Avoiding Intimidation of Congressional Witnesses

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.

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As noted in a previous post, it is vital to deliver your message compellingly yet politely. One of the keys to doing so at the witness table is to prepare mentally as well as substantively.

To be sure, multiple practice rounds are mandatory. As I like to tell my clients, “Internalize in order to verbalize.” You must get comfortable with your message in order to deliver your testimony and respond during Q&A effectively. But there is more to the story.

Mental preparation matters, too. How is a witness to adjust her mindset? One phrase that arose time and again from the roster of experts surveyed for this research is the very same mantra I provide my communications training clients—Practice! Practice! Practice!

Woman, Equality, Rosie, Riveter, Women, Workforce

Which specific mental methods benefit the witness most? One respondent recommends “reading testimony aloud many times and doing prep Q&A with colleagues.”

Another suggests rehearsing “both their testimony and potential questions. The more comfortable they are going into it the better.” This notion of comfort should not be underplayed, though perhaps “confidence” better describes the goal. While you don’t want a witness who is comfortable to the point of bliss, tension is hardly a noted performance enhancer. A high degree of well-placed and well-earned confidence—thanks to adequate preparation and practice—will help performance before committee members.

“View this as an opportunity to share information,” says another respondent. Consider that your witness would not be on a Congressional panel were she not an expert in her field. Load her up with confidence about her knowledge and the fact that her testimony represents a golden opportunity to persuade others to adopt your organization’s stance by presenting evidence and sharing relevant stories.

As for the mechanics of bolstering confidence in your witness, public affairs veteran Tom McMahon advocates “rehearsing responses and messages. Even better to video the rehearsal and play it back with a coach who can help evaluate the performance. Remember that there are hundreds of hearings a year, and that they are just part of a day’s work for members of Congress.”

I’ll testify to the power of using video as a learning tool. Over more than 17 years as a communications training consultant, I’ve seen thousands of executives “get it” after seeing video replays of their performance. Some like what they see; others are embarrassed. But there is no doubt about the learning potential. The video doesn’t lie.

One final word of caution when it comes to instilling confidence in a witness. “If a witness is too nervous they may not be the best choice,” notes one GR expert. That’s wise advice. If you observe an overabundance of nerves during your rehearsal rounds, it may be best to pull the plug as diplomatically as possible and find a substitute. Better to cause a little embarrassment early on than to have your organization fall apart before Congress.

Your turn to chime in. What confidence building techniques do you prefer when preparing to testify on the Hill?

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