Advice on Government Testimony

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Introduction

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

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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.)

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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.

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Follow-up

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Other Notes

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