The Battle: Preparing a Witness for Q&A with Lawmakers

The question and answer session is what often separates the pros from the wannabes when testifying on Capitol Hill. Let’s face it, it is much easier to rehearse a five-minute speech than to suffer the slings and arrows from members of Congress. They do this for a living nearly every day. The typical witness does not.

Thus, steeling oneself to respond to questions is perhaps an even more important part of your testimony training workshops than practicing the oral statement.

Your first thought upon hearing this may be, “That’s just dandy. My CEO has a lot of stellar qualities, but thinking on his feet is not high on the list.” That’s why it is advisable to hold several sessions devoted strictly to the question and answer period (for advice on helpful Q&A techniques, see “Does Anybody Have Any Questions for My Answers: The 411 on Q&A.”

Question, Class, Education, Student, Hand, Finger

During your run-throughs, “Remind [the witness] of key points you want to make and what you want the members of Congress to take away,” says one government relations expert who responded to our survey. And never lead with your chin. “It’s important to tell your witness to avoid certain issues—if there are items you don’t want to be brought up at the hearing.” As I frame it for my clients, don’t open any doors you don’t want a member of Congress to charge through.

This expert also suggests that you “talk through key points to raise and reiterate, and talk through possible questions that may arise. To better anticipate potential questions, I like to sort them into three baskets:

  1. Questions you want to hear. These are friendly queries of the type you’ll supply to Congressional staff in advance.
  2. Routine questions that arise in nearly every forum in which you discuss this issue.
  3. Questions you never want to hear pass the lips of a committee member. Beware of these, and study strategies for handling them deftly.

When it comes to these hardball subjects, public affairs veteran Michael Hogan suggests creating a “murder board.” Permit me one moment to discuss the term murder board. It was supposedly coined by the military (which has a marvelous capability and commitment when it comes to communications training) several decades ago. It’s a bit harsh for my tastes. I prefer to call this “The Third Degree.” I find that it still gets across the seriousness of the situation while not frightening clients.

Remind your witness that honesty is always the best policy, even when the heat gets turned up in the Congressional kitchen. “Be honest,” says public and media affairs consultant Renee Radcliff Sinclair. “If you don’t know an answer, commit to getting back to them with a written response.”

As noted earlier, listening skills are crucial. “Listen carefully to the question,” Sinclair continues. “I’ve heard so many people not answer the question, just because they didn’t listen and misunderstood what was asked.” On the other hand, not answering a particular question directly can be a good strategic move. Building a verbal bridge to deflect the inquiry is a time-honored communications technique.

Sinclair also counsels that witnesses “make eye contact with the person who asked the question when answering.” At the same time, if the going gets rough, “Find a familiar face on the dais and go to it when you start to feel ‘squishy.’”

As with most endeavors that end well, preparation counts for a lot. When testifying, this includes advance outreach to committee staff. “Hopefully we have been able to work with committee staff on the general idea of what questions will be asked,” one survey respondent reveals.

“Know the lawmakers pet interests,” says one expert. For example, does your company have a job-creating facility in one’s district? Perhaps a personal tragedy related to your issue has befallen one of her family members. Or a conservative member has seen the light on the environmental issue you promote, giving you an unforeseen ally.

Far be it from anyone to imply that members of Congress are not on a constant quest for pure truth. Okay, now for the harsh realities: “You are going to be ignored or you will be on the receiving end of a lot of stupid and irrelevant questions,” warns one expert. “You must be ready for the unexpected.”

Taking a preemptive approach is also effective, notes another: “I also send potential questions and suggested responses” to committee staff ahead of time.

During my association days, we hired ex-members of Congress and ex-Capitol Hill staffers as consultants to role play certain committee members during rehearsals for particularly important appearances. They knew their colleagues’ tendencies and personalities inside and out, and therefore knew how to mimic their personalities perfectly. It really gave our witnesses a better sense of what types of questioning to expect from the dais.

Note that former House and Senate members do not come cheap, so you may want to take this tack only when the stakes are at their highest. In addition, make sure they actually know and have worked with the members of the committee you will be facing. You need advisors who know the personalities intimately, not just someone with a fancy former title to his name.

What steps do you take when preparing to field questions from members of Congress?

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