Purpose: We put this guide together to help people prepare compelling and effective public testimony in multiple formats. It’s also designed to help you create and execute on an organizing strategy to turn out testimony from allied organizations and individuals.
- Why are we here? Why is it important to testify?
- Getting ready
- Organizing turnout
- Preparing and delivering your testimony
- The day of the hearing
Why are we here? Why is it important to testify?
Public testimony, in person or in written form, is an essential part of organizing for policy changes. A high volume of quality testimony might cause an official to reconsider – or stick with – a controversial vote. A well reasoned coalition letter may succeed in getting a favorable amendment proposed. But successful testimony isn’t only defined by the outcome of the hearing. Organizing and delivering public comments can have other benefits:
- Building public awareness of your cause or organization
- Attracting like-minded activists, organizers, and citizens to your cause
- Exercising your communications network and testing your mobilization capacity
- Building stronger coalitions through mutual support
Public testimony is an opportunity to flex your campaign’s muscles. A good turnout of passionate and informed citizens will give your campaign credibility, and it might demotivate your opposition. A hearing can be a social occasion, whether in-person or online, and celebrating a win (or commiserating over a loss) is an opportunity to build strong bonds within your community.
The first thing you need to do is get the details about the subject, venue, and audience for your testimony. Every deliberative body has its own rules and timelines for public comment, and you’ll want to find out as much as you can about the rules and the people involved so you can have the most impact.
What is the issue/opportunity?
If you are sending letters to instigate a policy change, then find out if there are projects underway that parking reform might fit into, like a comprehensive plan or a downtown parking plan. If you are testifying in support of a particular ordinance or plan, make sure you know what’s in it. What are the possible outcomes? Is there a real opportunity for amendments? Often, things are pretty baked in or getting an amendment will require a more robust campaign or inside game.
- Find your city’s planning commission website
- Find your city’s legislative calendar or database
- Find the project website
- Find the staff for the project
Who is receiving the testimony?
Are you sending testimony to an entire deliberative body, specific decision-makers, or both? Do you know how the member(s) of the body lean on the policy in question? How have they voted in the past? Is the body elected or appointed? Who can submit amendments?
- Find the roster of the council/commission
- Identify your target representative(s) – swing votes, district reps
- What power does the body or its members have?
Where and when is the testimony given?
There should be a period during which the record is open for public comment and testimony. This likely also applies to direct lobbying efforts to individual members of the body.
- What is the earliest date/time testimony is accepted?
- What is the deadline for testimony?
- What formats are acceptable for testimony?
- If in-person or live, where and how does someone go?
How does the process work and what are the rules?
It’s really important to know the rules for live testimony. It can be time-consuming and difficult to testify, especially in person. Knowing the rules and the process can give you a leg up on the opposition and also help you to recruit busy people to give compelling comments. You should watch or attend a hearing to get familiar with the process.
- What is the process for signing up? Can someone stand in for another person in line?
- Who is allowed to testify?
- What information is needed to sign up?
- When do you have to be in the chambers? What if you miss your opportunity?
- How is order/priority determined?
- When in the hearing is testimony taken? Is the time certain?
- Is there a cutoff? Will testimony be deferred?
- Can you request a list of people who have signed up?
Who are you mobilizing?
Who are you targeting to submit or give testimony? What mailing lists and social media accounts are you working from?
- Influential people or people with particularly compelling stories
- Members and subscribers to your organization
- Friends and family who are sympathetic to your cause
- Allied organizations and their members
- The general public/social media followers
Why are you doing this?
Be realistic about why you are organizing and giving testimony. Are you building a foundation for future success, supporting an allied organization, shoring up support for a wavering council, pushing for a better version of the policy, or performing a victory lap?
- What are your realistic chances for success?
- Preferred policy outcome
- Best case scenario
- Worst case scenario
- Who will see or listen to this testimony?
- Who will appreciate what you’re saying and who won’t?
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis
For your efforts to have an impact, you want the testimony you turn out to be on message and cohesive. It shouldn’t be the same, but it should have a theme and all push in the same direction.
Reflect back to why you’re doing this. What are you trying to accomplish with this campaign?
- Tell City Council to pass this resolution!
- Demand Planning Commission reject the downzone!
- Ask your Alderperson to support the amendment to the comprehensive plan!
- Let Council know you support the TDM ordinance with an expanded transit radius!
You should provide the people you are organizing with talking points so they can prepare their own testimony. Your talking points may provide:
- Details on how to submit testimony and when it is due (multiple times if needed)
- A brief (1-2 sentence) summary of the legislation and ask
- A call to the tagline and/or how they can refer to your group’s position
- Bullet points of the pros/cons of the legislation and your best arguments
- Specific evidence to support any claims in the bullet points and/or references to specific parts of the legislation
- Advice/resources on crafting testimony
Some people will want to simply copy the tagline or wing it. Others want to be sure they know what they are testifying about. Do not mislead your supporters.
If you have the capacity, it can be very helpful to have a blog post, flier, opinion piece, or other online resources to refer to in your talking points and outreach efforts. These materials can dive deeper into the policy and your position, as well as give background on the issue and your organization.
Your organization or coalition may wish to submit a letter comprehensively stating your position. This can be especially helpful if you are pushing for amendments or nuanced support/opposition to a policy. Your supporters can then say they support the policy and the amendments proposed by Portlanders for Parking Reform, for example.
Infographics and memes can also be used effectively here.
If possible, come up with a tagline that your supporters can use in their testimony. It should be short and to the point. Because you don’t want people to send form letters, the tagline can serve as a thread that binds your coalition’s testimony. Some people will also simply send a letter with the tagline.
- More city, less cars
- Build housing, not parking
You’ll rarely have as much time as you need, so it’s important to look at the deadline for testimony or hearing date and work backward from there to create a plan for mobilizing your supporters. For longer campaigns, you may have multiple hearings covering many months. For a one-off push for testimony, you may have a week or a few days. Work with what you have.
- Confirm key dates and deadlines
- Honestly assess the time you can put in or your organizational capacity
- Set a few goals based periodically through the time period
Make it easy (and fun)
You want to lower the barriers to participation for your supporters. For submitted testimony, this might mean providing pre-filled email links, a tool to find their representative, or simply direct links to submission forms with clear instructions. Emphasize that it should only take a few seconds for them to submit their testimony.
For in-person testimony, the time commitment can be significant. In Portland, a signup sheet for testimony would be placed outside council chambers two hours before the hearing, and testimony might not begin for an hour or more after the hearing starts. If the rules allow it, recruiting helpers to arrive at the hearing location ahead of time and hold space in line and/or sign up for others can be the key to getting a busy, but influential, supporter to testify. This is a great job for someone who may not feel comfortable testifying themselves, or who supports your effort, but isn’t as passionate as you are. If the waiting period spans a mealtime, consider providing food or snacks for your volunteers.
Hearings can be a great opportunity for socializing and networking. Let people know someone else will be there when they get to the hearing location. If you can, provide stickers, buttons, or t-shirts to make everyone feel like part of the group.
For online or remote testimony, invite your supporters to a Slack channel, Discord, or Twitter space for a viewing party.
Offer your supporters the option for you to notify them when their testimony is coming up.
If you don’t have a strong organizational identity, perhaps you can borrow one from an allied organization. Draft a formal letter for your position and ask local housing, cycling, transit, and environmental advocacy organizations to co-sign or even “sponsor” the letter.
Ask these organizations to amplify your call to action to their members and, if possible, to leverage their own operations to mobilize testimony. Of course, it helps tremendously if you have supported these organizations mutually and/or built a relationship well in advance.
At this point, you have a timeline, talking points, and your supporting materials together. It’s time to mobilize your network to sign up for and submit testimony! Prioritize your list of targets, divide up the work, and get going.
Organizing is inherently about asking people to do things. You may be pushing them outside of their comfort zone. If you understand how this issue impacts them or their own cause, you can move them to action by connecting your need to their concerns. It’s also a matter of persistence and a clear ask. Use whatever communication methods you have access to and capacity to use.
- One-to-one communications
- Phone calls
- DMs (Slack, Twitter)
- Mass communications
- Social media posts
- Opinion pieces
- Blog posts
- Tabling at events
- Targeted communications
Do not ask them to submit a form letter or sign a petition. Try not to give your supporters a whole letter that they copy and paste. Give them a talking point or a tagline and encourage them to tell their OWN story. A simple “I support the TOD ordinance, build housing not parking” is better than a form letter.
Whenever practical, you want to get a clear answer whether someone plans to testify in support of your campaign. Keep a list of individuals and organizations you contact and be very honest with yourself about which way they lean and whether they’re going to support you (or even oppose you).
Your goal here is to focus your energy on activating people who agree with you and finding new supporters among the undecided or unmotivated contacts and to assess your own efforts and effectiveness.
Preparing and delivering your testimony
What is your role?
If you are testifying as a subject matter expert, member of a committee, or representative of an organization, your testimony may be more formal and dispassionate. If you are testifying as an ally to another organization or community, you may want to highlight their testimony, as opposed to making yourself the subject.
What is your goal and intent?
Play to your strengths. Are you funny? Maybe you can tell a humorous story or analogy. Do you feel very passionate about the issue? A personal story, even if it makes you cry, can have a major impact. If you’re likely to lose, you may want to be — respectfully — angry and stress the urgency of the issue and the consequences of inaction. If the hearing will be widely watched, you may want to try for a good sound bite or quote that will get media coverage (or at least applause).
While it is generally not very effective to get wonky in testimony, sometimes it is important to have a few members of your coalition give subject matter testimony, clearly calling for a policy change or detailing the impacts of the legislation.
Draft your comments
Think about what you most like or dislike about the item, consider your role and goal, and draft something. Use whatever methods you’d normally use to write a letter or work report. Let it sit for a bit and then come back and read it aloud. Record and/or time yourself.
Here’s a general outline for your testimony:
- Identify yourself; state any applicable affiliations and required information (usually an address is NOT required).
- Greet the body.
- Clearly state your support or opposition and any qualifications. If you are supporting a complicated position, say so. For example, I support the TOD ordinance with the changes suggested by Elevated Chicago.
- Give one or more factual arguments to support your position.
- Tell your story or anecdotes. Why is this important enough for you to show up?
- Restate your position or ask.
- Thank the audience if you have time.
Refine your testimony. If you are coordinating with others, share it with them for comments. Read it aloud and streamline passages that are difficult to say.
Memorize as much of your testimony as possible. At the very least, try to be comfortable enough that you can look up at the audience or camera. You can use note cards or whatever strategies you find helpful.
Know your audience
Are you trying to focus on a particular official? Are you playing to the crowd? This is where it can be helpful to watch previous hearings and see what the tone and types of effective testimony are for your specific audience.
Mistakes to avoid
- Don’t repeat other people. It’s fine to say, “I agree with all the other people from [my coalition],” and then tell your personal story.
- Don’t cram in too much. It’s better to say less and say it clearly and effectively than to bulldoze the commission with a tsunami of facts and figures.
- Don’t use jargon. Avoid acronyms and insider speak.
- Don’t argue or refer to opposing testimony. There are times this can be effective, but be respectful and try not to get into an argument with the officials.
- Don’t go over time. Be respectful of the other testifiers and the audience’s time
The day of the hearing
Now it’s time to get the job done! Be prepared for anything. You may have smooth sailing and a celebration coming your way, or it might be a roller coaster of emotions followed by a good cry on a friend’s shoulder. Know that you did what you could and you’re putting forth an effort to make things better. There will be other fights, and you’ll win some and lose some.
If you can, acquire a list of people who are signed up to testify. The council clerk, city staffer, or similar official should have such a list before the hearing or on the day of. For physical sign-up sheets, you might take a photo and work off of that. Share the list with your trusted network to see if you recognize the names and positions of the people signed up.
If you are coordinating testimony, put the list into a spreadsheet and calculate the estimated times someone will be called. This will generally shift dramatically as people are no-shows, the body takes breaks or deliberates, and people ramble past time, but it’s helpful to have a rough idea.
Keep track of people as they testify and assess their testimony. It might be pro/anti/off topic/weird.
Have fun! Celebrate and praise your supporters for testifying! Make fun of the NIMBYs! Use your Slack/Discord/DMs to engage with your colleagues and supporters.
Live-tweeting a hearing can be a great way to attract new followers who are interested in the topic. This is especially useful for local and regional recruiting.
After you’ve recovered from the effort, take some time to meet with your network and assess how you did. Send a follow-up thank you to people who testified and invite them to join your org