Tips for Testifying . . . How to Prepare Yourself to Give Testimony Before a City Council, State Legislature or Any Other Governmental Body.
Whether you testify before a federal committee, the state legislature, or your local city council, these tips can help you make your points more effectively, and increase your chances of achieving the results you want.
Before The Testimony
- Develop an outline. Written notes will reassure you, help you remember the points you want to make, and keep your hands from shaking because they have something to hold. Highlighting your main points will help ensure that you cover them all.
- Conduct research for data that will support your position.
- If possible, sit in on other hearings before your big day. This will give you a feel for the process, and an idea of what works well and what doesn't.
- Prepare handouts for statistical documentation, budget numbers, supporting articles, diagrams, etc. It makes you look prepared and more like an expert, and verbally describing complex data can confuse your audience.
- Make sure you know what you want to say. Be succinct; leave the intricate details to the handouts. Practice your testimony out loud until you can deliver your message in less than five minutes.
- Meet with your representatives in advance to garner their support for your issues and to explain them in more detail. Like most of us, elected officials are more receptive to an acquaintance than they are to a complete stranger. Even if you find out that they disagree with you, meeting members prior to a hearing can help to calm your jitters about testifying. Finding out that they will support you is icing on the cake.
- Dress appropriately; it matters. You don't need a three-piece suit, but wearing clothes that are too casual gives the impression that this isn't very important to you, and that will cost you credibility.
- Breathe deeply and relax! Deep, slow breaths can calm your racing heart. Timed breathing (inhale on five counts, hold five counts, exhale on five counts) can also help. Another trick to drain off some of that excess energy is to discreetly press your palms either against each other or against your chair arms. Remember, stage fright is natural. The key is to find a focal point to concentrate on so that fear doesn't overwhelm you.
- Listen to those who go before you so you won't repeat what they have said. Sitting through a dozen people saying the same things, over and over again, just annoys your entire audience. If you have nothing new to add, try something like, "The people ahead of me have explained this issue very well, and I won't take up your time repeating what they have already said. However, I would like to stress that this is a very important issue for XYZ Organization, and we urge your support (or opposition) to this legislation. Thank you." Your audience will appreciate your concern for their time.
When You're Up There
- Speak from notes rather than a written text. Unless you're an actor and your story sounds like a James Bond movie, people will quickly lose interest if you read to them. Several years ago, when former Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka chaired a Senate committee, she actually would stop people who were reading their testimony and inform them that most legislators could read themselves, and if they couldn't talk about their subject, they should distribute written testimony instead of taking up everyone's time. Embarrassing? Yes, but it isn't really much worse than having the entire committee start doing other things or chatting among themselves because you have lost their attention. Keep them listening - talk to them!
- Speak clearly and concisely. Avoid overworked clichés and starting sentences with "uh" or "um." Repeating yourself and rambling make people believe you don't know your subject. If you begin to get off track, pause to look at your notes, take a deep breath, and proceed.
- Make eye contact; it gives you a personal connection with your audience.
- Use proper grammar; like clothing, it matters. Unfortunately, even if you know your issue inside and out, the use of poor grammar lessens your credibility.
- "The fact of the matter is..." is an oft-used phrase that frequently introduces an opinion rather than a fact. Be aware that this phrase, and others like it, can be hot buttons for anyone who disagrees with you. If you are careful to state your beliefs as just that your personal beliefs you won't set yourself up for someone to angrily inform a whole room full of people that you don't know what you're talking about because you don't know your "facts." Choose your words with care. Remember, the goal is to educate, not infuriate.
- Be respectful. Civil disobedience has its place; a committee hearing usually isn't it. Again, the goal is to educate. The underlying assumption is that educated people will agree with you. No matter what your personal feelings may be, bear in mind that legislators can actually have you arrested for disrupting a hearing. It's unlikely, but it's possible. If a soapbox is your dearest friend, you should think seriously about running for office yourself!
- Take time to think for a moment before you answer a question. Even if your mind draws a blank, pausing before responding tells them that you are a thoughtful person, and it can prevent you from making a blunder that may be difficult to overcome. If you are unsure of an answer but can make an educated guess, do so, but make sure they know it's a guess. If you simply don't know the answer to any question, admit it and offer to find out. You aren't expected to know everything about any issue, even one that is important to you, and getting back to people with an answer is one more opportunity for them to get to know you.
One More Thought
Keep trying. The more often you testify, the better you will get. The more often your representatives see you, the better they will know you and your issues. Don't beat yourself up if you didn't perform as well as you hoped you would. Figure out what went wrong and correct it next time. Figure out what went right, and applaud yourself for it. An honest critique will help you improve; harsh judgment will keep you from trying again. Always remember that one person can make a difference.
Your voice counts -- USE IT!