Testifying Before Policymakers

If you are asked to testify before a congressional committee or other policymaking body or public forum, a sound knowledge of your subject, some advance preparation, and the following guidelines can maximize the positive impact of your statement. Keep in mind that you will often be asked to prepare both a written statement for the record and a short oral statement. Be sure to observe any time or length limitation imposed by the committee or body before which you are testifying.

Below are some tips to help you prepare and deliver your testimony:

Preparing Your Written Statement
Delivering Your Oral Statement

Preparing Your Written Statement

If you are asked to prepare a written statement, follow this outline:

  1. Briefly introduce yourself.
    Tell who you are and give information about the program you are representing (i.e., how many people you represent, how many people you serve, successes you have had). Acknowledge your appreciation to the panel for considering the issue and inviting you as a witness. This should take no more than one or two paragraphs.
  2. State your goal and outline your major points.
    In a few sentences, tell the committee or panel what you hope to accomplish in your statement. Again, be brief.
  3. Talk about the problem.
    Begin, for example, by discussing the problems that CTE is solving or can solve for the nation. This informs the decision-maker but also helps cast you in the role of a problem solver rather than one simply representing a vested self-interest. Discuss the national significance of the issue and then try to relate the problem to your state, district, community, or the area represented by the group before whom you are testifying.
  4. Talk about current efforts to resolve the problem.
    Describe solutions that are being tried or considered. Has anything worked in various states or communities on an experimental or demonstration basis Explain why the efforts are insufficient or how they can be improved.
  5. List your specific, concise recommendations.
    Focus on what the policymaking body can do to help solve the problem at hand.

Delivering Your Oral Statement

These tips will help you deliver your statement, either in-person or virtually. Keep in mind that you will likely have to shorten your written statement to ensure it fits specific requirements for oral presentations before the group that invited you.

  • Remember that public officials are people, too.
    Although you may be nervous, remember that these officials are looking to you as the expert. Relax, remain calm and speak like the expert you are.
  • Personalize your testimony.
    While statistics are important, one way to assist elected officials (and get their attention) is to let them know how the issue affects their constituents.
  • Make eye contact.
    Look at the officials as you talk so that the material is delivered with your eyes. To facilitate eye contact: 1) separate your pages, removing clips and staples; 2) use large type and double-space your text, triple-spacing between paragraphs; 3) leave a two-inch margin at the bottom of the page so your head won’t have to tilt down too far; and 4) don’t carry a sentence over to the next page.
  • Remember that there is often a time limit for public testimony.
    You do not want to find yourself in a position where your time has expired and you have not gotten to the point of your testimony. Before your scheduled time, ask what the time limits are, and practice accordingly.
  • Your goal should be that they will be interested enough in you and your subject to ask questions after you finish.
    Anticipate questions your testimony may prompt and have good answers in mind.
  • Focus on the specific issue of the hearing.
    Make sure your comments are relevant.
  • Follow up.
    Write a thank you note to each policymaker present in appreciation for the opportunity to testify, and provide additional information supporting your cause. Also, ask for support on your issue. Thank you letters published in the local papers are a great incentive to a public official to invite you or your group to testify again. If you worked with a specific contact or contacts within a legislative body or organization to arrange testimony, keep in contact. You never know when someone could serve as a resource!
  • Use your testimony in a variety of arenas.
    These guidelines can be applied to testimony before the U.S. Congress, state legislatures, school boards, county commissioners, chambers of commerce or state boards of education.
  • Don’t spend more time describing your own qualifications or your programs than you do the issue at hand.
    You were invited to testify because you are qualified. Use the time you are given to focus on the issue.
  • Don’t assume that the panel or committee members are experts.
    Policymakers, especially Members of Congress, often vote daily on many issues everything from water projects to military readiness. While you do not want to talk down to them, (they probably know more than you think) you should not assume that they know all that you do about the issue at hand.
  • Don’t try to tell them everything you know.
    Simplify, simplify, simplify!
  • Don’t be shy.
    Remember, you are important! You are the one who votes the officials into office. But whether it is to laud or lament, compliment or counsel, be tactful and polite.