Senate inquiries or state parliamentary inquiries can be tricky. In those we’ve attended, most politicians simply want good information, while a couple have pushed political or personal agendas. Sometimes there’s media, so a wider audience.

If your company or sector has a poor reputation you could be in for a grilling, as you would expect. In that respect it will be like the challenging media interview you’ve no doubt been avoiding.

So if, for instance, your business appears to have the potential to exploit people with low financial literacy you could be in for a rough time in front on senators investigating ‘Credit and financial services targeted at Australians at risk of financial hardship’.

Here is one approach, that has worked for us:

Research the senators

Research who may be asking the questions. You can find out which senators may be involved with a quick call or email to the Secretariat. There are some senators with a deep understanding, or an ideological bias, on the topic.

What kind of research? Start with reading speeches in Hansard, the report of the proceedings of the Australian parliament and its committees; often, a senator’s maiden speech is revealing as are other speeches specific to the topic. Also, Google the politician’s public statements.

You are looking for two things: does the senator really investigate ideas and concepts; is the senator likely to back that research with tough questions? If you get someone like Senators Claire O’Neil or Derryn Hinch on the day you appear, there is potential for interrogative questions, for instance, on the potential for people to be coaxed into a ‘spiral of debt’.

Prepare

This is more than knowing about your topic.

First, select your spokesperson/ spokespeople. You should have a good reason for the CEO not appearing, but it often helps to have him or her supported by a subject matter expert better placed to answer specific questions: on policy detail or operations for example.

Second, what you say is recorded in Hansard so needs to be accurate and in line with your corporate beliefs and behaviours. So your messages need to be approved by your board or executive – you can’t make up answers as you go.

A good way to do this is to prepare all the questions you may be asked. Ask a professional to help with this: a journalist or a corporate affairs advisor experienced at asking the tough questions. You may find, through this process, that your company hasn’t actually had a deep conversation about, for instance, the potential to exploit vulnerable customers. Or you may find bad customer feedback in hidden corners of the company – from the kind of customers who might have written to the inquiry or spoken to a senator.

Get into the detail in your answers. Then circulate them and get sign-off from key stakeholders.

Third, understand where you are vulnerable and prepare a factual and authentic response. Senators can see through misleading or deceptive answers and may call you out. Do you have weak ethics? Have you had serious customer complaints? Have you had bad publicity? Might someone have written a critical letter, or spoken to a senator? Be ready for it.

Fourth, rehearse. Now that you are across the detail, you need to simplify – edit what you say – so that the senators, time poor, can absorb your key points. There is no point giving a massive amount of information, if it confuses the central themes.

So work with someone brave enough to tell you when you are talking too much, or rambling off-message.

Fifth, work out the two or three key messages you want the senators to remember. You can do that now that you have really been challenged on your main areas of strength and weakness, and your responses. It’s a mistake to either have no main messages, or too many.

Sixth, rehearse presentation skills. Have media & presentation training, with a person who understands the difficulties of presenting before an audience – different from talking to a journalist. There are a variety of tips & tricks that help you to better communicate your messages.

And if you are the nervous type, seek advice on managing that too.

Presentation

Dress to suit the occasion and arrive early. It helps if you arrive feeling good about yourself, and are relaxed.

Take a minute to absorb the surroundings; it helps calm nerves. You will probably realise it’s not as intimidating as you expected. And your senators mightn’t be looking quite as hostile as you thought.

You will have prepared an opening statement, pithy, respectful and absent of waffle. Keep it short. It will focus on those two or three pre-agreed themes, and it may also pre-empt some tough questions you are anticipating, by addressing them directly.

Once the questions start:

  • Listen carefully, and always pause while you think before you answer. Don’t rush.
  • Answer the question, not to your satisfaction, but to the senator asking. The senator may simply want a short factual answer, not the longer one you had prepared.
  • Be sure to weave your key messages into some of your answers – these are the two or three messages you want the senators to remember.
  • Ask the senator to repeat a question if you don’t understand it. A lot of senators actually aren’t so good at asking pithy questions.
  • Always answer briefly – be brave enough to stop.
  • If you can’t answer a question, indicate a readiness to respond by offering to come back with a response. Don’t invent an answer.
  • Be respectful.
  • Never argue.

If you walk out with the senators thinking you a) know your stuff, and b) are a trustworthy and ethical leader, you are ahead.

Peter Wilkinson

Author Peter Wilkinson

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