Capitol Hill: How Your Oral Statement Differs from the Written Testimony

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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The oral statement you deliver and the formal, written testimony you submit are two different animals. Here’s how I explain it to my clients: You can stuff all the mind-numbing detail you want in your written submission. Charts, graphs, legal jargon, and an eye-glazing series of numbers and factoids are appropriate.

Your oral statement, on the other hand, must be slender and elegant. “The oral statement must include the most hard-hitting points and personal stories that need to be conveyed,” notes one respondent to my recent survey of government relations experts. “That is what members will remember the most.”

“Getting to the point much more quickly in the verbal testimony” is vital in the contest known as Congressional testimony replies another.

Note, Write With, Comic, Person, Man, Scream

“Put the boring facts in the written statement. Do not recite the boring facts in our oral statement,” counsels a respondent.

The hard truth is committee members may leave before the Q&A commences. In fact, many will not show up at all, and your witness should not be disappointed by the plethora of empty seats. Also, be prepared for a series of distractions. Members will come and go. They may read unrelated material while the hearing is in progress. Staff will pass notes and whisper sweet nothings into the boss’ ear. Impress upon your witness that this hubbub of activity has nothing to do with them. Ignore it as much as possible. Continue to plug along with your statement and in responding to questions.

Most committees give you no more than five minutes to state your case, so it is essential to advocate for your cause with punch and brevity. Your message must be up front, bold, and in bright lights so that members of Congress, your stakeholders, and your opponents know without question where you stand.

“Deliver your primary messages in the oral statement, and then expand on them in the written testimony,” says public affairs and communications executive Tom McMahon. “The record usually doesn’t have space limitations, and witnesses can also submit additional materials, such as studies or news articles, to support their testimony.”

He adds, “The oral statement is like giving a speech. The written testimony is similar to a report.”

Some executives look at me funny when I mention that there are audiences beyond the four walls of the hearing room. The fact is you are telegraphing your public policy stance to other observers, too. Your customers, employees, or members need to know that you are fighting for their rights when testifying. Additionally, those who oppose you should be put on alert that you have no plans to back down from your core principles.

And don’t forget about the Fourth Estate. Make sure your communications staff delivers not only a news release, but also your oral statement to reporters covering the issue at hand, and that they broadcast it in your new media channels. You may also want to distribute your written testimony to certain scribes who cover your issue in depth. Just do so judiciously so as not to overload already overloaded reporters. Government relations expert Michael Hogan explains it as follows: “Written testimony is for policy details and for staff. Oral testimony is to win over the committee members and press to your side.”

What other differences between the oral and written testimony have you noticed? I encourage you to fill in any blanks in the Comments section below.

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