4 The record articles

A Few Helpful Tips for Expert Testimony or Public Hearings

Posted: June 21st, 2012

Author: All4 Staff 

An artifact of gaining experience, which is a euphemism for getting older, is that you may find yourself being called upon to act as an expert in public hearings.  Whether these public hearings are informational or judicial, there can be much at stake and it is important that you perform well at these hearings.  Your company’s reputation, your reputation, and in some instances your client’s reputation could be adversely impacted by a poor performance in front of a judgmental general public or hearing board.  Provided below are some observations regarding how to present a strong case when you find yourself involved with expert testimony or public hearings.

Before you even set foot near a public meeting site here are some important steps that you should implement well in advance of your meeting:

  1. Enroll and educate all key stakeholders.  This includes elected officials, other government officials, regulators, local businesses, and, most importantly, the public.  Do not underestimate the impact of public perception and do not rely on sound technical and business merits of a project when the public and politics are involved.
  2. Recognize and embrace the power of social media.  Social media can both positively and negatively affect the perception of a business and its project.  By embracing social media, and developing a forum where the pros and cons can be supported with factual arguments, you are afforded the opportunity to develop credibility and trust.
  3. Data is everywhere and can be used to tell many different stories.  The internet has made data available to everyone.  Studies and/or articles on the internet can be found and referenced to support any “stand” you wish to take.  For example, we were able to find articles that support the concept that drinking water could be bad for your health!  [if you don’t believe us, Google it yourself…]  What this means for new projects is that there may be inappropriate, old, and/or conflicting data available that others may rely upon to “evaluate” your project.  Cite your vendor data, references, and assumptions clearly and don’t be surprised if data from a 1982 Study from Turkey is presented to contradict your current day data/vendor guarantees.

Public hearings can range from the unattended meeting to meetings that are over-flowing with members of a contentious public.  In either situation, simplify your message and keep the technical jargon to the minimum.  Use an analogy to relate technical issues to circumstances to which the general public can relate.  Acknowledge the value of the statement that each commenter/questioner makes.  “Thanks for your comment”, “I appreciate your observations”, and “That’s a good question/important question” are examples of qualifying introductions that you can provide as part of your response.

Accept that sometimes you will be a sacrificial body at contentious public hearings.  At these hearings there will be minimal potential to change someone’s opinion about the issue; however, you will certainly want to avoid exacerbating the situation.  In contentious situations, it is best to listen much more than talk, and when you do talk, keep the message consistent from response to response.  If you are the client’s consultant at this type of meeting, be prepared to shoulder the brunt of the public response.

If you are delivering expert testimony, here a few reminders to consider.  First, make certain that your presence is active not passive; making eye contact, speaking loud enough and at a measured pace will help establish you in the front of judge or jury.  Second, when you are asked a question, wait to hear the entire question before answering.  It is important to refrain from the inclination to be eager with a response.  Third, keep your answers succinct and to the point of the question so that extraneous information is minimized – know the key facts/dates related to your testimony, misstating information, even if you immediately correct, has the effect of diminishing your expertise.  Also, if you are providing expert testimony about a particular aspect of a multi-aspect case, make certain that you have familiarized yourself with the unrelated aspects.  Although you may not be the expert in the unrelated aspects, you can quickly downgrade your perceived level of expertise by being unprepared and not knowing the basics of the components to the overall case.  Finally, one item to keep in perspective while you are defending your testimony, remember that the cross-examining questions are not a malicious attack on you as a person, they are designed to weaken your testimony.  If you appear annoyed or troubled by the cross-examination, you can weaken your testimony just by your reaction.

In summary, whether it is a hearing for the general public or a judicial setting, preparation is critical.  Review how you are going to present information: verbally only, handouts, or large print displays.  Carefully consider what words you are going to use – a word commonly used in engineering or industry applications may have a different meaning to the general public.  Practice your presentation/testimony several times.  When you know your material, it shows.


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