In The Hot Seat: Tips for Nailing Your Congressional Testimony

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Emily J. Holubowich, MPP, Senior Vice President

I have prepped many a congressional hearing witness over the last 20 years. Last week, I had my first opportunity to be a witness when I testified before the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform on behalf of the Convergence Building a Better Budget Process Project (video here).

Let’s just say I have a whole new perspective on the experience. For example, I will never again tell a witness, “Don’t be nervous, you’ll be great!”

(But what if I’m NOT? EEEK!)

Sure. No pressure.

Testifying before Congress is intimidating. Nerves are inevitable, and natural. Beyond taking a page from Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk about striking the “Super Man” pose, there’s not much many of us can do to completely turn off that “flight” response. What you can do is prepare. The more prepared you are, the more comfortable and effective you will be during the hearing. Here are some tips based on my experience—as both prepper and preppee—to help you nail your congressional testimony.

Clear Your Calendar. You’ve been invited to testify before a committee, and given five minutes to deliver your remarks. How much time could you possibly need to prepare for five minutes? A lot more than you think.  In a nutshell:

  • Write your written statement for the Congressional Record, and have someone review it before submitting it to the committee;
  • Pare that written statement down into your five-minute oral statement;
  • Think through how you’ll answer likely questions from the lawmakers and reporters;
  • Learn more about those lawmakers, your fellow panelists, and reporters who cover that beat;
  • Practice (yes, read your statement out loud, preferably to someone else);
  • Work with your organization or institution on the media outreach and interactions;
  • Promote your appearance through your social media networks;
  • Be prepared to submit written responses to questions for the record; and
  • Promote your appearance after the fact.

And don’t forget to send those thank you notes!

I delve into this more below but the bottom line is: all of this takes time—and lots of it. If you’re lucky you’ll have a week to prepare, at most, so clear your calendar and give yourself plenty of time to focus on the tasks at hand.

Do Your Homework. Rule #1 in communications is “know your audience.” Take time to learn everything you can about the committee, the lawmakers on the committee, their positions on the hearing topic, and how the committee and previous hearings have been run. You will find answers to all of these questions and more online. Information about lawmakers—bios, interests, committee assignments, bills sponsored—is publicly available on their websites, and the committee’s website will have recordings of past hearings to better understand the committee’s culture and the interactions between members.

In doing your homework, don’t forget to learn more about the other witnesses on the panel and reading anything they’ve published on the topic, and connecting with them on LinkedIn and Twitter. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself via email, asking them (or the committee staff) for copies of their written statements in advance of the hearing, and sharing yours. You don’t want to be caught off guard during the hearing, so do your best to find out what they’re going to say in advance.

Refine Your Message. Writing your testimony and then reading your oral statement are actually the easiest part of the experience. It’s the Q&A portion of the hearing that is most intimidating—at least, it was for me. Part of that fear is not knowing what you’ll be asked. That’s where doing your homework about the committee, the lawmakers, and the witnesses can really help you be ready for anything. But you should also think of the Q&A as an opportunity to hammer home your message, repeat your key points, and if necessary, cover material that may not fit in your five minute statement.  

Practice, Practice, Practice. And when you think you can’t stand another minute of practice, practice some more. Invite one or two trusted colleagues/friends to be there with you and coach you through it. Read your oral statement aloud to ensure the statement flows, and have your coaches time you to ensure you stay within the designated time limit. Draft some questions you think you may be asked and have your coaches grill you, and time your responses. Ask your coaches to give critical feedback about your cadence, body language, facial expressions, eye contact, and responses to the sample questions. If their only feedback is, “You’re GREAT,” find some new coaches who can give it to you straight.

Treat this practice session as a true “dress rehearsal” and set the stage accordingly: wear a suit, sit at a conference table with your coaches across from you, even set up a tent card with your name. It may feel goofy, but setting the stage for your dry run will make you feel more comfortable the day of.

Say “I Don’t Know.” The Senator has asked you a question that is out of left field. What now? It is perfectly appropriate to say, “That is an excellent question, Senator. I don’t know the answer, but I’d be happy to respond to your question in writing for the record.” Don’t think of “I don’t know” as a personal failing, but a useful tool to buy some time. You can use it when you truly don’t know, and when you do know but you’re not sure if/how you want to respond in that moment. “I don’t know” also provides a great opportunity to keep the conversation going with Members of Congress and their staff after the hearing.

Be Yourself. Lawmakers know a lot about a lot of things, but they don’t know everything. They’ve invited you to testify because you are the expert on this topic and they value your perspective and expertise. Be confident in what you know, and let it show. At the same time, always be respectful in your tone and demeanor—even if the lawmakers don’t afford you the same respect. Smile. Thank. Listen. Being authentic will help you connect with lawmakers, and make them want to come back to you as a trusted expert on this issue and others in the future.

Get Help. Preparing for a congressional testimony is a lot of work, especially when you have a day job. You don’t have to go it alone. The government relations and strategic communications professionals at CRD Associates are well-equipped to help you in all aspects of your hearing prep—research, drafting, coaching—and thinking through how to promote you, before and after the fact.

When you get that call, let us know how we can help!