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Your Step-by-Step Guide to Preparing for Congressional Testimony

by Joshua Habursky, Deputy executive director and chief lobbyist, Premium Cigar Association (PCA)

Learn how to make your next congressional testimony a success, with a complete guide to testimony best practices and preparation.

How to prepare for congressional testimony

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Template: How to Prepare for Congressional Testimony

A single-page, customizable template to guide you during your congressional testimony.

As part of the legislative process, state and federal legislatures use hearings to engage with the public — specifically those who are distinctly affected by the proposed legislation or policies for which the hearings are being conducted. Hearing participants are also selected based on their expertise in a particular subject matter. For example, members may be suitable witnesses or participants in hearings on a particular issue affecting a specific constituency, state, district, or even private business.

Senior executives, lobbyists, and grassroots advocacy groups will sometime be invited to take part in an official hearing. These hearings typically occur when a committee is considering public comment on a bill they are reviewing from constituents and stakeholder groups. This is a normal part of the legislative process and allows those who will be most affected by the legislation to have their voice heard.

What You Need to Know for Testifying Before Congress

A hearing may request industry speakers and have a fixed agenda, may have open public comments, or may require advance notice of presenting a public comment. Much of this is determined by the state, locality, or committee conducting the hearing.

A hearing may also require written comments to be submitted to the committee beforehand. It is important to carefully read the official hearing notice so you can submit the request information to get on the agenda.

Tracking hearings related to your issue area and requesting to participate is a vital strategy to get your organization’s voice heard. Technology is an important feature for professional government affairs staff, not only for monitoring upcoming hearings but also to set up hearings and testimony for grassroots advocates. Leveraging technology allows you to preventively get on the agenda.

Preparing for Congressional Testimony

Preparing for a hearing takes time and coordination. It is both an honor and a commitment, and it can be challenging and frustrating at times. Nevertheless, preparing executives to participate or directly participating in hearings is an essential function of effective government relations and advocacy teams at both the state and federal levels.

Focus on how the legislation will affect the committee and your perspective. This is what policymakers want to hear the most. In your presentation, the goal should be to showcase how the legislation will affect the community — most importantly the committee’s constituents.

Here are some tips to prepare your leadership team (or yourself) to participate in a hearing:

5 Things to Do in a Hearing

  1. Tell them who you are. Provide your background, expertise, and years of involvement with your organization.

  2. Showcase your footprint. Share the number of businesses represented, number of employees, and boilerplate information on an association or company’s website.

  3. Tell them why are you concerned with the policy and your position on the issue. Make sure you formally identify your stance on the bill or issue.

  4. Tell them why they should care about your perspective. Reiterate the economic, social, and charitable impact on the community.

  5. Offer clear arguments and background information. Depending on the issue being considered you will develop talking points supported by data, research, and some personal anecdotes.

Things Not to Do in a Hearing

  1. Mention donations. Often in hearings, people will mention past donations they have made to campaigns. This is illegal and must not be brought up.

  2. Approach with a disrespectful tone. Avoid having a bad attitude during the hearing. Sometimes, there will be members of the committee who will be critical of your organization. It’s important to maintain your composure and treat every member with respect. While it’s okay to disagree with a member and to voice your opinion, you must do so with respect and with facts on your side.

  3. Go off-topic. If the hearing is on a specific issue, don’t go on a tangent about another hot-button current event or another policy topic that is not related to the purpose of the hearing.

  4. Let your confidence be shaken. Don’t get frazzled when speaking to policymakers. Presenting at a hearing can be intimidating, especially during a live in-person session, but remember you are simply telling your story and supporting it with facts. If you are a professional lobbyist, there is no better resource on a given policy than you. If you are a citizen advocate, work with your professional lobbyist to ease any of your worries.

  5. Provide inaccurate information. There’s no shame in admitting you don’t know the answer to a question. Don’t make up information or provide inaccurate answers. If you would like to defer a question, ask to get back to them with the information and then consult your professional resources. Be prepared for complicated questions that are used by politicians who seek to pass legislation that harms your issue area, as this could be their attempt to produce contradictions.

A Compelling Testimony

Hearings are an information dump and organizations should strive to effectively articulate key points in an easily digestible format to break through the noise. Focus on two or three memorable phrases or moments that you want to have stick with the audience as you consider how to prepare for congressional testimony.

If you are preparing advocates or staff to give a congressional testimony, be adaptive and tailor your efforts based on the committee dynamics and the speaker’s personality and presentation style. Don’t be afraid to let your personality, or the style of the person who will be presenting, show through.

Have clear transitions and a flow between sections of your testimony to prevent confusion. Keeping it simple in oral testimony has its advantages and you can always follow up with additional information in a written statement. Sending out information prior to the hearing to key staff segments and offices can also aid in developing compelling testimony. The materials you send prior can be tailored to individuals or congressional offices, and their stance on a given issue. By taking adequate time to prepare for the hearing, you will have more time to focus on notable and quotable moments that will resonate with the audience.

Here are three tips to remember when crafting compelling testimony:

Include an Anecdote

You want your comments to be rooted in research and evidence from reputable sources that can be validated. But don’t lose sight of the fact that this issue affects real people. Providing an anecdote focused on a specific example that emphasizes your position can go a long way in cementing a general understanding of the issue before the committee.

Use a Quote or Two

Members of Congress and other elected officials love to quote well-known writers, movies, and politicians. It doesn’t hurt to make a current event, pop culture, or historic reference in your commentary. Use the quotes sparingly and as a point of emphasis that directly relates to the issue or is from a notable subject matter expert.

Present a Hypothetical

Providing context and walking the committee through a specific scenario can make your presentation more compelling. In issue areas such as health care or the environment, this can be particularly impactful as the arguments have an innate emotional appeal.

Prepare for a Hostile Hearing

If your organization is being called before a committee on a hot-button issue that is steeped in controversy, you will need to take some additional steps to prepare for a potentially hostile hearing.

Maintaining decorum, answering questions respectfully, correcting the record, and providing compelling testimony can be a tall order in a confrontational environment. When preparing for a hostile hearing, approach it from the perspective of damage control in the crisis communications world. You don’t want to be the subject of a negatively trending tweet or the focus of an SNL skit.

If you are helping a staff member or advocate prepare for a hostile hearing, consider scheduling a walk-through before the event and simulate the hearing with other staff. This can help them familiarize themselves with the proceedings, know what to expect, and practice fielding some questions, resulting in a more composed presentation.

Preparing for a hostile hearing means you have to do all of the work of normal hearing prep, but you will have to be especially mindful of common pitfalls, rehearse more, and set out a clear goal for the hearing that is vastly different than a positive hearing. If the committee is going to be hostile toward your organization or issue, how can you change their position? Is there any common ground where they can agree with your position? If the committee is unwinnable, how can you pivot and speak to the public?

Boost Thought Leadership Through Your Testimony

Knowing how to testify before Congress is important, but your organization’s testimony should be just one component of an integrated communications plan that surrounds the actual day of testimony. Communicating your organization’s value and presence as a thought leader is a benefit of participating in a congressional hearing. Here are a few ways that you can make the most of the opportunity.

Send a Member or Employee Release

Let your audience know you are participating in a hearing and demonstrate your value and the value of your government affairs program. Pre-releases are a good tool especially if you want your members or employees to tune in. But you might want to hold off on this type of release until after the hearing to gauge the situation and tone of the release. For instance, in a hostile hearing, you might want to correct the record and provide additional context.

Send a Press Release to Trade Publications

If you’re in the association or non-profit world, chances are you are competing for membership dues and attention from another group. A hearing is a perfect opportunity to get positive press within trade publications that cover your issue area. If other organizations are participating, highlight your participation, try to get your release out first, and provide a summary of the hearing itself. In the competitive world of politics, it doesn’t hurt to be the center of attention within periodicals that your membership reads. This can solidify your presence as a thought leader within the community.

Author Follow-Up Content

Try to stretch the content out as far as possible. A hearing is a perfect opportunity for collaboration between government affairs and communications. You should be able to churn out both short and long-form communications on a hearing for different audience types. Social media can be a perfect vehicle for video and audio highlights, quotes from the hearing, and even follow-up graphics or charts.

Prepare for Congressional Testimony with FiscalNote

Presenting before Congress is the ultimate high-stakes hearing that can be just as much of a showdown as it is actual fact-finding in today’s partisan environment. Certain issue areas are more contentious than others, but generally, committee members at the federal level have been thoroughly briefed by their staff and have a position on an issue even before the hearing commences.

It is critical that you know the audience you are presenting to and what motivates them as a legislator. It is also important to know their past statements and positions on the issue at hand. FiscalNote’s policy monitoring tools help organizations stay up-to-date on the issues that matter and thoroughly prepare for a hearing. Leverage these tools so your team can easily share policy updates, strategy developments, and issue status changes on one platform.

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