The hubbub surrounding last week’s testimony of former FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee rivaled that of John Dean, Anita Hill, and Oliver North in the pantheon of Congressional hearings. I don’t intend to pose an exhaustive review here. Rather, let’s use the spotlight his hearing focused on the Hill to examine how you, as a business or association executive, can sharpen your testimony chops.
If you want to buckle the knees of even the most seasoned executive, tell him that he just received an invitation to testify before a Congressional committee.
The Five Minute Approach
When I counsel witnesses, I advise utilizing the Five Minute Approach. This system dictates that your oral statement contains a magnetic message—one that your target audience finds irresistible—and that you capitalize on your delivery style to assert control over the proceedings. Furthermore, it assures that you will not run over your allotted time. This happens all too often, resulting in a grumpy chairperson and an embarrassing need for the witness either to talk faster (wrong) or omit the conclusion (very wrong).
You will note that Director Comey’s performance achieved both standards. He avoided the time-wasting trap of exhuming dry language or perfunctory introductions from his formal, written statement. Rather, he told his story and kept it short, as you should, too.
Preparing for Your Big Day
Both your communications staff and your technicians—lawyers, issue experts, scientists, and researchers—play valuable roles when preparing witnesses for appearances before Congress. In an ideal world, all parties work together when organizing a testimony training session. In the world in which we live, turf battles sometimes arise.
This is why smart organizations develop the oral statement entirely apart from the written testimony. When time comes to draft that oral statement, make sure your communications team leads the way. They are the authorities at weaving words and ideas into a cohesive message and at writing for the ear (helpful hint: If they are not capable writers, get rid of them and bring on board someone who is, or farm out this important job to a consultant with expertise in this area).
Practicing to perfection is also vital if you want to assert control. You can bet that Comey participated in several simulations before setting foot in that hearing room. One mandatory step: Stage a mock hearing workshop once you have a solid draft of your oral statement. This workshop not only infuses your witness with your message, it also gives her an often-needed shot of confidence.
I recall preparing one witness who had a real Caspar Milquetoast reputation. During preparations for his grilling by one of Congress’ all-time grand inquisitors, one of the main objectives was to boost his confidence. While he will never exhibit the bravado of Arnold Schwarzenegger, he did comport himself well when testifying thanks to our preparation efforts.
See to it that your training consultant has a solid grasp of the “showmanship” required to succeed at a hearing. Substance is vital. But to convey your message with impact, you need a guide that can help you master your nonverbal style, too.
Take plenty of time to frame your message. Know what you want to say. It sounds simple, but it takes a lot of work to get this right. If you haven’t placed a premium on message development previously, now is the time to do so. Hold some message development sessions to hammer things out. This is an important step, for what you derive in these messaging sessions not only forms the core of your oral statement, but serves as your anchor during Q&A.
Next, conduct some basic background research on the lawmakers you will face. I don’t mean to suggest you hire a private detective. But do be alert to which policymakers are for you, which are against you, and which are sitting on the fence. Learn where they come from and what you can say that is of importance to their localities.
Important hint: Too many organizations try to please members of the committee who they count as backers or try in vain to persuade their opponents. Forget those approaches. Savvy witnesses aim for those members who are sitting on the fence, trying to tip them into becoming supporters.
What was your take on Comey’s appearance before Congress? How can you use his performance as an example to help you and your executives the next time you climb the Hill to testify?