In 2009, after a double bird strike, which killed both engines, Captain Sullenberger made the decision to land a commercial jet with 155 people on board in the Hudson River. A few seconds before the plane hit the water, Captain Sullenberger came on the intercom and said three words which many passengers later said calmed them down immediately.
What were those three words? Perhaps they were words of comfort like, “We’ll be ok,” or “Don’t you worry.” No, the three words Captain Sullenberger said were:
“Brace for impact.”
Brace for impact? How on earth are those words comforting? They aren’t. That’s the point. It isn’t –what– Captain Sullenberger said, it’s how he said it that brought assurance to the passengers. He was in command of his breathing. He was calm. He was confident. And although the words he said were, “Brace for impact,” the message the passengers received was, “We’re in good hands.”
Leadership is communicated. You can think you’re a leader, but unless you can communicate it, no one else will see you that way. But how is leadership communicated? Through breathing.
Authenticity shows people who you are but breathing shows people how you are. If you are not breathing well, or holding your breath in court, you activate your fight or flight response. When you are in fight or flight, you are in survival mode, which means you’re looking out for yourself. No one is going to follow someone who is only looking out for themselves! Breathing well in court communicates, “I’ve got this,” and shows jurors that you are a safe, steady presence and someone worthy of following.
If you want to show up as a leader in court, get your breathing under control. The jury wants to know you’ve got the knowledge, experience, and skill to handle the stress of trial. You communicate all of these things through breathing. But you also communicate that jurors are safe with you. Breathe deeply, and often, and you’ll start to see your leadership grow in court.
As an expert in nonverbal intelligence, I am often asked how to accurately read a juror's body language.
Here's the short of it: you can't accurately read a juror's body language if what you're looking for is whether or not they'll vote your way.
But there are things you can read: permission and what mode jurors are in.
Let's discuss permission first.
Permission is how receptive someone is to you or your message. It's conveyed nonverbally. Meaning, even if someone says, "Yes, you may do that," you may not have their real permission.
For example, have you ever been in voir dire and asked a juror if you could ask them a question, and they say yes, but then you still have a hard time getting them to answer? They gave you verbal permission, but not real permission.
You can read permission by watching a juror's breathing. Is the juror sitting still, head resting on top of his shoulders, conversing easily? He's most likely breathing well. Conversely, is the juror sitting stiffly, shoulders up, having trouble finding words? She's most likely holding her breath or breathing shallowly.
When a juror holds his or her breath, they go into fight or flight mode. This means they're in survival mode and cannot be receptive to you or anyone else. This is why breathing is an indicator of permission.
Carefully watch a juror's breathing to gauge whether you have permission or not. You can also just tune into how the interaction feels: cold and stunted? You don't have permission. Warm and inviting? You most likely have permission.
Next week we'll discuss the second thing you can read: what mode jurors are in.
Until then, check out this podcast: How to Read Body Language.
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.