FIrst-timers on Capitol Hill

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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How do your preparations differ when preparing a first-time witness vs. an experienced one? “They don’t,” in the words of one respondent to our survey about Congressional testimony. Point taken in that preparation needs to take place no matter the experience level of your witness. Yet there are differences in the approach to preparation.

Testifying before Congress is a big deal. It is likely to be the most important business meeting in which you’ll ever participate. Even the most experienced executives get a case of the shakes and sweats when seated at that witness table (if they don’t, look out; a cavalier approach could well lead to a lackluster or arrogant performance). In that sense the novice and the experienced witness are on equal footing. Still, there is some value in having done this before—in knowing the legislative dance, experiencing the white-hot lights, and feeling three-feet tall when facing members of Congress seated on a dais looking down upon you.

“Experienced witnesses need little prep, just an update on policy news and dynamics on the committee,” says one of our expert survey takers. Allow me to add a different twist. Message review, rehearsal time, and Q&A preparation all remain vital. Like snowflakes, each round of Congressional testimony is unique. Respect the process. Respect the members. Respect the committee. Don’t cut corners when preparing your witness—unless your public policy goals just aren’t that important to you. By no means am I alone in this belief. Other respondents concur.

For example, “A first-time witness requires more information on the logistics of the day and information on how a hearing runs, whereas an experienced witness is more likely to need to practice the Q&A portion only,” opines another respondent.

As one expert phrases it, veteran witnesses “are more comfortable with the process and issues so they generally don’t need as much basic preparation.”

Man, Surprise, Shock, Surprised, Shocked, Male

Public affairs veteran Tom McMahon concurs: “More time is needed to prepare a witness who is testifying for the first-time. Nonetheless, it’s important that experienced witnesses also contribute to the message development and take the time to rehearse.”

Adds one government relations executive, “First timers need to understand that different Congressmen will react differently and that what is a positive with one may be a negative with another.”

Government affairs pro Michael Hogan takes it a step farther. “For first-timers, I take them to the hearing room and meet with members prior, then brief them on the broad issue, political considerations for members, and the goal we seek to achieve.”

The fact remains that, regardless of the experience or skill level of your witness, you still must organize a top-notch training workshop to fine tune your message, iron out any kinks in your witness’ delivery, and rehearse for the all-important Q&A period.

What added steps have you taken when prepping that novice to Capitol Hill?

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