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Testifying at a Public Meeting or Hearing

If a bill or action affects you, your family or your community, the process to make your voice heard is easier and more important than ever.
In the legislature, the majority of bills (especially state and federal level) are referred to a committee. Public testimony is generally taken when the committee meets to hear and discuss the bill. At the local level there may be a public hearing in front of a committee (e.g. Water and Natural Resources Committee), or there may be a hearing in front of a council where the issue is on the agenda with other non-related issues (like at the city level). Notice of the hearings or requests is usually found in newspapers, posted at the agency’s office or sent to affected parties or neighbors. You can also be placed on a mailing list to receive hearing agendas. Remember that schedules can change the day of the hearing, so please be sure to call committee or agency staff prior to attending the hearing.
It is important to attend hearings in addition to sending your comments by mail for the following reasons:

  • Verbal testimony has an emotional impact, especially on elected officials who may not bother to read the written record.
  • Hearings are often covered by news reporters, and thus are an opportunity to get your message out to the public, not just the agency or committee.
  • The fact that you made the extra effort to come out in person sends an important message to the agency and the public regarding your level of commitment to the issue.
  • Agencies, who are sometimes pressured to do the wrong thing, appreciate hearing encouragement and support to do the right thing.

The following are some tips to testify effectively:
Prepare. Usually there is a time limit, such as two – three minutes at local hearings. Prepare your presentation to include two or three key points. If you are nervous, it might be helpful to practice reciting your testimony with a friend or family member. Also, consider preparing a written version of your testimony to submit to the commission or committee.
Arrive early. If you do not wish to wait, be sure to show up half an hour early. During the legislative session, committee rooms can fill up fast. To be sure that you have an opportunity to speak, arrive early enough to get a seat. If you are attending a local commission or public hearing, you may have to complete a sign-up sheet before the meeting begins. If you do not arrive early, prepare for the possibility that you may have to wait a while or might not be able to get into the room, especially if it is a contentious issue.
Dress appropriately. A good impression can only help your message, not detract from it.
Listen to other testimony. Make sure you do not repeat what a previous speaker has presented.
If someone states something in their comment that you want to emphasize, say something like “for the issues stated by the previous speaker, this issue is important to me”, instead of repeating it.
Identify yourself. Begin by giving your name, and telling the committee where you are from If you are testifying for a special interest group, state the name of the organization or group, briefly describe the group’s mission, and state how many members it has.
Clearly state your position. Give a clear and concise description of your position on the issue or the bill.
Personalize your testimony. The comments that make the biggest impacts are ones that tell a personal story of experience that relates directly to the issue. Describe or show through pictures how the issue affects you.
Don’t read your testimony. The committee or council will listen to and appreciate your testimony more if you tell it from the heart and not from a script.
Request action. State exactly what you would like the committee or sponsor to do.
Offer solutions. Whether stating a specific or general approach to an issue, solutions or feasible alternatives are always well received. If you wish to convey amendments or revisions to legislation, provide your edited version of the bill. Never blame anyone or make accusatory remarks
Thank the committee. Close your presentation by thanking the committee or council.
Offer to answer any questions. It is usually acceptable for legislators to interrupt the presenter to ask questions. Answer the question and return to where you left off in your testimony. Be sure to answer questions honestly. If you do not know the answer, say so and, if possible, defer the question to another witness who may have the information.
Submit your testimony in written format. Be sure to submit your testimony in written format or any other information supporting your message to the committee or council.