Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Advocacy Skills: You Too Can Give Testimony

Yes, you. Yes, really! Trust me! :)

As mentioned in my last post I gave testimony at the NY Senate Finance Committee Budget Hearing on Monday. I learned to give testimony during my Partners in Policymaking training and I learned even more Monday. I traveled with a friend of mine who was scheduled early in the day and I was scheduled later (even though I signed up before she did!) I ended up being the last speaker of the day so I pretty much heard EVERYTHING. It was a long day.

First, the basics: Many agencies or branches of government hold hearings or have opportunities for the public to speak their piece. I have attended hearings hosted by the OMRDD, Department of Education, County Legislature and more. You can learn about these opportunities from connected friends (get on an e-mail list or 7!!!) or from agencies' web pages. Regional budget hearings are a new innovation in NY--a very positive one, I think.

Hearings are held when a group or agency wants to hear from the public either to guage sentiment, gather information or demonstrate the existence of support/dissension on a topic. They will announce the hearing and often include a list of topics they are interested in. You don't need to address all of them--just what interests you.

The announcements also include things like how much time you will have to speak, whether or not you need to register and whether they want copies of your testimony (bring some anyway and give them to the clerk even if they don't formally request them.)

Giving testimony is really a good type of public speaking--you usually have only 2-5 minutes and you are EXPECTED to read it.

People generally begin by thanking whoever they are talking to, introduce themselves, give the body of their thoughts, and end with a call to action (telling the panel to either do something or stop something.)

After listening to way too many folks talk the other day I have some other pointers to add:

First a RULE (NOT a pointer!!!) Stay within your allotted time. Write your testimony, practice it and edit it until it fits. Do NOT go over your time. EVER!!! If you do I want you to imagine my pointy elbow in your side--that's right, a little virtual negative reinforcement for you. Because I care.

I know--you're passionate. I know--you have important things to say. Guess what?? Everyone there is passionate and all the issues are important. Once time has been called, no one cares about your ideas or issues anymore. They just want you to go home.

That is not the impression you are trying to make. Cut it!

To their credit the Senators remained pleasant and engaged all day. I can't imagine how. I did not catch any of them dozing or rolling their eyes... very impressive, actually.

Be memorable. There are a few ways to do this. You can incorporate some short, quotable statements or sound bytes in your talk. Don't overdo this or you will sound like an advertisement rather than like testimony, but make your take home points stick with folks if you can.

Tell your story. An agency director I know elected not to go to the hearing because he thought hearing from parents would mean more. In retrospect, I think that was a good call. There was one mom who told the heartwrenching story of her child's behavioral needs and the services that rescued her family. She had the whole room wiping their eyes--I would not want to be the legislator who cut her program! I don't even know if she ran over time, that's how engaging she was.

Connect to your issue. Use word pictures and examples. Try to touch BOTH your listeners' heads and their hearts.

Numbers. Now I admit I hate numbers, and it is likely that people on the Senate FINANCE Committee don't hate them as much as I do. Yet, sitting in a room hearng list upon list of numbers kind of makes them all run in together. Give a few salient numbers. Give your numbers some context. Someone talking about libraries pointed out that their user numbers were greater than the attendance at the Buffalo Bills and Sabres games... And even I still remember it.

Delivery. Speak with some enthusiasm. And as much clarity as possible. Edit enough that you don't have to rush. You don't need to be a master-performer, but enthusiasm and blahness are both contagious. You want to generate enthusiasm (Enthusiasm doesn't just mean being happy-happy. Passionate frustration works too.)

Hyperbole. I really didn't see this Monday, but I have at other hearings. Don't be over-the-top in your manner or descriptions. You are trying to be credible, not generating market-share for your talkshow. Be compelling AND credible.

Structure your statement so that you can cut out pieces if your point has been made repeatedly or if they decide they need to shorten everyone up for time (though if they just turned off microphones afer time was called this would not be necessary!) Journalists recommend the "inverted pyramid" style of writing. I don't do that, but I do organize things in chunks I can remove if needed.

Practice what you have written. Fix things that just don't sound right. I wrote about dismal employment rates, my mouth really wanted to say 'dismal unemployment rates.' After flubbing it 4 times I changed it... it was SO much easier that way!

Written testimony. Bring copies of your testimony--and other supporting documentation--for the committee even if they don't ask for it. And include contact information. This way they have something to read later if they are so inclined and if you are cut short they still have your whole spiel to consider.

Change it up. If I go to another hearing about this I will add different points (like, no one mentioned that Medicaid dollars all get spent in the local economy...) Speaking to the same senators you would want to set a familiar tone, but not be totally repetitive.

Supersize it. If you spent the time writing testimony it should be USED! Blog it. Put it in your group's newsletter. Turn it into a letter to the editor... send it to legislators who weren't there... Come up with your own ideas on this. Do not ever waste efforts!

It isn't difficult... it is over in 2 minutes... it can make a difference. Try it!

This picture is my friend Jackie ready to give her testimony.


terena said...

I've given testimony in the past and it is indeed a powerful thing to experience. I used to be on several advisory councils and a parent advocacy organization. Just telling your story to people who make decisions can actually have an impact. It's important for them to see the people their decisions impact.

Terri said...

I agree, Terena, that connection is essential.