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:
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:
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.