At times, advocates may be asked to speak for the food allergy community by giving testimony at a national or state hearing. Testimony is a sworn statement of facts given by a witness before a legislative committee. Testimony is typically presented before a hearing, which is a session of a legislative committee at which supporters and opponents of a proposed measure are given an opportunity to express their views. (A session is a single meeting or a series of successive meetings.)
Appearing as a witness before a legislative hearing can be very intimidating, especially for the first time. Witnesses want to make a good impression and give a convincing presentation for their cause or organization, but they may be afraid that they will say the wrong thing or get stumped by legislators’ questions. Here are basic rules for successfully presenting legislative testimony:
Those who show up get counted. Contrary what we learned in school, the legislative process is a re-active process. As a former Texas Lt. Governor once said, “Legislation is decided by those that show up.” Therefore, it is important to participate at public hearings and let your voice be heard. Perfect testimony is not required. There are any number of events and activities that determine the fate of legislation, but the content of public testimony is not near the top of that list. Simply showing up and expressing a heartfelt opinion at a public hearing is establishes your credibility, personal expertise and stature. But more importantly, it opens the door for additional conversations with decisionmakers.
Identify yourself. Introduce yourself to the committee. Mention if you are a constituent of one of the members of the committee, or if you work with the legislator’s constituents. As a distinguished legislator once said, no one can explain a bill like a constituent.
Use a real life story. This is the most important rule of all. Testify about what you really know – your personal experiences or the experiences of one of your advocates or patients. (One good strategy is to recruit a colleague to testify about his or her experiences and you provide the supporting material in written form.) Legislators respond to human interest stories, not just facts and figure.
Keep it simple and avoid jargon. Legislators deal with literally thousands of bills, most outside their area of expertise. On any given day, they may be confronted with 15 to 20 different issues. So if you want to have any chance of holding their attention and persuade them, keep your message simple and avoid using jargon.
Provide written testimony but don’t read it. Briefly reference your main points in your oral presentation and then provide greater explanation and back-up data in your written statement. Use a piece of your letterhead as a cover page to your written testimony, indicating the hearing’s topic or subject matter, date, and location, as well as your name and title.
Become familiar with the hearing process. Attend prior hearings to see how the hearing process works for that particular committee. Familiarity is a good thing. You can identify legislators’ key interests and observe their questioning styles, as well as how witnesses behave during their testimony.
Prepare for your oral testimony. Brainstorm with others to identify possible questions and how you will answer them. Write down your answers, then rehearse and revise them until they are concise and to-the-point. If possible, try to rehearse your answers several times with a colleague or staff person prior to your testimony.
Stay on message. Remember your mission and don’t get sidetracked. Address one issue at a time. Stick to no more than three core ideas, or “message points,” during your testimony.
Tell the committee members specifically what you want. While this sounds obvious, many witnesses who testify are not clear about what they are asking the legislators to do.
Use visual aids. They can be wonderful, if not overused. They should be clear and rivet attention to the important points you are making. Use only on large poster board with text (a maximum of three bullet points, each with only two to three words), or a graph or photograph.
It’s not personal unless you make it so. Never, never show anger or get into an argument with a legislator. There may be many reasons the legislator is acting the way she or he is that have nothing to do with you or your legislation.
Be polite. Legislators often have long memories, so don’t be rude or arrogant, or lie or ignore their rules of decorum. Rudeness or lack of respect will hurt your cause far more than the content of testimony.
When you don’t have an answer, say so. Practice saying, “I don’t know, but I will get back to you.” This is one of the hardest things to do, and yet the most important. And it’s what keeps a witness from making mistakes.
Follow up promptly. If you have promised a committee member information that was not available during the hearing, send it to the legislator and his or her staff as soon as possible. The accompanying note should reference the hearing, and include an offer to be of further assistance as needed.
When you speak up, you can be a powerful force for change. Personal stories can educate legislators and other public policy decisionmakers about real problems by putting a human face on a policy or program. U.S. Congressman John Porter (Illinois) recalls that he became an advocate for medical research funding because of the stories told by people who testified before the congressional committee on which he served. “When you see people like these, and you go out and see what the scientists at NIH are doing, you can’t help but think that medical research is the best money that the federal government spends on anything.”