If signing an online petition or sharing a meme is Level 1 of political engagement, testifying in a public meeting is on the other end of the scale. Public testimony is a way to look your elected officials in the eye and tell them what you think, and it can be a very effective way for everyday people to shape public policy.
In these times of COVID, more and more public testimony is going virtual. Where testifying once meant traveling to the capitol building, camping out for hours potentially until late at night, and subsisting on protein bars and bad coffee, it now may be as easy as logging into a Zoom meeting.
Read on to learn more about how you can deliver excellent testimony and shape the political process.
Anatomy of testimony:
Unless you’re exceptionally good at extemporaneous speaking and have nerves of steel, you probably want to write out your testimony ahead of time. Most public testimony follows the general pattern below:
Set the stage. Say your name, if you’re representing yourself or an organization, and if you’re for, against, or commenting on the matter at hand. Even if you want to use a clever introductory line, make sure you get your name, organization and position into the first few sentences.
State the issue. In the policy world, we like to talk about “avoiding the solution in search of a problem.” Let the elected officials know that you’re addressing a real problem, illustrated with real life examples. Feel free to drop some compelling data points here. Make them believe in the need to take action.
State your “ask.” This is your request. In a legislative hearing, this may be very specific, such as voting for or against a certain bill, or making an amendment to it. In some situations, you may be asking them to take general action to fix a problem. The more specific you can be with your ask, the better.
Say thank you at the end. Like your grandma said, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. In some scenarios, you may legitimately and justifiably be angry at the political process unfolding before you, and there are places where it’s appropriate to show the depth of your feelings. But in general, approaching the political process from a place of courtesy and respect is usually advisable.
Don’t be scared to shake things up on the fly. Some public hearings can draw hundreds of people to testify. If you’ve already listened to two hours of people saying the same thing you did, you may want to make some quick edits to hit a different point. If a prior person testifying said something that seemed to land, you can quickly work a correction or counterpoint into your testimony.
What if you get questions? The number one rule is keep your cool. If you’re asked a factual question that you don’t know, it’s better to tell them that you’ll get back to them rather than guess and give the wrong answer. Don’t let yourself be baited into saying something you don’t mean. While members might try to play gotcha, it’s rare for them to be openly hostile to a witness who is an ordinary citizen rather than a professional lobbyist. If you get pushback, stay calm and repeat your core points. One more thing: in decades of observing policy being made at the local and state levels, I’ve never seen an elected official give a hard time to a youth who was showing up to testify. Bullying kids is a bad look on the dais, so while teens or youth who are testifying should be prepared to answer questions, they shouldn’t be nervous about the officials digging in to them in a mean-spirited way.
Stay on time. testimony is often capped at 2 or 3 minutes per person, and those minutes go by fast when you’re speaking. Make sure to practice and time your testimony in your normal tempo. A good rule of thumb is 150 spoken words per minute.
That’s the way testimony often goes -- but remember, sometimes rules are made to be broken. Being memorable can make it worthwhile to step outside the box.
What makes strong testimony?
If there’s one universal rule of strong testimony, it’s this: Tell a compelling story.
As a professional data analyst, it’s one of my great sadnesses that, at the end of the day, data rarely changes someone’s mind. Do you know what actually changes minds? Stories, and the emotions that come with them. And that, my friend, is why the best testimony is at its core a heartfelt story.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that your testimony should not include data -- it’s always helpful to include the supporting information that makes a strong pragmatic case for your view. And of course, your data and your analysis should be accurate and truthful. But don’t count on data to carry the day alone if you can’t bring it to life with a story.
How do I even find out how to testify?
In order to testify, you have to know the logistics of the political process. And spoiler alert: they don’t always make it easy for ordinary people to break into the process. The answers to all of the questions below will vary depending on which political body you’re addressing, but in general, these are all things to find out ahead of time:
Who am I testifying to?
How do I register to testify?
Do I have to register ahead of time?
When is the meeting?
Where do I go to testify?
What item am I testifying on?
How long can my testimony be?
How long can I expect the meeting to last?
Many of the answers to these questions will be on the webpage of the political body. There’s usually contact information listed for an administrative person, like a committee clerk, who tends to be very helpful at walking you through the process. And there may be an advocacy group that will hold your hand and help coordinate things. For example, during State Board of Education hearings on sex education, the Texas is Ready Coalition helped witnesses register, reviewed testimony and let witnesses know when their turn was coming up to speak.
Do I have to be a policy expert?
Public policy is a strange and wonky land. At its core, policy often means changing a few words that are in thousands of pages of legal code. Many people are scared to testify because of all the legalese and policy complexity. But it’s okay if you don’t know exactly what the implication is of amending §58.005(A)(3)(b) or how to read the 200 page budget document. You can bring your own expertise to the table.
The lawmakers may be experts in their own process, but that doesn’t mean that they’re subject matter experts in this particular bill -- and they rely on experts to give feedback and advice. If you’re a clinician, you can talk about what you see in your practice. If you’re a parent, you can speak to what you want for your children as they grow up. If you’re a young person, you can talk about your own lived experience in the public school system (and trust us, most policymakers genuinely love it when young people engage in the political process).
But of course, it does help to have your basic facts straight. Find the advocacy groups that can help interpret and decipher these things, and look to them for talking points. For example, if you’re testifying about sex education in Texas, the Texas is Ready Coalition has probably put out a handy advocacy guide.
So to sum up: giving public testimony can seem like a big step. But if there’s an issue you’re passionate about, it’s something you should consider. Like the saying goes, those who show up get counted. Public testimony is a powerful way to show up and be counted for something you believe in.
Jen Biundo is the Director of Policy and Data for the Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. She loves a good data visualization, evidence-based public health priorities, and analyzing ballot returns by precinct. She’s the proud mother of two kids who are enrolled in Texas public schools, including a middle schooler who kind of wishes his mom had a normal job that didn’t involve sex education.
Healthy Futures of Texas, The Texas Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, and the North Texas Alliance to Reduce Unintended Pregnancy in Teens (NTARUPT) have teamed up to form Texas Is Ready, a movement advocating for improved sex education curriculum standards for Texas youth. In November 2020, the State Board of Education will update the basics of sexual health education in Texas, and leading up to that decision, representatives from each of the organizations making up Texas Is Ready will release regular blogs explaining the broad range of issues related to sexual health education in Texas.