His hands shook violently. So violently that the notes he held only served to illustrate the shaking to the jury. His voice cracked as he spoke. I had put him third; my thought was that seeing two other lawyers present to the jury before him might help him relax. But no, he was as nervous as ever. I tried to read his body language so I could give him feedback later; was he in approachable or authoritative stance? His knees were practically buckling; it was impossible to tell. His “stance” was an attempt to not fall over.
This past weekend was our Opening Statement Studio. Six lawyers from all over the United States came to Portland to work with me for four days on increasing their presence, nonverbal intelligence and presentation skills. We worked on storytelling, teaching and how to deal with objections while playing with breathing and body language and a host of other skills.
After a day and a half of prep, the lawyers arrived Saturday morning to face two mock juries. Each attorney had 20 minutes to present his or her opening and then 10 minutes to hear from the jury and get my feedback. The entire thing would be videotaped.
As I watched this attorney present his opening, I worried about whether or not he’d make it through. But as he began telling the story of what happened to his client, things began to shift. Still nervous as hell, he used a single chair to illustrate to the jury the scene where this all happened. He became, before our very eyes, the characters in those chairs and told the story of how a woman’s life was cut short by a negligent doctor. At one point he ran to the door and shouted, “Call an ambulance!” and it was as if we were there on the day it happened. The jury held their breath as they watched him demonstrate a husband performing CPR on his own wife.
As he brought his opening to a close, his hands were still shaking. The jury, however, was now in tears. I, too, had to fight the urge to allow the tears that had just welled up in my eyes tumble down my cheeks.
Once the jury finished their written feedback, I asked them: “Did you notice that the attorney was nervous?” They all nodded. I then asked, “Who here thinks that this attorney is less credible because he was nervous?” Not a single hand was raised. In fact, as the jury began giving their verbal feedback to the attorney they spoke about his incredible storytelling skills, his ability to make the characters come to life, and how after a 20 minute opening in a complex medical-malpractice case they were ready and willing to award him any amount he asked. His nervousness wasn’t even a factor.
1. The attorney didn’t let the nervousness distract him. He didn’t try to shove it down, but he didn’t let it distract him from the job at hand either. And if it wasn’t distracting to him, it wasn’t distracting to the jury. He taught the jury to ignore it, and they did.
2. The nervousness made him real. Jurors are on high alert for any type of manipulation; had this attorney told this story with perfect poise and perfection, I guarantee you that the jury would have viewed it as a “manipulation” and dismissed it out of hand. Because the attorney was visibly nervous the jury found him more credible, not less.
3. The nervousness made him human. We’ve all been nervous at some point in our lives, whether that was when we asked our boss for a promotion or at our 5th grade piano recital. Nervousness is a human condition. When this attorney embraced his nervousness and presented his opening anyway, he communicated to the jury “I’m just like you.” And they loved him for it.
Nervousness only becomes a credibility issue when we let it distract us from the job we’re attempting to do. Instead of dreading it, embrace your nervousness! Being nervous communicates that whatever you’re attempting to do means something. Forging ahead says to your audience “not only does this mean something to me, it means so much that I’m willing to talk about it even if it makes my knees buckle.”
That takes courage.
Taking courageous action increases your credibility. So the next time you’re literally “shaking in your boots” I suggest you see it as a good thing. Take a deep breath, hold your head high, and let your passion for your subject come through.
Sari de la Motte is the CEO and founder of FORTE, a communications consulting firm that specializes in helping attorneys communicate their real selves. Are you working on a case and need help? Schedule a free 30 minute consultation with Sari now!
Sari has been dubbed the "Attorney Whisperer" because of her unique ability to help attorneys communicate their real selves.