How Witnesses Can Deliver Their Message Forcefully

Welcome back to this 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.


Actually, Congressional testimony is more nuanced than just delivering a message forcefully. While that is important, exhibiting deference to members of Congress also matters. Today, I’ll explain why.

Members of Congress are important people. If you doubt it, just ask a member of Congress. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to subject oneself to the rigors of running for public office, so representatives and senators rarely suffer from shyness.

As a result, a high degree of obsequiousness is in order when testifying, even when addressing a clear-cut foe. In fairness, some of this seemingly over-the-top politeness makes sense. For example, business can be transacted much more readily when a member from one party refers to a colleague from the other side of the aisle as “My good friend from the Midwest” (when what he is really thinking is “That slimebucket from the sticks”) (on another parenthetical note, if someone ever refers to you as their “good friend” in a political context, watch your wallet).

Care, Fragile, Packaging, Handle, Please, Package

You, too, should devolve into this overly polite language when at the witness table. Use of “Mr. Chairman” or “Madam Chair” is in order. Similarly, rank and file committee members should be addressed as “Senator Smith,” “Representative Jones,” “Mr. Day,” “Ms. Knight,” “the gentleman,” or “the gentlelady.”

In the final analysis, as one survey respondent puts it, “Remember these are people.” Inasmuch as they are just folks like you and me (at least to some degree), “Do not assume the member of Congress does not understand the perspective of ‘everyday people.’ He/she may well have a related experience in his/her own background that bear(s) on the issue being discussed. Respect them as people who are like you in many ways; remember they had a life before Congress, and in most cases, it was a life very similar to most Americans—running a business, going to work, taking kids to school, etc. Also, remember, their concerns remain similar to your own—they have children, grandchildren, spouses, sick loved ones, mortgages,” continues this expert.

“(I)t’s important to connect personally for greater impact,” says Renee Radcliff Sinclair. “Attention to the words they use (for instance, elected leaders do not like to be ‘educated,’ however they will listen to ‘the latest information about…’).”

Still, don’t let this often faux civility distract you from delivering your message. You are there to offer an important point of view, so don’t back down even under intense questioning. Be respectful of the institution and its members, but stick to your principles. Don’t be intimidated.

“Politely restat(e) your position until told to stop,” advises one wise government relations professional.

What other etiquette tips do you find useful?




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