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Conquering the Jitters on Capitol Hill: Tips to Help

By on Wednesday, August 10, 2011
Testifying for the subcommittee on June 23, 2011

I testified before the U.S. Congress House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Memorial Affairs & Disability Assistance in June 2011 on behalf of TAPS about improvements being made at Arlington National Cemetery.

Needless to say, I was a little nervous about undertaking such a venture. I was rather shy in school and rarely spoke up in class. I gave some rather disastrous public speaking presentations while in high school, but improved in college and on the job at being able to talk in front of groups, largely because of my involvement in ministry and social action. I once gave a presentation for Habitat for Humanity at a huge church where I literally clung to the podium for dear life, I was so terrified. I was actually trembling I was so nervous. I did a job interview early in my career that bombed. So I resolved to get better and improve my presentation skills. I studied, rehearsed and practiced. So I totally understand when people get stage fright about public speaking. It is not a skill that comes easily to me and is something that I have learned I have to practice and prepare well for.

Testifying on Capitol Hill is definitely the big leagues for public speaking. It’s a time-loaded presentation, followed by Q&A, and televised live on the Internet (and often on C-SPAN). Every syllable you utter is recorded and transcribed for the Congressional Record. And you do all of this in front of elected officials who make major decisions impacting the lives of millions of people and the media too. There may be photographers and video cameras. Talk about a pressure cooker.

To prepare for my testimony, I sought advice from others who had testified for similar congressional hearings. I collected advice from veterans who’ve testified on capitol hill, legal advocates who’ve spent years pounding the halls of Congress requesting improvements, senior military leaders, and seasoned political staffers. Here’s some of the best advice I got, sprinkled with some of my own observations and thoughts:

  • Tell the truth. Plain and simple.
  • Organize your written and oral testimony to be easy to understand.
  • Number the items you are talking about, e.g. #1, #2
  • Your written submitted statement can be longer than your oral statement.
  • Pick 1-2 things to highlight in your oral statement. Your testimony may cover a broad topic, but highlight the things that need changing the most, that the panel can help with.
  • Share your best example or horror story.
  • When you sit down at the hearing table, pour yourself a glass of water, even if you are not thirsty at the time. You may get thirsty later.
  • When sharing your testimony, try to look the panel members in the face, and do not stare down at the pages. They are so accustomed to people reading from a printed page, you will stand out by looking at them.
  • Rehearse potential questions with others who are not entirely knowledgeable on the topic, so you can think through how to explain key concepts.
  • Try to end short so you do not run over your allotted amount of time.
  • Get your points in early.
  • Remember, it is their show.
  • Bring a friend along to sit in the audience for moral support.
  • You didn’t do anything wrong. They are not out to grill you. They just want to understand the experiences of surviving families.

I got some great advice and I tried to follow it as much as possible. I have to admit when I sat down at the table when my panel was called, and I looked up at the dais in this gorgeous room on Capitol Hill, there was a huge butterfly in my stomach. But it went ok. I just did my best to follow my plan and share what I had come there to talk about.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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