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  • What is personal testimony?

  • Why does personal testimony work?

  • How do you prepare to use personal testimony?

  • What to do at the public hearing?

What is personal testimony?

Someone who gives personal testimony at a public hearing (such as community groups, church, non-profit groups, AA meetings, etc.) describes to decision-makers or the people in power how changes in a law or policy will impact his or her life. Our lives are affected every day in some way by the laws and policies of our federal, state, and local governments and their agencies. Our lives become better or worse as these regulations change or new ones go into effect. Luckily, before laws and policies can be altered, public hearings are often held to give citizens a chance to voice their support for or their concern about proposed changes. Of course, testimony also can be given in places other than public hearings. What we say can make a difference. This section tells you how to do it.

Why does personal testimony work?

Personal testimony works because it provides a personal, first-hand account of how laws and policies have a real, daily impact on the average Joe. Often, policy makers are removed from the effects of their decisions and can't really know the harm or good they cause. Personal testimony gives those who are in power a more "human" perspective on how effective, ineffective, beneficial or problematic a policy is or could be for a community. Personal testimony can influence the passage, revision, or defeat of policies and regulations proposed by state or federal legislatures, county commissions, city councils, or school boards because it shows law makers how "average Americans" feel about the job elected officials are doing.

How do you prepare to use personal testimony?

When you first find out about pending legislation or run up against a policy that you believe or know affects you, you have a gut reaction. You feel excited because this regulation may give you a break on taxes. Fantastic! Or you may be alarmed because the regulation will make it more expensive for you to take an ambulance to the hospital when you really need to. Uh-oh! Remember your gut reactions to this policy, because they will fire you up for your testimony. Before you step up to the podium to say your piece, you need more than just raw emotion. You've got to have substance. Or proof. You've got to prepare a testimony that talks about the actual or potential effects of a policy, not just about how you feel about it. Answer the following questions to help prepare yourself to face the lions!

 Write down or record what really makes you happy or mad about this policy

Set aside 10 to 20 minutes to get your thoughts and feelings down on paper. When you start writing, don't stop, even if your grammar, spelling and organization are terrible. At this point, you don't care if your testimony looks pretty. It's always better to first think about what you want to say, and then write it down. Some people, however, like to write down their ideas as they come. Choose whatever style works for you, as long as your final copy has thought-out and clear ideas about what you want to say.

Reread and edit what you wrote

Take a break and come back in a little while. Now is when you should cross out bad spelling, poor sentence structures, and swear words. It's time to organize your thoughts. Practice reading out loud to get used to your voice delivering a speech, and get comfortable with the language you will be using.

Think about how this proposed policy change will help or hurt you and others

This is where you will make your point clear to decision-makers about the policy. Illustrate how the voters who elected them will benefit or not from the change in policy. Think about specific examples, present a story of yourself or someone you know related to the policy's impact. Talk to people that feel like you in the community and collect their stories.

Back up your emotional story with facts

Before you step up to speak your mind, you need more than just raw emotion. You need evidence or proof. Prepare a testimony that addresses the actual or potential effects of a policy, not just your feelings. For example, how will this decision, policy or regulation impact local groups or community groups? How will citizens be helped or harmed by it? What will this policy mean to the generations of children who will follow you? For instance, suppose a city commission decides to grant a tax break to a large discount business that plans to build a store in your town. Supposedly, the store will bring tons of new jobs to the area. However, you disagree. For you, this corporation is already very rich, and doesn't really need to save on a tax break. You believe that letting this discount corporation come into your town will kill the small, individual-owned business that help your neighbors and friends to earn their living. You must start your research. Collect data about this company, find out what is their profit and why they don't need the tax break. Find numbers, graphs, flow charts. Find information about what happened when other big corporations came to your community. Prepare a future projection study to evaluate the effects this company may have in your community in the future. Find out which specific business may close down if this corporation comes to town. Talk to their owners, get their numbers, too. Arm yourself with facts for any question you may be asked.

Write a conclusion

Sum up your testimony, hitting on the punch lines of your talk, that is, how this proposed regulation is good or bad. Find out how much time you will have available to speak, and trim your speech to that time frame. Personal testimonies normally last about two to three minutes, but there's much variation in this.

Answer these questions while you prepare for your testimony

To whom are you speaking when you give your testimony?

Ultimately, you want to persuade law or decision makers to adopt your point of view. But you may want to stir up the fiery emotions of other citizens who can back up your claims and give you strength in numbers. Who will witness your testimony--just law makers, or community members as well? If you suspect that you'll draw a large crowd, it can't hurt to play up the emotional, human side of your testimony while you defend your position.

What do you know about the attitudes of decision-makers towards the proposed changes?

Even if a new policy or proposed changes will really make your life difficult, you may have a hard time convincing officials to reject the measure if they are true-blue supporters. Once you know what part(s) of the measure lawmakers are particularly attached to, maybe you can build your testimony around some 'weak link', or less popular aspect, of the proposal.

What are the responsibilities of committee members as office holders? Who are the people who elect them to office?

For example, suppose you want to give testimony to the school board on how important it is to provide instructional materials on family planning and contraception to school children. Consider what kind of voters live in that particular district. If your neighbors are dyed-in-the-wool conservatives, they may not like such a curriculum. You may have to be careful with the kind of arguments you present to the school broad and how strongly you voice your disagreement with whatever your neighbors say, or you may turn the decision makers against you !

What does the current policy say and how does it affect you?

In order for you to make a case for your viewpoint, you need to show how your life is right now because a certain policy does or doesn't exist. For example, you may be against an initiative that repeals that state mandate on safety belt use. Perhaps you can bring in pictures of your last auto accident in which you and your children would have been seriously injured had you all not been wearing your seat belts.Is there anything more effective than color photos?

What are the proposed changes and how will they impact your life?

Just as you may need to show how beneficial a policy is for you, you may need to show how harmful an existing policy could be for you and why proposed changes should be passed. For example, suppose you suffer from horrendous asthma and are always fighting off respiratory infections because the people with whom you work in city hall smoke like chimneys. One of your city commissioners just proposed a no smoking ban in all city buildings. How will the passage of this provision help you?

After you have found answers to these questions, prepare your testimony. This means writing out before hand what you want to say and what's at issue:

  • What are the proposed changes, and do you support them or are you against them?
  • What are the reasons why you feel the way you do? How do or will the changes affect you? Give examples.
  • How do or will the changes affect your neighbors, your friends, your community, state, etc.? If you can, provide statistics on how many people could be or are affected by a policy.
  • What do you suggest in lieu of the proposed changes, if you disagree with them?
  • Write out your thoughts and notes on paper, as you might write a letter to the editor.
  • Practice explaining your position out loud to an imaginary audience. Double check your testimony with a friend, asking her to comment on how well you testify and how well you support your arguments.
  • Time yourself. How long does it take you to tell your side of the story? Personal testimonies normally last about two to three minutes.
  • Memorize your comments as much as possible before you give your testimony. Being familiar with what you want to say helps convey the important information to the right people in a short amount of time.
  • Make notes on index cards of the important points you definitely want to include in your testimony. That way, you won't forget them once you're standing in front of an audience. Remember, you only have one chance and two to three minutes to get your point across.
  • If you have never given personal testimonies before, you may want to attend a few committee meetings in advance to get an idea of how people present their arguments and tell their stories in front of the decision makers. Believe it or not, the style in which you present your side can help or hurt your cause, and watching others will clue you in to what works and what doesn't.

What do you do at a hearing?

  • Get to the meeting early, so that you can sign up to speak. Sometimes, testimony is given in a first-come-first-serve basis. Getting to the venue early can also give you a sense of the event.
  • Wait your turn to speak and listen politely to opponents speaking before or after you.
  • When you reach the podium or microphone in front of the deciding committee, wait until the room is quiet and all committee members have their eyes on you.
  • Make quick eye contact with each member of the committee before you begin. This is one way to 'connect' with the policy makers to whom you're speaking, making your speech more personal, more one-on-one.
  • State your name.
  • Make a statement about yourself. For example, tell the panel what you do for a living, in which neighborhood you live, or some other autobiographical fact that is somehow related to the policy changes at hand.
  • Describe your circumstances. Illustrate to the hearing committee members the situation surrounding the personal information you just mentioned.
  • Tell how this situation happened or about the events leading up to it.
  • Describe how this affects your everyday life (or how it affected your life).
  • Every now and again, pause in your narration to give emphasis to what you're saying.
  • Explain how the proposed changes will affect you personally.
  • Tell how the new policy will affect people you know. Being able to provide several examples helps emphasize how important this regulation or policy decision will be to many instead of just one; it spreads out the impact of any changes.
  • Ask a value question that evaluates the nature of the policy changes. Are these changes really good? Why? Who are they good for? What's really important here?
  • Make sure you direct your comments to the committee chairperson or president of the hearing. This person usually sits in the middle of the panel.
  • Thank the committee for providing you with the opportunity to speak.

Online Resources

Example Testimony #1 is from Advocacy Unlimited, and it is an example of personal testimony with regard to mental health.

Example Testimony #2 is from Advocacy Unlimited, and it demonstrates a testimony regarding housing.

A Guide to Preparing and Giving Legislative Testimony is produced by Advocacy Unlimited to assist in providing a spoken or written testimony.

Storytelling, from Frameworks Institute, is designed to help advocates distinguish between more and less effective ways of establishing a narrative that sets up policy thinking.

Testify at a Public Hearing provides information on giving a successful testimony at a public hearing.

Testify at a Public Hearing - Cancer Advocacy is a resource for delivering personal testimonies at public hearings.

Testifying Before Lawmakers provides a variety of resources including information on preparing your testimony, delivering your testimony, and distributing your testimony.

Video: The power of the personal voice in media advocacy, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, shares three steps that advocates can take to get better at articulating the problems in their communities and what can be done to address them.

Print Resources

Seekins, T., & Fawcett., S. (no date) A guide for personal testimony: The art of using your personal experiences to influence policy decisions [Brochure]. Research and Training Center on Independent Living. Lawrence, KS.