What Traits Do Successful Congressional Witnesses Share?

This is the first in a series of excerpts from my new research report Thrill on the Hill: How to Turn Congressional Testimony into Public Policy Success. Stay tuned for more in weeks to come.


If you were to quiz a group of corporate executives on what makes for an effective CEO, you’d likely get a range of responses. Confident? Direct? Warm? Decisive? Sure, all those might apply. But it is unlikely that one CEO would exhibit all of those qualities.

So it is with executives who provide testimony before Congressional committees and subcommittees. Each has a distinct set of strengths and challenges as a communicator. Still, there are common attributes that one must possess in order to navigate the sometimes rocky shoals of the witness table in that Capitol Hill hearing room.

As Tom McMahon, a public affairs and communications executive, notes, the basis of a worthy witness revolves around “good presentation and speaking skills” in addition to the “ability to bridge to established messaging.”

Time and again, respondents returned to several predominant themes:

  • Storytelling
  • Ability to deal with questions from Congressional committee members
  • Having important facts and figures readily at hand

Ace, Cards, Face, Game, Deck, Playing, Poker, Casino

In the words of one, “The ability to tell a powerful story” and to” be fully prepared for questions” reigned supreme. Another emphasized the “ability to provide both factual data and personal stories that support their point(s).”

A subsequent question in this series deals with the notion of Q&A in greater depth (for deeper insights into the process of dealing with sometimes tricky questions, see “Does Anybody Have Any Questions for My Answers? The 411 on Q&A”). Consider this overview from one expert, who cited the need for “doing research on each member to anticipate their questions; knowing your role on the panel and what keen insight only you can provide; not [being] afraid to tell members of Congress that you don’t know the answer to their question but will get back to them in writing; [and to] be as specific as possible and offer them solutions to policy problems” in your responses.

Nonverbal signals also play a large role in the success (or lack thereof) of an organization’s Congressional relations efforts (for a more complete treatment of nonverbal communication, see “How Important Are Nonverbal Signals?”). One of the keys, as public and media affairs consultant Renee Radcliff Sinclair explains, is “the ability to make eye contact with Congressional members (it builds credibility).”

Patience is often cited as one of life’s virtues. That holds true when testifying on Capitol Hill. Witnesses must exhibit a “willingness to explain to uninformed or hostile members in a patient and respectful manner,” according to one expert surveyed.

Mental outlook also matters. When asked what made for a successful witness, one GR pro shined a light on a key piece of perceptual preparation: “Realization that this is theater.”

In your experiences, what traits do successful witnesses share?



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