Structuring Oral Testimony for Public Participation

An important part of public participation in policy making is giving oral testimony at public hearings. To be effective, what you say must be remembered by your audience, and what is remembered is determined in large part by how your testimony is structured.

The structure of oral testimony is determined, first of all, by the nature of the meeting. The officials in charge of public hearings usually limit oral testimony by ordinary citizens to 2-3 minutes. (Political figures, powerful economic interests, policy-makers, and other "important" people are often given two or three times that.) Because of this, you cannot expect to provide details. If you run over your time limit, you will be cut off, and if you did not make your most important point, you are out of luck. If you have done research and have technical details to contribute, you must plan on providing written testimony. Often, the comment period for written testimony will be longer than that for oral testimony, but for safety's sake you should not depend on that.

A speech for public participation is addressed to three audiences at once:

  1. Those who called the meeting: Metropolitan Planning Organization, Environmental Protection Agency, Board of Aldermen, Federal Communications Commission, etc.
  2. Those who attended the meeting: policy wonks, informed and uninformed citizens, supportive and hostile citizens, etc.
  3. Those watching the meeting from outside: the courts, political figures, opinion-makers, news media, citizens watching on cable TV, etc.

While the formal audience is those who called the meeting, those who attended the meeting are equally important, because passively supportive citizens who hear your speech may be motivated to speak out themselves. (The best you can hope for from actively hostile citizens is that they be made passively hostile.)

The suggested speech structure is based on the psychology of human memory and decision-making. Politicians, advertising people, confidence men, and other professional persuaders know these principles, whether instinctively or by training. If you do not, you are limited in your ability to counter the effect of professional persuaders on others and in your own ability to resist manipulation.

Based on this, you should see to it that each point is introduced by a key phrase of 5-7 words, with an emotional hook; and there should be at least three exact repetitions of that key phrase in addition to any supporting evidence. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself! At a speechmaking seminar given by my employer, I once gave a practice speech to some coworkers with a key phrase of nine words (already too long). Afraid of boring my audience with repetition, I paraphrased it the second and third times. Only one person out of the seminar remembered any part of the key phrase.

The number of points you can make is determined by the amount of time you have. With three minutes, you have time for at most two points, so you will need to present your strongest points orally and present your other points in written testimony (along with the points you made orally).

Suggested Speech Structure

The following sample speech, which is edited from one I gave to the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization in 2004, has been annotated with notes indicating its structure. Key phrases are in boldface. I strongly suggest that you read this speech aloud with vigor to a person who has never heard it or read it before. Afterwards, ask them what they remember from it and whether they thought the repetitions were annoying. I am confident that they will remember the key points easily and that the repetitions added force to the speech and were not at all annoying.

If you want practice in making speeches, you might also consider joining Toastmasters International, a nonprofit club whose purpose is to train people in public speaking.

Sample Speech to Metropolitan Planning Organization
Introduction Good evening. I am David Dahlbacka from Somerville. Thank you for allowing me to speak today, and thank you very much for supporting the Green Line Extension to Medford and Somerville. As you consider the transit commitments of the Ozone State Implementation Plan, I ask you to consider the following points.

Key phrase #1:
3 repetitions

First, health effects are local. Current measures of air quality are regional. “Hot spots” are areas downwind from major pollution sources like Interstate 93 and other arterial highways. Regional air quality measures combine these hot spots with cleaner, more remote suburban areas, producing a level lower than that found in the hot spots. But, health effects are local. Studies in southern California show that people who live close to major arterial roadways are at much higher risk for lung disease than those living in more distant areas. This can be seen next to I-93 in East Somerville, where there is a high incidence of asthma in the public schools. East Somerville itself is a disadvantaged area falling under the Commonwealth’s Environmental Justice policy, which forbids overburdening poor areas with environmental hazards. Please take this policy into account as you evaluate the Ozone SIP transit commitments. Health effects are local.
Key phrase #2:
2 repetitions
Second, air quality affects water quality. Current air quality regulations ignore effects on water quality, and vice versa. The “EPA Report to Congress on the Costs and Benefits of the Clean Air Act 1990-2010” showed that nitrates are major sources of water eutrophication in rivers, lakes, and oceans. Nitrates in the air are largely derived from automobile exhaust. Degraded air quality is not the only consequence of traffic congestion; degraded water quality is a consequence as well. Please take water quality into account as you evaluate the SIP transit commitments. Air quality affects water quality.

Key phrases
#1, #2:
final repetitions

If you remember nothing else from today’s presentations, please remember that health effects are local, and that air quality affects water quality. I am confident that through you, the Commonwealth will do the right thing as it evaluates the Ozone SIP transit commitments. Thank you.