You're a researcher, working in your area of expertise, and suddenly your work comes into some part of the public spotlight. As a result, you are asked to provide testimony before a Congressional committee or a Federal commission. You know this is different than a conference presentation, but in what ways? How do you present your information? What are some of the things to worry about?
The purpose of this particular WWW page is to provide some advice about how to prepare and present testimony with some greater confidence and success. It is based on personal experience of Gene Spafford testifying before Congressional committees and commissions many times.
This is general advice, and not intended to be prescriptive! Thus, adapt these bits of advice to fit your own situation and constraints. The information here is provided as a set of bullet lists with individual hints and suggestions to align with this intent. And if you find this useful or have additional information, please send those in for inclusion here.
The Invitation and Arrangements
- Many invitations -- particularly from Congressional committees -- start off with an inquiry of the form "If you were asked to appear next Thursday, would you agree?" Your answer may be used to determine when the event will occur; however, the event may already be scheduled: Some committees have a "tradition" that invitations are never turned down, and thus they only invite people who will say "yes." Therefore, consider your answer carefully -- your reply may determine if you get a formal invitation.
- If you get a subpoena demanding your appearance, that is not an invitation. If you are subpoenaed, much of the advice in this document is not going to apply to you, and you should consult with legal counsel about your situation.
- You will not have your expenses covered by Congressional committees, so don't bother asking. Only some Federal commissions have a budget for witnesses, so don't be surprised at the answer if you ask. If you need it, you should consult with your organization to see if it will provide support for travel and lodging expenses -- being asked to testify as an expert is prestigious and often organizations can find funding for travel, even in times of tight budgets. Check with any organizational offices of governmental relations or public relations (universities have these too).
- Be sure when you make your travel arrangements that you allow some slack for delays in arrival (weather, traffic, mechanical difficulties), and if there is a recess or delay in the hearing that would extend the time you need to be present. In general, planning to be there through the end of the working day is a good idea, with arrival the night before for morning hearings. You can make plans to visit with other people in the area during the slack time so you don't feel it is "wasted."
- If your testimony is aligned with a professional organization of which you are a member, you might get some assistance from it. (CS types should check with USACM .) This could include help with expenses, help lining up other meetings, and assistance in preparing your written statement.
A staple of almost all forms of testimony is a written statement that is added to the record. This is something that should make your major points, provide pointers to other references, and otherwise raise issues that you believe should be on the record for consideration.
Normally, you will not have a lot of lead time to prepare your statement. For some Congressional committees, you may only be given 7 days to prepare everything and submit the final written version. In rare cases, you may even have less time. As such, don't delay in drafting your statement and starting to write it. If you have some assistance (co-workers, students) you can task them with helping to do background research.
Generally, it is good to start the written statement with a "thank you" to the Commission, or to the Committee Chair and Ranking Member (the senior member of the minority party) for asking you to testify. That can be followed with one or two paragraphs of biographical information to explain why your opinion is well-informed and why they should pay attention to you. If you want to provide more than that as background, then do it in an appendix. If you have some connection to the area of representation of some of the committee members, it doesn't hurt to mention it here. (E.g., "I'm a resident of Indiana but was born and raised in New York and went to graduate school in Georgia." is something Spaf would mention if before a Senate committee with members from NY and GA.)
- You can include other papers and items with your statement. Thus, if you have already written some papers that address points you were asked about, reference them and their conclusions in your main statement, and submit copies of the papers along with it.
- Footnotes are preferable to endnotes.
- Use a serif font at 11 or 12 point, line-an-a-half spacing, and 1 inch margins. If you have some other formatting that provides good legibility, that is fine, but remember that you want to encourage people to read it -- don't make it difficult to do so. No one likes 9pt type, single spaced, with 1/4 inch margins in Old English script!
- You will be asked to submit your statement electronically. You may also be asked to submit some number of paper copies in advance of the hearing. Some committees will waive the delivery of the paper copies if it is a hardship, but not all will. This is an expense you need to include in your planning: duplication of 50 or 100 copies of your testimony plus hand delivery.
- It is generally a good idea to summarize all of your major points in an executive summary at the beginning of your written statement. This makes it easier for staff and members to refer back to your statement and not miss major points.
- Be sure to have someone (or several someones) proofread your statement.
- Acknowledge any assistance you have in preparing the document, unless your helpers are strongly against being mentioned. Make it clear that they do not necessarily endorse or agree with your position unless they tell you otherwise. (See, for example, the very end of the written statement accompanying Spaf's most recent Senate testimony.)
Delivering the Testimony
Along with your written statement, you will be asked to provide oral testimony, almost always as part of a public hearing. You will be seated with other witnesses at a table, introduced in order, and given a few minutes (usually no more than 5, strictly enforced) to make your comments and present your point of view. Usually, this is a summary of your written statement, or a subset thereof.
If your written statement contains a number of points, consider only selecting the most important 3 or 4 to present, and simply begin or end with "There are other items that should be considered carefully, and I have presented them in my written statement along with more detailed information supporting my remarks today." If you know what other witnesses will present in their oral testimony, you might omit those from yours with a statement such as "Professor Z has outlined several issues that I also find important and address in my written statement. I will use my time to focus on some additional issues." You might be able to make this adjustment on-the-fly if you testify after Professor Z.
- Arrive early so you know where you will be sitting and to meet the other speakers. If possible, introduce yourself to the staff members who arranged the hearing.
- Visit the restroom before the hearing starts. Some hearings may run several hours, so plan ahead and limit your fluid intake, if appropriate. Remember that you may be operating with some elevated adrenaline
- Avoid using Powerpoint (or similar)! Not only does this tend to cause everyone's eyes to glaze over, it usually leads to poor time management. If you must have a chart or graphic image to make a fundamental point, have it made as a poster and pre-arrange bringing it in to display.
- Dress appropriately. Your workplace may allow showing up in a toga and bunny slippers, but this is a formal occasion and it requires appropriate business attire. Also, many hearings are now webcast or televised. You want to look professional and appropriate.
- Eschew use of acronyms (or define them when first used), technical jargon, and slang. Actually, eschew words such as "eschew"! This is not an exercise in proving how educated and erudite you might be, but an opportunity to help shape policy and law. Remember that your audience is likely composed of people with law and political science degrees (if that) and you need to pitch your comments at the appropriate level. However, be sure you aren't overly condescending by pitching your comments at too low a level!
- Practice your remarks once or twice to be sure of your timing. If possible, practice in front of a critical audience (your cats and parakeet are critical, but won't give good feedback). You can also record your talk and play it back to critique your own performance (this is good for public speaking in general). If you have a tendency to pepper your presentations with "you know," "ummm," and "like" then this is a good time to eliminate them from your repertoire.
- Committee chairs (and sometimes, ranking members) have prefatory comments about the purpose of the hearing. Sometimes these remarks have political overtones to them. Listen to these carefully because they may provide hints that should affect your comments and answers to questions. If you disagree or dislike the comments, try to maintain a neutral expression; reacting to the chair's opening statement with a scowl and a sneer is not going to help your get your points considered favorably.
- Listen carefully to the oral testimony of any other witnesses. They may make points you intended to make, and you can adjust your own comments. Alternatively, they may make points you wish to refute for the record. Listen politely, and at least pretend to be interested as they make their comments.
- After all the oral statements, members of the committee or commission usually get an opportunity to ask questions. Some committees limit each member to 5 minutes to ask questions...and get responses. Brief answers are important so as not to use up all the time. People who spend 6 minutes to answer a question will generally be listened to politely, but then seldom (if ever) be asked back. Often, a long-winded answer will be interrupted, so if you want to actually get an answer on the record be brief. Short and succinct is better than long and detailed. Resist the effort to be a professor and provide background, motivations and side-effects. If your answers are brief, more questions may be directed to you, and you have more time to make your points on the record.
- If you are responding to a question and a member of the committee interrupts, the protocol is to immediately stop talking, listen carefully, and respond if appropriate. Don't stubbornly return to your original topic or make snarky comments such as "If I had been allowed to finish my response...."
- Depending on the committee, few of the members who will ask you questions will fully understand the legislation, the topic, and its nuances. This is because they are probably on a dozen committees and have several score bills under consideration at any given time. They depend on their staff to digest the detail and give them the high-level points and nuances. The written statement will be carefully studied by the staff. Thus, keep to a high level in responses, and reinforce the main points of your oral testimony, if you can. (This is not so much the case for commissions, a little more for the Senate -- but especially for the House.)
- It's a good idea to do some background research on the committee, its jurisdiction or charge, and the names and backgrounds of members. If you are going to address a member, be certain you know how to pronounce his or her name correctly, or simply say "Senator, "Representative," "Sir," or "M'am" so as not to get their names wrong.
- Unless a question is posed directly to you, there is never a responsibility for you to answer. Don't feel pressured to respond to "dead air" or add a "me too." Jump in where you can add value or reinforce a point, but otherwise sit there and look wise.
- The questions members ask you directly are often "canned" -- written by staff, either to make a political point or underscore an issue, and make the member look knowledgeable on C-SPAN or the webcast: the member may or may not actually understand the question! You need to respond as best you can without any response of "I don't understand -- that doesn't make sense" or "That's clearly wrong" or anything similar. For example, if the question doesn't make sense, try to turn it to "That and other issues really depend on executing the fundamentals that I outlined: a, b, c." Think of this as an oral qual exam by distinguished profs. You can disagree with their statements, but they are always right. (This is more likely to occur with testimony before a House committee than one in the Senate, and usually rare with a commission.)
- A valid answer to any question directed to you is "I don't know" but if possible, the better answer is "I don't have the exact data for that and would prefer not to speculate on the record. I will check on the answer and provide it to your office and the committee." Then be sure to follow up!
- Some committees put out pencils and notepads. If yours doesn't, you should have those items with you -- there may be things said in the opening statements or by other witnesses that you will want to note for later use. Don't plan on using an iPad or laptop to take notes, and if you are going to use a pen for notes, have a spare.
- Consider putting a stack of your business cards on the table for when the hearing ends. There may be people -- especially press -- who will only want that to get the spelling of your name right, or to contact you later. If there is a crowd and you want to talk to people, it can help cut down on the traffic and interruptions.
- Never direct comments to another witness. Instead, "I disagree with the previous witness because...." Your comments are always to the committee.
- If you can read the testimony and bios of the other witnesses (do you know who they are yet?) ahead of time, it helps in framing your remarks. You can then make statements such as "All four of us agree in our written testimony that cyber security is a priority area of research," or "My testimony is shaped by 30 years in academia, rather than the 10 years in prison of Mr. Y, and this is reflected in the difference in our conclusions."
- It is extremely rare to give testimony with a full Congressional committee present. Most of the time, there are other meetings, votes, and appointments such that the majority of members are not present. Don't let that bother you. Whether the full committee is there or not the transcript and the staff are where your voice is heard with most impact, and that is usually more important than having a harried representative vaguely remember what you say.
- It is your right to say "I wish to exercise my rights under the 5th Amendment and I decline to answer that question." Be cautious in using this answer unless you really need to as it will impact how you are viewed and could open whole new lines of inquiry -- in the room and afterwards. If you are testifying under subpoena, you should have legal counsel advising you on when to use this answer. If you are being invited rather than subpoenaed and think this might be an answer you have to give at some point, it is better to decline the invitation.
- Enunciate clearly. You will later get a transcript of your comments, and you will have less work to do correcting it if your testimony is clear. Of course, this also helps your audience during the testimony, especially if it is broadcast. If you are nervous, remember to speak slowly and consider your words more carefully.
- No matter how tempting, do not use humor or sarcasm unless you are very practiced and are sure how it will be received. Even then, you should avoid it. If your comment falls flat, it can be very uncomfortable. Even worse, if it is viewed as mocking or hostile it can badly impact the consideration given to your testimony.
- Even if you are not sworn in (and witnesses seldom are at informational hearings) be careful in your statements to present information you know (or have strong reason to believe) is factual. It is bad form to present incorrect information in testimony. (If that happens, accidentally, correct it as soon as you can thereafter.)
- If you made comments during your oral remarks about providing more detailed information or answers to questions, then be sure to do it soon after the hearing!
- You may receive a formal request for additional information after the hearing. This is generally in the form of questions posed by some of the members that did not get answered during the oral testimony. If you answered any of them in your submitted, written statement, be precise in referring to the solution (e.g, "The second and third paragraphs on page 5 of my written statement answer this question"), but consider adding more detail -- after all, they asked the question after (presumably) having read that statement. Otherwise, provide concise, complete answers, and include external references as appropriate. If a question isn't clear, seek clarification so you understand. This process is considered part of the record, and an extension of your oral remarks.
- In 4 to 8 weeks you will receive a draft of the transcript of your remarks, if there is a transcript of the hearing. You should review that expeditiously. Note that any corrections that you submit should be only that: corrections. If you have additional or new information, or major changes to your written testimony, those should be submitted for the record as separate documents unless otherwise instructed.
- While the hearing is fresh in your mind, prepare a statement for the press about your participation and reinforcing your main points of testimony. Work with your media/press office to develop and distribute this.
- Send a thank-you note to the point of contact (usually the staff member who invited you to testify). If you have recommendations for future study or background for the committee or commission as a result of what you learned at the hearing, this is a good time to suggest it.
- If your institution provides tutorials on how to deal with the press, then consider going through that prior to your testimony. Not only is the information useful in dealing with the members of news media who may approach you after your testimony, but there is often helpful advice that can help shape how you testify. Most such tutorials are only one or two hours long.
- The committee or commission may ask you to submit documentation of potential conflicts of interest. If you are an academic, these statements are usually simple unless you do some significant outside consulting. Seek clarification from committee staff if you are unsure of any answer.
- Keep in mind that Congressional committees have staff for both the majority members, and for the minority. Your invitation to appear almost always comes from only one side. That does not mean you are expected to be partisan in your remarks! It does mean that any correspondence you have with staff is possibly with only that one group, and not with the "whole" of the staff. Adjust any expectations accordingly. Also note that some staff are very experienced and some are very junior, so the feedback and information you get may be quite varied.
- Sometimes you will be asked to suggest questions that might be asked of panel members (you and your fellow witnesses). This is an opportunity to ensure that important matters get special attention. It also helps ensure that members ask intelligent questions on camera. Don't be surprised by this request, but also don't assume the questions you pose will be asked. Do be sure you have an answer for all the questions you suggest, however!
- If you are concerned about our presentation, you might try to convene a "murder board" of colleagues who will listen to your presentation and try to react with questions and comments as your future audience would. Given the right composition of this group, and the amount of practice, you may find your real experience to be quite a tame event by comparison!
- Think about sharing your experience with others -- colleagues, students, readers of your blog, and others. However, be careful about public-facing comments so they don't undermine your position.
- Send me comments about whether this advice was useful, or you have anything to add!