manager for Member Services and Engagement (West Region) at the National League of Cities. He served as mayor of Carrboro, North Carolina, for ten years.