LaForge: Some Tips for Kagan’s Hearings — Be Prepared

Posted June 9, 2010 at 5:23pm

The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to commence its confirmation hearing on June 28 to consider the nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace Associate Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. As many experts predict, Ms. Kagan may pass the Senate test with flying colors en route to confirmation.

[IMGCAP(1)]Leaving the substance and content of her testimony to her White House handlers, and ideology and judicial philosophy aside for a moment, I would focus Ms. Kagan’s attention on the two major roles and responsibilities of a hearing witness: to present effective and compelling oral testimony that makes the case for her confirmation and to be responsive in answering questions posed to her by the committee.

The Senate hearing will be Ms. Kagan’s chance to make the record, correct misperceptions, refute inaccuracies, and frame and advance the merits of her nomination in terms she chooses. If she follows a few well-tested and time-honored cardinal rules as a hearing witness, she stands a good chance of “wowing” the committee, and eventually the full Senate, with the delivery of substantive and skillfully presented testimony and answers to questions and an engaging demeanor as a witness. Here is a list of top-tier tips for consideration:

1. Prepare thoroughly, including ample rehearsals such as hearing simulations and question-and-answer “dry runs.” The committee expects helpful information and a strong performance from you. Prepare to deliver both.

2. Engage the committee in a natural, friendly and professional manner. Be yourself and be confident. Be conversational, yet respectful. Consider the committee members to be your peers. Committees appreciate a witness with a commanding presentation style and a demeanor that is balanced and respectful — not overbearing or too solicitous.

3. Develop and follow a script for oral testimony and stick to it by keeping your message and testimony simple, clear and direct. Nail the introduction to set the tone for the rest of your remarks.

4. Address the committee in a conversational manner, and speak — don’t read. Avoid a monotonous reading of a statement that neither captures the committee’s attention nor conveys the message of the statement in a compelling manner.

5. Be as responsive to questions as possible. Provide straightforward answers and be candid. If you don’t have an answer, say so and offer to provide it to the committee in writing later. Deal with each question directly, sidestep political and partisan commentary and respond to questions professionally and calmly, regardless of their nature.

6. Anticipate and prepare for a line of questions from the committee, including potentially hostile questions. Rehearse the answers aloud to your preparation team.

7. If a question is beyond your scope of knowledge or expertise, or is otherwise an inappropriate or unanswerable question in your judgment, politely defer and indicate your inability to answer on whatever relevant grounds fit the circumstance. If you must disagree with a statement or decline to answer a question, do so in a congenial fashion, with some accompanying reasonable explanation. Never respond with “no comment.”

8. Maintain a professional, courteous, respectful, deferential and helpful demeanor. However, respectfully stand your ground in the face of unreasonable badgering or questioning. Simple common decency is a two-way street.

9. Consider the use of speaking techniques such as voice variation, inflection, projection, clarity, quality, tone and tenor to enliven your delivery. Employ good eye contact, body language and gestures as effective communication tools. The effectiveness of witness testimony is often measured not only by the substance and content of the oral statement but also by the way the message is delivered.

10. Leave the committee with the impression that you are as well-prepared for the hearing as you are for service on the court, that you have a strong and persuasive message, that you are adding value to their quest for information through your answers to their questions and that you are trying to be helpful in showing them the path to confirming you.

Kagan will be judged in her hearing not only by the content of her testimony but by her presentation and demeanor as well. In addition to their personal and political agendas, Senators will be interested in the nominee’s background, credentials, experience, qualifications, judicial temperament, character and general fitness to serve on the highest court of the land. To help the committee connect the dots, Ms. Kagan would be well-advised to prepare for her hearing with the same care and deliberation she uses in preparing for oral argument before the court to which she aspires.

Bill LaForge is a lawyer and government relations practitioner with the Winstead law firm in Washington, D.C., and author of a new book, “Testifying Before Congress,” published by TheCapitol.Net and scheduled for release this summer.