The Scary Truth About Testifying on Capitol Hill

Halloween isn’t the only thing to be scared of in October. Recently there have been a number of administration officials called to testify on topics such as Secret Service security lapses and the Ebola virus. Julia Pierson, the former Director of the Secret Service, found herself out of the job the day after she testified to Congress. Ms. Pierson’s inability to answer questions by a frustrated bi-partisan Congress ultimately led to her resignation. Thomas Frieden, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), faced a grueling line of questioning on his agency’s efforts to combat the Ebola virus. At times, Dr. Frieden struggled to provide satisfactory answers to the questions being asked of him by both sides of the aisle. The scary truth about testifying on Capitol Hill is that the questions being asked by Congress are not easy and intentionally designed to trip you up. When leaders are unable to provide specific details and answer questions on the fly their agency’s credibility suffers and many leaders face damage to their reputation. Testifying in front of Congress can be daunting for anyone, yet there are a number of ways a leader can mitigate the risks:

1. Do the Prep Work

Of course, a presenter should research and be prepared for as many questions asked of them as possible. Agency leaders are expected to be aware of large and small details, and a presenter should be well versed in all aspects surrounding an issue, especially those being discussed by the media or general public. In reality though, you can never predict every question and given the scope of issues most federal agencies encompass, it’s impossible to know everything.

 2. Know Your Committee

Do the research on who the committee members are, where they are from and their interests. Have they introduced legislation or amendments in your area? Do they have pet causes? Do they have personal connections to your work?

3. Practice, Practice, Practice

A presenter should practice in front of a live audience before the real event. Any practice session should be as similar to the real setting as possible, and the audience members should ask difficult questions and interrupt without warning to give the presenter experience of being in a difficult setting. Also, it can be helpful to prepare a list of hot topics that could come up during a rehearsal and practice how to best respond.

4. Use Support Tools and Techniques

When sitting in the hot seat, it’s always better to know that there are lifelines you can use when you don’t know the answer. For some leaders, having a quick reference guide on a laptop can provide the support needed to answer difficult questions in the moment. For others, having succinct key messages prepared ahead of time can be helpful. There are some leaders who have found that using innovative presentation software give them the competitive edge needed to thrive in a difficult situation.

As a leader, you may not always have the answers but with preparation and organization, you should always know where to find them. If you take a few proactive steps to be better prepared, know your facts, and find support tools that give you confidence, then you can minimize the chances that your failed testimony will be the story of the day.

What are some ways you have overcome the fear of giving high stakes presentations or testimonies on Capitol Hill?