Tasks for Delivering Public Testimony
The Task Outline provided in this section will help you create communications that effectively meet audience expectations.
Task 1: Write the testimony
Use the General Method to plan testimony in both oral and written form. Some witnesses prefer to outline the oral summary first, then to develop the full written statement from that outline. Others prefer the opposite way. They write the full statement first, then they outline an oral summary based on the written statement.
The key is to prepare both. Write out your oral summary, even if it is simply a list of ‘talking points’ on an index card. The written list will provide confidence and control as you testify. Recall that everything said in a governmental public hearing is recorded and that the record is made publicly available. Do not plan to ‘wing it’ or to testify extemporaneously. If you do that, you risk exceeding time limits, which committee chairs do not like. And, you might forget important information, or say more or less than you intend to have on the public record, or find yourself being asked questions (about something you said) that you are not prepared to answer.
If you are free to organize your testimony, use the following template. Use it in outline form for the oral summary, and expand it appropriately for the full written statement. Put extensive support in appendices, not in the main statement. (Both the oral and written versions will be included in the transcript of the hearing.)
Title page or header to identify the organization and the witness, the agency holding the hearing, the topic, date, and location of the hearing
Greeting to thank the organizers for the opportunity to testify, and to state why the topic is important to the witness
Message to state the main information the testimony provides
Support (evidence, grounds) for the message
Relevance of the message to the hearing’s purpose
(Optional) Discussion or background to add perspective on the message (only if relevant, or if specifically requested by conveners of the hearing)
Closing to conclude the testimony and invite questions
Task 2: Write the full statement
The written statement might use the same organization as the oral summary. The written statement may be longer, include more detail, and be accompanied by appendices. It can be any length, but it should be no longer than necessary.
Even if the written statement will be lengthy, it must be concisely organized and worded. That way, it is more likely to be used.
Task 3: Present the testimony
The following tips are important.
During oral delivery, whether reading a document aloud or speaking from an outline, state only the essentials. Save the details for the question-and-answer period.
State the message early and emphatically
Whether reading a text or speaking from an outline, state the message up front.
Stay within time limits
Usually, the chair of a hearing will tell you the time limits. If not, assume that you have two to five minutes for a summary. Do not go over the limit.
Closely attend to the opening statements by the committee chair and the committee members. Opening statements cue the questions that you might be asked. Or, they include content to which you want to respond, later, when it is your turn to speak.
Listen, also, to other testimony. Committee members might ask you to comment on other witnesses’ testimony.
Question-and-answer is often the most important part of a hearing. Committee members and witnesses alike agree on this. For committee members, it is a chance to interact directly with knowledgeable people.
Members usually ask prepared questions in order to get important concerns, as well as witnesses’ responses to the concerns, on the record.
For witnesses, question-and-answer is a chance to connect their message to varied agendas represented in the questions, or to pinpoint their knowledge’s usefulness to the committee. Witness effectiveness depends primarily on the witness’s credible (honest, accurately informed, relevant) responsiveness to questioning.
After you have presented your testimony statement, shift your attention to question-and-answer communication. Follow these important guidelines:
Listen to the questions asked of other witnesses. Do not day-dream or otherwise lose focus while others are being questioned.
When you are being questioned yourself, make sure you hear each question correctly. If you are not sure you heard it correctly, ask to have it repeated.
Answer the question that is asked, not some other question (that you half-heard or that you prefer).
When you have answered a question, stop. Wait for a follow-up question. Postpone details, elaboration, or qualification on your original answer until a follow-up question allows you to provide them.
Do not lie or invent information. If you hear yourself fabricating an answer (perhaps out of nervousness), stop. Politely ask to have your answer removed from the record, and begin again.
Handle these situations especially carefully:
You are asked for your personal opinion. When you testify as spokesperson for an organization, be careful to present the organization’s viewpoint. Avoid giving a personal opinion unless specifically requested, and then only if you appropriately can do so. If you do, be careful to distinguish your own view from the organization’s. Alternatively, politely re-state the organization’s message, and say that you are more prepared to discuss that.
You don’t know the answer. Depending on the dynamics at the moment (friendly? confrontational?), and considering the effects on your credibility of not answering, you might choose among these options: simply say you do not know; or, say you are not prepared to answer but can provide the answer later; or, ask if you might re-state the question in a different way that you can better answer; or, defer to another witness who can better answer the question.
credentials are challenged or your credibility is attacked. Do
not get angry. Do not confront the
challenger or attacker. Politely
state your or your organization’s qualifications to speak
on the topic of the hearing. Re-state your reason for testifying,
or why the hearing topic is important to you or your organization.
Maintain your role in the hearing as a source of information
and perspective not offered by others. Maintain your composure.