Over the last six months, I’ve been to more candidate forums that I can count. From discussions about the future of healthcare to improving smart growth initiatives, candidates for offices at the state and national levels are making the rounds to make their case to the voters.

 

Typically, forum attendees are more invested than the general population because forums focus on one particular issue, allowing candidates to dive a bit more into the weeds and discuss policy issues. They also aren’t typically televised and thus don’t have the same reach or purpose as a debate.

 

So what can candidates do to make these most of these opportunities?

 

Do your research: At a forum, you are likely speaking to an audience that is immersed in a given topic. Learn about the organizations that are sponsoring the event and those that are helping to promote it. Know which recent legislation has or hasn’t passed, which programs are doing well and which need more support, and have an idea about what the advocates will be asking for in the next legislative session.

 

This is where you can show how invested you are in the topic – and what you can do to improve it. The frontrunners in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race ran into trouble after appearing unprepared or uncomfortable answering questions posed at a forum organized by the Commonwealth’s tech community. Not the headlines either Charlie Baker or Martha Coakley want to see five weeks out from Election Day.

Mind your manners: You understand the issues, you know the audience and you feel comfortable that you will hit every point in your talking point with confidence. But don’t forget that communication is about more than just the words you speak. Your body language says a lot about you.

 

Did you clap when the other candidates were introduced? Did you look at the person speaking? Were you giving the perception of boredom by fidgeting and moving around in your chair? Non-verbal communication can make a huge difference to a voter, especially if your positions are similar to your colleagues making your non-verbal communication is all that is distinguishing you.

 

Understand the tone: There is a difference between a debate and a forum. A forum is a place to talk about ideas – save the boxing gloves for the debate. There is nothing wrong with pointing out the differences between you and the other candidates, but the participants are there to hear about your position on the issues that really matter to them. Using aggressive and argumentative language towards the other candidates can come across as bellicose and antagonistic.

Follow the rules: Be mindful of the amount of time you’re given to answer questions, don’t stray off-topic too much, and give a simple yes or no when specifically asked to do so. When you don’t follow the rules, the voter begins to see you as someone who thinks the rules don’t apply – an elitist – and that never wins votes.

 

Keep an eye on social media: Any campaign worth its salt will have a communications person keeping an eye on Twitter or other relevant social networks during a forum—especially if organizers have a specific hashtag. Have a staffer share information or quotes from your responses, retweet others who have positive responses to your answers, and be sure to thank the organizers after the event is over. That way, your reach goes beyond those who happened to be in the room for the forum.

Candidate forums are an important part of the political process. It’s the time to really discuss the issues and show the voters that you understand – and care about – what matters to them.