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October 1996
How to be an Activist: The Art of Leafleting

By Martin Rowe


Because of the First Amendment, you can leaflet or table in any public space, as long as you're not blocking entrances or causing a disturbance. Now, the definition of blocking an entrance or causing a disturbance is open to interpretation - usually by police or security guards. But I've leafleted and tabled all over the City and have rarely, if ever, been moved on. Here are a few, if inexpert, tips on how to get as many leaflets into as many hands without having them thrown away.

1. The Tag Line

You get offered leaflets on the street all the time, right? Usually, they're for sales and you pass them by. Well, guess what? That's what people are thinking about your extremely-important-and-life-changing leaflet. So, you've got to distinguish yourself. This is where the tag line comes in. When we leafleted outside the Barnum & Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden, we told people passing by that our leaflets contained, "important information about the circus." That got customers' attention, and they were glad to take them. Think about a line for your issue. It focuses people's minds, and they know they're not just getting information on yet another sofa sale.

2. Location, location, location

The aim is to maximize the numbers of people and minimize your effort. Thus it's best to be on a heavily trafficked street. Beware, however, of standing next to an intersection, since people will be more interested in beating the light, or avoiding people coming in the opposite direction, than in taking your leaflet.

Sometimes your location will do your work for you, such as leafleting by a store selling something objectionable. Otherwise, you can always match up with a friend and have that friend stand 10 feet in front of you with a poster depicting what you'll be giving a leaflet about. At least that way when people take the leaflet, they'll be curious.

3. One person at a time.

If the people whose street you're on are walking in bunches, don't try and give leaflets to all of them. Fix upon one person (usually the one in front), look him or her in the eye, offer the leaflet and say your pitch. If you try and catch everybody's eyes, you'll miss them all. One person leafleted is better than no-one at all. Also, don't try to leaflet in more than one direction. Take those walking in one direction, and your friend can take the others walking in the other direction.

4. Be psychological.

People are curious; but they also tend to do what others do. So, if one person takes a leaflet, those nearby are going to want one too. But, if one person sees another refusing a leaflet, they are also likely to refuse. That's why it's important to get the leaflet into one person's hand. You'll be amazed how many people will want one!

Avoid places and times where people are likely to be thinking of getting to work on time or getting the hell home. In these moods, they're not going to take anything from anybody - let alone a leaflet on slaughterhouses from you. Pick a place and time where people have to wait around, or are eating something, or -žbest of all - shopping.

5. Have your leaflets ready.

While you're waiting for the next bunch of people to come, make sure your leaflets are organized. Giving a leaflet out is an instantaneous business: nobody will wait for you to get it the right way round, or unstick one leaflet from another, or pick up the pile you dropped on the ground. Be quick and snappy.

6. Hand it over gracefully.

Don't thrust the leaflet into the passer-by's face; that's not where his or her hands are. Hand it over, assertively towards their hand, with a smile and making eye-contact. The passer-by should feel he or she is getting something valuable for them, not that they should take it on sufferance. Hold out the leaflet in front of you and then follow the pedestrian with your leaflet so that he or she has a better chance of taking it. I wouldn't run down the street after them, however. It's not worth the energy, and it isn't all that effective either.

7. Don't discriminate.

No sex, age, ethnicity, or income group is more or less likely to take leaflets: in the end, whether you like it or not, people are people (even those in fur coats and with lots of jewelry). That being said, I wouldn't give leaflets to kids too young to read. Give it to their parents, who will understand better what is being given to them.

8. Don't worry. Be happy.

You'll probably get yelled at occasionally, told to get a life, told to help people instead, asked pointless questions, and have ill-formed and ridiculous opinions thrown in your face. Some people also have a distressing tendency to crumple up leaflets and throw them on the ground rather than give them back to you or put them in the trash. But don't lose heart. I've known people whose lives were changed by a leaflet, and that makes it all worthwhile. It can also, believe it or not, be a lot of fun.

See you on the streets!


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