Who Make the Best 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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Some organizations put their best technicians front and center during Congressional testimony. I strongly suggest rethinking that strategy.

You need your best verbal (and nonverbal) communicator at the witness table. Says one government relations expert who responded to a recent survey, “Those who are at ease with public speaking, and likable” make great witnesses. In the happiest of worlds, your issue expert possesses the qualities of a sound spokesperson. In the real world, that is often not the case.

Public affairs veteran Tom McMahon takes it one step further, suggesting “someone who is a recognized expert in their field and has excellent presentation and listening skills.” Those listening skills come into play especially during the question and answer phase.

How can you create that perfect mixture? The fact is the top brass is unlikely to know all the details about the specific issue at hand. Yes, they should be familiar with the larger picture, but someone at that level has too many balls in the air to know every single fact. The solution? Back him up while testifying.

Here’s how you do that. The row of seats in the gallery immediately behind the witness table is normally reserved for guests of the witness. Your foremost issue experts should populate those seats. Should any geeky technical questions arise, they will be able to whisper into your witness’ ear. A word to the wise: Rely on this method sparingly, only when questions of a very narrow nature are posed. Lean on it too much and your star witness will appear ignorant.

In some cases, organizations turn to celebrities or victims affected personally by the issue. This can work, but be forewarned that both types of spokespeople come with their own set of warning flags.

Celebrities are known for being difficult to deal with at times. While having a big name can help shine a light on your stance, you want a luminary who plays well with others and takes instruction well. Prima donnas will cause you no end of headaches—going off script, paying more attention to their own fame than to your issue and, in the end, sabotaging your public policy efforts.

“People with real life experience who have been affected by the issue, situation and/or the law(s) being discussed,” can have an impact, explains one of our experts. Nonetheless, everyday folks who have been affected in a real world sense also pose certain hurdles. While in some cases they are most eloquent, in others they mumble and fumble and do themselves—and you—little good. They also need to have the bigger picture in mind. Sure, they should tell their personal tale of woe. At the same time, they need to be able to link it to the broader issue the committee is deliberating.

In sum, you are seeking “people who are both knowledgeable on the topic but also have a good personality,” says one respondent.

You’ll score bonus points with some committee members by turning to someone from back home. In the words of one expert, “It helps if the witness is a constituent or from the home state of the chair, ranking member, or one of the committee members.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, “People influential with voters or voting blocs,” as one respondent calls them, are certain to gain the attention of members of Congress.

Longtime government affairs pro Michael Hogan also suggests highlighting “those with the most public support. Also former members of Congress.” This last category, ex-members of “the club,” is not to be taken lightly. Members of Congress generally have great respect for and will give much leeway to past colleagues.

One last idea: It never hurts to seek input. “If you are trying to be included in a hearing, ask staff what type of witness they would like and offer that,” offers one wise authority.

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