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Indivisible States: Giving Public Testimony at A Legislative Hearing

Public testimony at a hearing is the opportunity to be heard directly by the decision makers and potentially influence the outcome of votes. This is an incredibly powerful way to shape the outcome of policy and to share your group’s perspectives on a piece of legislation. Giving a compelling testimony can spark important debate and sway the opinions of legislators that are on the fence. But don’t put all your eggs in this one basket! If committee members haven’t heard from you before the bill comes up before the committee, it’s too late and even compelling personal testimony won’t have the impact you want.    

Anatomy of A Committee Hearing

The exact structure of a committee hearing, of course, varies by state. A committee hearing will often have an agenda of what bills will be heard in that hearing, though they are not always presented in a predetermined order. For each bill, usually the author of the bill will present opening remarks about a bill. Then the committee chair may open time for witnesses from the supporting and opposing sides to present testimonies. The time allotted for public testimony may vary. In some cases, witnesses are allowed a few minutes to present their case. In other cases, each witness may only be allowed to state their name, organization, and position.

If you are considering testifying at a committee hearing, it is a good idea to attend another committee hearing in advance to learn about the procedural intricacies of your state’s committee hearings. Some states broadcast their hearings on the internet so you could watch them instead of attending in person.

Preparing Remarks

It’s a good idea to prepare what you are going to say in your testimony in advance. If you’ve already submitted a written testimony, you can use summarize those talking points in your oral testimony. If you haven’t submitted a written testimony in advance, bring copies of your talking points to give to legislators. Be sure that you know the facts about the issue, your reasons for your position, and some rebuttals for common opposition arguments. Also, make sure to practice your testimony ahead of time!

Follow this general outline for preparing a good oral testimony:

  1. Address the committee chairman and committee members.

  2. State your name, where you live, and the organization you are representing.

  3. Clearly state whether you support or oppose the bill and be sure to identify the bill by its number and author.

  4. Summarize your reasons for your position concisely.

  5. Share a personal story or anecdote that relates to the issue if you have one.

  6. Restate your position clearly.

  7. Thank the committee for their time.

After you write your testimony, there's a good chance you've just written a letter to the editor, so consider submitting it.

Attending the Committee Hearing

Below are some tips to ensure that your public testimony goes smoothly:

  • Be on time. On the day of the committee hearing, make sure you arrive to the capitol building early so that you have time to find the appropriate room. Arrive to the hearing room on time.

  • Sign in. If you are planning to give an oral testimony, a lot of states require you to sign-in as a witness. Some states do this online and others on paper at the hearing. Other states don’t require you to sign in and instead will just call for public witnesses at the appropriate time.

  • Distribute your materials. If you did not submit your testimony in advance, give copies of your testimony to the committee staff for distribution to the legislators.

  • Wait for your bill to be heard. Bills are not always heard in the order that is written in the agenda and it is often hard to predict when it will be your bill’s turn. So you must wait patiently for your bill to be heard.

Giving Your Testimony

When your bill is up for its hearing, be attentive and listen to the author’s presentation. If you have signed up for testimony, wait to be called to the microphone. If there was no sign-in, join the line to speak when the chair calls for witnesses. When you are delivering your testimony, follow these tips:

  • Address all inquiries through the committee chair.

  • Follow the outline above to deliver your testimony effectively.

  • Be concise, direct, and courteous. Don’t ramble or yell. It is okay to be passionate, but do not be disrespectful.

  • Try not to be nervous. We know it can be intimidating to be addressing elected officials in this venue, but remember that it is their job to hear from you!

  • Do not repeat previous testimonies. If other witnesses have conveyed ideas similar to your testimony, simply say that you agree with previous speakers and reaffirm your position without being redundant.

  • Sometimes, legislators may ask questions. Be prepared to answer their questions. If you don’t know how to answer a specific question, it is okay to say that you are not sure and that you will follow up with a written answer to their question.

Opportunities for People with Powerful Personal Stories

You don't need to be someone who was personally and deeply impacted by the issue that you're testifying about. But if you are personally impacted, you can make a big impact, especially through media. 

Introduce yourself to the media. Before your testimony, write an email to reporters you find who have covered this issue. In your email, give a short summary of your personal story. Say you will be working to fight on this bill, and would like to keep in touch. Ask if they will be at the hearing and say you'd like to say hello. 

If you have a prepared statement, provide reporters a copy of it. This helps reporters ensure they get the right quote and makes their job much easier for them. 

Make sure someone records audio and possibly video of your testimony that can then be sent out to reporters who might be interested in your story but were unable to hear your testimony in person. 

Consider writing a letter to the editor or op-ed. Most newspapers have limited space so the more succinct your letter is, the better. You can ask your paper’s op-ed editor how long they would like your letter to be but a general guideline is to keep any article under 500 words.

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