Recently, I testified before the U.S. House of Representatives during a major subcommittee hearing. All eyes are on you in this format, and it is normal to feel anxiety, even with my congressional experience. In order to help me prepare, I brushed up on the “Tips for Hearings Checklist” I created for a client several years back. These tips might help if you ever get a chance to appear before a legislative body at the federal, state or local level.
- Goal #1: “First, do no harm.” While it is tempting to try to “wow” the crowd with brilliant answers, the truth is very few people will see the hearing, even if it is broadcast nationally. It is unlikely that your company/organization will benefit from an outstanding answer, but it could be hurt by a bad one. Most likely, the only way your testimony goes “viral” is if you somehow mess up. So, keep it simple and view each question as an opportunity to drive core messages.
- Your audience is the camera, not the questioner. The format will tempt you into thinking that your audience is the questioner or the rest of the committee room. However, your true audience is the video camera and internet posterity. In reality, the questioner may not even be listening to your answers. Avoid crafting nuanced answers to persuade your questioner. Again, keep it simple and view each question as an opportunity to drive your message.
- Members will likely be focused on general policy questions. Obviously, you have to be ready to answer tough, specific questions about your organization/company. But members are generally focused on the policies and concerns that they are hearing from constituents back home. Unless our company becomes famous between now and the hearing, be prepared to answer general policy questions within your area of expertise.
- Short answers are better than long answers. Most often the format will be five minutes per questioner, including the questioner’s statement. Also, typically, a member will ask questions of more than one panelist. There will not be much time. It will be completely acceptable to answer questions in a few sentences. No need to ramble.
- The Members are not experts or scientists, and the viewers on the Internet won’t be either. Try to explain it to a 7th grader. Without realizing it, leaders within most professions use a lot of technical jargon and/or scientific assumptions every day. In the hearing, you will want to keep your answers simple to the extent possible. Most often, general is better than specific, non-technical is better than technical.
- Be careful about accepting the premise of a question. Remember, this is not a sales pitch or dinner with a friend. In normal human interaction, we tend to hear someone’s assertions or objections and concede the point, even where we might disagree, in an effort toward common ground. This concession invites peril in this format. We are here to first, do no harm, and second, to drive our message. Hear each question as an introduction to one of our core messages and drive that point home.
- Be careful with yes or no questions. These questions are rarely meant to make you look good. It also looks evasive if you try to answer these in three or four sentences. Again, it’s an opportunity to drive your message. You are not required to answer yes or no, but keep your answer brief.
- Beware of partisan interests: Watch out for questions that walk you into praise or criticism of a specific administration, leader, policy or political party/group. We live in partisan times, and these questions are designed to put you on the record as supporting one public leader/group or opposing another. Unfortunately, praise that you might offer to be gracious could, unintentionally, be misrepresented. This is particularly true when answers can be clipped into a sound bite for social media and taken out of context.
- It is okay to let someone else answer the question. A member may pose the question to the whole panel. If there is another panelist who can answer the question, let them. That approach is gracious, and it keeps you out of trouble.
- In a pinch, offer to get back in writing. You are an expert and qualified to answer questions on behalf of the organization/company. Obviously, we want to make sure everything said in the hearing is 100% accurate. If you feel that a question goes beyond your expertise or current knowledge, don’t hesitate to offer to get back to the Committee with a written answer.
- Have fun! This is a great country. It is an honor to testify before Congress. You are prepared for the moment. Enjoy yourself and don’t forget to smile!
Luke Messer counsels clients on state and federal policy matters in Indiana and in Washington, D.C. Luke served three terms as the U.S. Congressman for Indiana’s Sixth Congressional District from 2013 to 2019. As an elected official, Luke was well-known for his ability to build bipartisan coalitions among his colleagues to solve complex problems.
Bose Public Affairs Group is a fully integrated public affairs firm dedicated to successfully navigating clients through the many pathways of political, legislative, regulatory, communications and media environments.