Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.
After a year and a half-ish hiatus, Be the Change is back, y’all, and we’re getting down to basics! If you’re new to the series, welcome! If you’ve been activist-ing your brains and hearts out over the past year, I’m so excited to hear about it! If you’ve been trying to survive the daily trauma of the world by hiding under your covers with your snuggle friend of choice, I totally see you, too!
This is a space for sharing tips, tricks, theory, and fun when it comes to activism and organizing. Today we’re zooming in on one of the most overlooked and underappreciated organizing tactics. Usually an afterthought, definitely misunderstood and often thrown together at the very last minute, I’m talking about tabling. Yes, tabling — putting some stuff on a table, like voting information or candidate brochures, and talking to people as they stop by about your cause, campaign, candidate or issue to help them learn more about it and hopefully get involved.
You could just put some stuff on a table and call it a day! But I bet we could take your activist tabling game to the next level. Like, really make it fun and functional and get you a helluva lot more oomph for your effort! I’ve got some tiiiiiips for you, beautiful activist babe!
1. Look alive, folks!
At the end of the day, you are the draw if you’re sitting at a table. Do you look like you’re having fun? Are you smiling at people and making small talk (but not obnoxious harassment-level singling people out because no one likes that)? Or are you sitting with your head down looking at your phone and making eye contact with no one? Guess which one is more likely to draw someone in!
I’m not saying you have to be full-on hawking for your cause like an auctioneer (please don’t), but look like you want to be there and you’d be happy to answer questions or have a chat or just generally engage with passersby. The strategic point of tabling is typically to distribute info or get info from a crowd. It’s a numbers game. The more people that stop by your table, the more you’ll be able to reach your goals whether your goal is about outreach or engagement or both. Also, you’ll have a lot more fun!
On this note, don’t assign just any volunteer to the table, if you have a choice about it. Pick a volunteer who is genuinely passionate about your cause and has an outgoing personality, or who has experience tabling and engaging folks from working with you previously. Tabling is often this last-pick or easy-pick job that people just randomly get assigned to, but it’s going to be one million times more effective if you see it as a skilled tactical job and not just a place to sit any random person for a few hours of bored moping.
2. Give good freebies
Free shit really is the best way to win the hearts and minds of the general public. Sorry to be so base and crass, y’all, but people coming by a tabling situation are mostly just scanning your table to see what free stuff is there. So, like, have free stuff. Free stuff doesn’t have to cost a lot. Candy or food, in general, is always a great draw. Free customized pens are fairly inexpensive if you can afford to buy something in bulk. You could raffle off a modestly valuable item like a gift card to a local coffee place. You could buy or cheaply make stickers or buttons, screen print some cute patches, or make bookmarks. Put your free stuff out where people can see it as they walk by.
My personal favorite “free thing” is buttons. I love a good button, funny buttons, political buttons, obscure reference buttons, homemade buttons. I will stop by your table for a button any day of the week.
When someone stops by to get some free stuff, they’re going to feel a little bit indebted to you for that free thing, so that’s the perfect time to ask them to sign your petition or join your email list or take some literature. Speaking of…
3. Make an ask
Tabling without some sort of goal for what you’re going to do with your visitors has never made much sense to me. Even if your goal is simply to hand out educational materials, pursue it actively! Tabling is also a prime opportunity to get petitions or letters signed. You could do a mini photo-booth with a sign or cardboard photo “frame” and a hashtag. You could ask them to decorate a sign or banner that you’ll display somewhere.
Once, in the digital organizing dark ages when I still used a real handheld digital camera, I had people hold a small chalkboard on which they wrote a personal message in support of a state trans rights bill. I snapped a pic and sent it to their state senator with a letter they also signed. In 2018, you could have people take their own protest pics with a small whiteboard or chalkboard and then tweet directly at elected officials.
Make your ask easy and quick. Bonus points if it’s fun! At the very least, have a simple sign-up sheet so you can get in touch with folks after the tabling event.
4. Create visible signage
A person casually strolling past your table should be able to see right away what your organization and/or cause is. You don’t need professionally printed signage, just LARGE PRINT signage. Handmade signs drawn on flattened cardboard boxes or poster board work just fine. What you don’t want is to have someone have to come really close to be able to tell what you’re tabling about. As someone who’s generally outgoing with really subtle social anxieties, even I am unlikely to approach a table unless I know what I’m in for. I’m going to walk right on by (unless you have cool free buttons).
5. Use vertical and eye-catching displays
An exception to that rule is if you can create some kind of display that’s vertical or three-dimensional that is very, very intriguing. The vertical or three-dimensional aspect is so it can be seen from a distance. The intriguing factor is up to you.
When I used to organize a campus advocacy program, we did a letter-writing tabling event once with ramen noodles. Why ramen noodles? To draw attention to rising birth control prices under a regressive federal policy, obviously. You see, birth control on college campuses would have risen from $25 to $50, which doesn’t seem like a lot until you think harder about how restricted a college student’s budget may be. We bought $25 worth of ramen noodles to visibly show the cost difference for college students on a budget who might have to choose between groceries or birth control pills if their copays suddenly doubled. Of course, people would be curious about the tower of ramen and stop by and bam! We’d get a petition letter signed. Bonus: The ramen doubled as a freebie and what college student isn’t going to take some free ramen noodles? We put stickers on the packages to remind people about the issue and gave them out at the end of the day. (I got the idea from another colleague and I can’t recall where that person worked or who they were, but credit to you, former national colleague at Planned Parenthood!)
Even if you can’t come up with a super intriguing visual to draw people in, vertical displays help generate interest. Something about how our brains work makes people more interested in a pamphlet or flyer or sign that’s standing up in a holder than one that’s flat on the table. Use inexpensive plastic bowls or baskets to hold your stuff. Use picture frames or plastic stands to display signs and samples of your literature. Display freebies in bowls or candy dishes or in a see-through glass vase.
6. Organize by flow
Visualize where you think traffic will be coming from based on your location. Will you likely be getting visitors coming from a specific direction due to your proximity to a door or attraction? Are you on a street where there’s traffic in all directions? Are you at an indoor tabling fair where people will likely be moving in a circular path through the space? If you’re at an outdoor tabling fair, is there a natural side that the “aisle” will likely fall on?
Organize your table based on how you think people will be approaching your table. Hang signs where people coming towards you will be most likely to see them. Put your free stuff near your sign-up or petition so you have an easy transition to making an ask of someone who grabs a freebie. If you have a donation jar, make sure it can be seen by visitors, but it’s close enough to you that you’ll deter anyone from taking off with it. If you’re getting petitions signed, have clipboards at different ends of the table so more than one person can sign at a time.
7. Practice an elevator speech
An elevator speech is a quick, direct, and persuasive marketing pitch that should be delivered in the 20 seconds it theoretically takes to ride an elevator between floors. For an activist campaign, it’s a quick, plain-language call to action that you can spit out quickly and repeatedly to engage people in your issue.
When someone pauses at your table, makes eye contact and smiles, grabs a freebie, or asks you what you’re tabling about, be ready to jump into your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is just two or three short sentences. It should include these details, in brief and simple language:
- What’s the issue you’re tabling about?
- Why is your issue important?
- What can we do to address the issue?
- How can the person you’re talking to help right now?
We’re raising awareness of the epidemic lack of housing for LGBTQ homeless youth in our community, who make up 40% of the local homeless youth population. We’re advocating for better training for shelter and youth program staff. Would you like to sign up for more info on how we can all help LGBTQ youth stay safe?
8. Make a Tabling-To-Go Kit
Use a small box or bag to put together a tabling kit that has everything you may need. Scotch tape, duct tape, scissors, a bundle of pens (for petitions), permanent markers, rubber bands (for literature), post-it notes, colored markers, a highlighter, glue stick, binder clips, and anything else you might need. I include some small zip ties, too, which can be used to hang a sign or tie down a rogue tent.
9. Give it some flair
Full disclosure, I’m not consistently good at this, but in the best case scenarios, you create a nice, warm little visual and one way to do that is by adding small touches. If, for example, you don’t know if there will be a tablecloth on your table, bring one! Dollar store table clothes are perfect for this, or use a thin blanket or just cut a large rectangular piece of fabric
Need something to hold literature down on a windy day? Instead of rubber-banding everything or using a rock you just then found on the ground, get or make little paperweights. Rocks of approximate same size painted or polished up are great for this! I’ve also seen people use decorated blocks of wood or clay pots with succulents.
Add a decorative backdrop or a rug to your tabling area. Put a vase of cut flowers on the table. Make it homey!
10. Keep it fun!
Look, it doesn’t have to be perfect every time. You don’t need to stress over these tips if they don’t work for you, you can’t afford them, or they just seem impractical. Just get out there. In the actual feature image for this article, you’ll notice I’m not following a lot of my own advice. I don’t hit all these tips every single time. That would be very cool, but also absurd. We don’t have to achieve some unattainable standard of perfection. This is all about helping you think a little more strategically about tabling as a tactic, not making this into a stressful checklist!
Think of it as a framework for improving your tabling game. The most important thing, honestly, is that you’re doing the thing!
What are your top tips for tabling? What kind of things draw you over to a table when you’re out in this big, bold world? Share in the comments if you please and thank you!