Tips for Testimony
If you’ve ever attended a public meeting to testify, you probably have noticed there is a broad range of testimony types that yield varying results. The Masked Biologist gives a few pointers for effective testimony.
I have been watching a lot of meetings lately about natural resource issues, from wildlife hunting seasons to land acquisition or sale. Meetings have been a big part of my life in a career as a public servant, and it occurs to me that there are numerous simple ways that people can make their brief time testifying at the podium more effective. Here are a few.
Avoid personal attacks – maybe a board member made a callous or personal remark or committed some other misstep. If you are calling attention to it as a point of order, that’s one thing, but if you are looking like you have an axe to grind or are squeezing sour grapes, it will not score you points with the committee members. Remember, they are serving as elected representatives which means they are volunteering extra time and effort to operate your organization. No one likes having their mistakes used as weapons against them.
Make salient points. Typically, you are given a time limit, often three minutes which is plenty of time to fill. Research how much time you will have, and make the most of it. Write your comments down. Practice them. If you don’t fill three minutes, that’s fine. If there is not announced time limit, don’t turn your testimony into a sermon. There’s no prize for the longest speech; make your points clear and concise.
Offer a solution—if you think you have a better idea, offer a solution instead of simply saying you oppose something. Time is better spent lighting a candle than cursing the darkness.
Know the difference between opinion and fact. Ask yourself, could I put the words “I think” or “I feel” in front of this statement? Odds are the committee members know the facts surrounding an issue. Stating your opinions as facts will not change anything and throws your credibility into question.
Always avoid absolutes. I despise when people come to a meeting and say “no one I know agrees with this” or “Everyone I talk to out there agrees with me.” You are not testifying on behalf of the unanimous collective. Vague exaggerated terms will not add weight to your testimony. One good example of a person or family you saw or talked to would be far more effective.
Perspective is valuable. Whether people admit it or not, they often lack perspective. I might think I have a handle on how people feel about wildlife, or invasive species, or recreational activity opportunities, but I’m wrong. What is it like as a single mother, a minority new to the area, a widowed dad, a business owner or unemployed? Odds are if people are serving on a committee, at least at some level they have a heart of service and want to do the greatest good for the most people.
Establish your qualifications and move on. If you are a lifelong resident, have an advanced degree, worked on a task force or served in a related function in the armed forces, say so. The trick here is to put it out there and move on. If the committee wants to hear more about the hundreds of lives you saved or the dozens of buildings you’ve built, they can and will ask you. Don’t make your resume the focus of your testimony. You are speaking to accomplish an objective, and it is not a job interview. You are an expert in child psychology and in your experience nature bathing is important to reduce anxiety in children. Your experience lends credibility to your point only if you get to your point in short order.
Let your emotions show but keep them in check. It is okay to come to tears, or to make everyone chuckle—in fact, its downright human. But don’t let your emotions control you. I’ve had situations where I got over-invested in a topic and next thing you know I am raising my voice to an inappropriate level. This not only damages my credibility to those around me but reduces my effectiveness with the people I am trying to persuade.
Avoid “and another thing.” Stay on topic, focus on the motion that was made. Once you have had your turn, sit down and respect the others in the room. Don’t audibly gasp, roll your eyes, or heck—I’ve even had people hiss or “boo” other speakers. Not only is this uncivilized, its unfair. Don’t try to get back in line to speak again and speak to another speaker’s points. You said your part, they said theirs, and you are on equal footing. Stay there.
At the end of the day, majority rules. There will be winners and losers, a compromise that makes everyone happy is rare. Effective testimony is important, so just keep these pointers in mind when preparing to speak on a topic important to you and ready yourself for whatever the outcomes may be.