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Speaking before your Elected Representatives

capitol buildingTestimony at a hearing or subcommittee meeting is an important tool in an advocate’s arsenal. Many times, the press—whether print, TV, radio, or online—will be covering these events and will help get your message out. Also, others in the room will hear you; their support can be vital. Speaking to a full committee of elected representatives can be powerful and may possibly move a few votes.

If you’re considering being a speaking advocate:

  • For local hearings, visit the website of your school board, board of supervisors, or city council. Do they allow speakers at every meeting or only a few scheduled times of the year? Follow the instructions on how to sign up, whether by phone, email, or online form. Sometimes, you can sign up to speak that day or evening, but you will have to wait awhile.
  • If you have requested a bill in your state legislature, your representative may ask you to be prepared to speak to the bill, either in subcommittee or full committee.
  • If you have established yourself as an expert on an issue, you may be invited at the state and/or federal levels to testify at hearings.

Before you get there:

  • Write your speech in advance. Usually, you are allowed 3–5 minutes to speak: 3 minutes is about ¾ of a typed page; 5 minutes 1 ¼ to 1 ½ pages. This is based on double-spaced type, so adjust accordingly.
  • In your speech, open with a thank-you to the chair and group or committee to whom you are speaking. Introduce yourself and your organization. Close with another thank-you.
  • Practice, practice, practice: You want to make sure your speech only takes 3–5 minutes and that you pronounce all the words correctly. You also want to make sure your words flow and you know your speech. This will help you maintain confidence and calm the day you deliver the speech.

While you’re there:

  • Dress professionally. Always.
  • Bring copies of your speech for all the members of the board or committee, and give them to the clerk to disperse.
  • Speak clearly into the microphone. Look directly at the representatives. Establish eye contact with each member of the board or committee. Do NOT just read from the paper.
  • Be succinct and on point. I have been to too many hearings where speakers drone on and on. Do that, and you lose your audience. Every time.
  • If a group of you attend from your organization, divide up your points so that each of you cover one topic well. It is okay to repeat some important points. I have been to too many hearings where multiple members of one organization say the same thing over and over again. Boring.
  • Answer any questions representatives may have. Offer to provide information if requested.
  • Thank your representatives for giving you the opportunity to speak.
  • Follow up with a thank-you email, again emphasizing your points.

If you are lucky, members in the audience will applaud and express their approval of your points. Be prepared for a reporter to follow you outside wanting to ask you questions so they can publicize your position and story. But also be prepared for tough questions, challenges, and curt dismissals. Sometimes, elected representatives may try to malign or humiliate you. Stand tall. Be firm. After all, your position is important to you and your organization, and you have the right to be heard.