Advice from a Congressional testimony expert for Mark Zuckerberg

A timely pep talk.
A timely pep talk.
Image: Reuters/Leah Millis
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Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg is facing perhaps the biggest test of his career: a grilling from members of Congress on his company’s various troubles, from the Cambridge Analytica scandal to Russian meddling on the platform.

As the New York Times reported earlier, Zuckerberg got a “crash course in charm” in preparation for his two days of testimony in front of Senate and House committees. Lawyers, including some Beltway experts, are preparing him for what is likely to be an ordeal, since he is famously averse to public appearances under pressure.

An expert walked us through what kind of advice he would give Zuckerberg, and offered some predictions of what the 33-year-old executive’s testimony might look like. Charles McCullough is an attorney at the law firm Tully Rinckey who specializes in Congressional investigations, and who has testified in front of Congress himself during his time as the Inspector General for the US Intelligence Community.

He explained that Zuckerberg will have likely gone through several “murder boards,” or mock testimony sessions with his lawyers, where he would have been asked the toughest questions possible. “You try to make it as bad as possible—you can tell him with some confidence that nothing worse than what happened today is going to happen on the Hill,” McCullough said. “It gets you into the habit of getting things on the record, rather than sort of extemporaneously thinking, stream of consciousness.”

The gist of his advice is common sense: “Be honest, be yourself, don’t answer hypotheticals, and don’t get sucked into the politics of it.”

Here are the rest of McCullough’s pro-tips, in his words (edited for clarity):

Know your audience

I would advise him to stay away from lengthy technical explanations of things that are going to be lost on most members. Most members of Congress don’t have the technical background that he has. Most people don’t have the technical background he has.

I would encourage him to attempt to be as plainspoken as possible. To the extent possible, avoid technical jargon.

I’m not saying he needs to be folksy, because he’s not a politician, but I think he probably needs to answer in plain English for these people. He needs to explain acronyms.

Stick to a set of responses

I would expect him to get the same question over and over again, and if I was prepping him, I would want him to have a list of go-to responses for certain questions. And to not deviate from those responses. Don’t get enticed into answering hypotheticals by a well-meaning congressman—certainly that’s where this thing could go off the road.

Don’t try to answer every question

I would resist the temptation to try to answer every question. There may be questions that are purposely being asked that either he doesn’t know the answer to, or there might be some political answer behind the question, and so I would just not fall into that trap. Tell the truth and avoid answering hypotheticals. Stick to the real world.

Testify on what you know, and only what you know. Don’t speculate.

The worst thing, if you’re his lawyer, is to have him go in there and be surprised by something. If you are surprised by something—just defer, and don’t try to get an answer on every single question, especially those that are technically complex. The more complex the question and the faster you answer, the greater the likelihood of someone misconstruing something.

You can put it off, and then when you go home you have a whole team of lawyers who can research the proper answer and you can write something beautiful and perfect.

At the same time, don’t dodge

Often people who are good at public relations will answer the question that they wanted to hear, not the one that was asked. “You can’t get away with that on the Hill,” McCullough said.

If you’re testifying, the senators will just keep asking you: “so you’re not going to answer my question?”

I wouldn’t dodge anything, I’d be upfront and honest : “I’m not sure,” “I’m not going to answer that,” or  “I need to look into that before I give you an answer, I will get back to you, I don’t want to give an answer that isn’t exactly correct, I don’t want to be sloppy with my statistics.”

Be careful

He should qualify everything: “to the best of my knowledge,” “the last I heard,” “to the best of my understanding.”

You just want to caveat things, you should not talk in absolutes. Avoid: “our company never does this, we always do that,” “I never get those,” “I always get those.”

Don’t get sucked into the politics

These are politicians. They are going to have certain points to make, certain points of view. You can’t get sucked into the politicization of it. You’ve got to stay as best you can above the fray.

They will be trying to knock you off your game. Because they are politicians, everybody wants a moment, for whatever political reason.

Be boring, but not monotone

The people who are bad at it tend to be emotional people. For the day try to cast aside all emotion, except when it’s appropriate.

Be dignified, have class, give smart answers. Don’t get emotional, don’t get angry. The more ticked off people see you getting, they will see that emotion and start pulling that thread, and that just makes for a long day. Don’t let them know they are getting to you.

You don’t want to be too emotionless and monotone, and you don’t want to sound “too scripted,” McCullough says. Generally, however, boring testimony is good.

If I were his lawyer, I would say bore them all to death. I wouldn’t have him go on 15-minute soliloquies on highly technical stuff, but if at the end of the day it’s a yawner, and people are saying “do you see how boring that was,” I would say that’s a victory.

He’s not out there to entertain people. If you’re boring, it’s much less opportunity for anybody to get interested in something that might come back and be time-consuming later on. “Now we have to respond to this because you’ve had this testy exchange with a senator.”

It’s okay to be a little vulnerable

Nobody’s going to hold it against you if you go up there and say this is your first time testifying. Even for a multimillionaire, it can be a little bit intimidating.