In my opening template, I have an “educate the jury” section and a “defendant’s story” section.
But in nearly every case, when a client shows up to perform their opening, I’m confused as to whether they are teaching or storytelling.
This is a problem.
Teaching and storytelling are two VERY different things and must be kept separate.
Give this podcast a listen to learn why and how to “keep your story clean.”
How do you help jurors understand the difference between economic and non-economic damages?
On one hand, jurors want a formula, but on the other hand, formulas often backfire. For example, it’s not unusual to watch a mock jury deliberate and hear someone say, “Well, they’re asking for $10,000,000. This guy will live 23 more years according to their experts. So let’s see. Ten million divided by 23 is about $435,000. Divide that by 12 and that's…holy hell that’s over $36,000 a month!”
This is dangerous.
So how do we navigate this in trial? I firmly believe that you need to tell jurors how to calculate damages. So many attorneys throw up their hands and say, “No one can tell you how to do this, you just have to rely on your judgment.” Uh, big mistake. As David Ball says, if you tell the jury that no one can tell them how to calculate damages, they hear: “it can’t be done.”
Here’s how I often suggest handling it...
In voir dire, ask jurors about the difference between the price of something versus the value*. For example:
"Can something have value even if you paid very little for it?"
"What should happen if someone destroys something “priceless?”
"How do we, as a society, make it up to that person?"
"Why are some things valued very high in our society, say, a Picasso or a basketball player, and other things aren’t?"
In opening, tie economic damages to price, and non-economic damages to value. You know jurors will want to use a calculator so tell them when that is appropriate. Say:
“Economic damages is where you can get your calculator out. This is where you look at ‘price.’ How much will it cost to get the plaintiff back on his feet? What accommodations will he need? How much will medical care cost? This is the easier part of your job. You just look at the receipts, the bills, the reports and add it all up."
You can then continue:
"The hard part of your job, however, is non-economic damages. This is where you determine value. You won’t be able to use a calculator here. There is no formula. This is where you have to decide how much value to place on something like no longer being able to walk your daughters down the aisle. Or no longer being able to do simple things like change a lightbulb without asking your neighbor for help.”
But don't stop there. In closing say:
“Now here’s how we came up with the non-economic number.” Walk the jurors through your process. Tell the jury how you came up with the number but continue to tie it to value and not price.
The minute you start talking about how much things cost, you're in the “price” zone. You've got to get jurors into the “value” zone when discussing non-economic damages.
There’s no perfect way to help the jury with non-economic damages, but I do think jurors need more help than we often give. So help the jury by first, explaining the difference between the two types of damages, and then, helping them understand your reasoning for the non-economic number.
*Thank you to John Coletti who, along with Paul Luvera, developed this method and allowed me to share it.
I know it seems like you are doing an endless number of things both before trial and during.
But when it comes to communication, you're really only doing three things.
Teaching, storytelling and dealing with resistance.
Teaching is where you impart information. You teach throughout trial. For example, if your case involves angiograms, you begin your teaching in voir dire by asking jurors about their familiarity with specific medical terms in your case.
"Who here has any familiarity with angiograms?"
"Was your father's angiogram that you just mentioned diagnostic (performed to diagnose a problem) or interventional (performed to fix a medical issue)?" Etc.
You teach in opening when you tell the jury what angiograms are and how they're used.
"An angiogram is where the doctor punctures the femoral artery..."
"There are two types of angiograms. Diagnostic and interventional. Diagnostic angiograms are performed when..." Etc.
But you also teach in closing when you show the jury how to fill out the verdict form and clarify what the legal terms mean.
And during trial? Your expert witnesses teach on the stand.
You begin storytelling in voir dire by listening to the juror's stories and experiences. You continue storytelling by telling two stories in opening: the story of how the defendant caused the harm, and the story of the effect of that harm on the plaintiff.
But you also tell a story in closing; the story of the plaintiff, projected into the future, where they received no help from the jury.
And during trial? Your lay witnesses tell stories on the stand.
Deal with Resistance
You deal with resistance in voir dire by discussing the very things that are detrimental to your case.
You deal with resistance in opening when you undermine the defense arguments. And in closing you deal with resistance when you teach the jury how to deal with resistance from fellow jurors in the verdict room.
And in trial? You deal with resistance when you conduct your cross exam of the defense's witnesses.
Why is This Important?
It's important to understand the three things you're doing at trial for two main reasons:
First, it helps simplify things. If you know you're teaching, storytelling or dealing with resistance, you can organize your content that way so that it all comes together at the various points at trial.
Second, it informs what body language you should use. Teaching requires you adhere to presentation rules: proper stance, gestures, visuals, etc. When you're storytelling, however, you throw those rules out. Now you can and should "act." Bring the characters to life.
And when you deal with resistance? Adopt the same tone of voice jurors might use should they vocalize their thoughts out loud. "Shouldn't he have told someone?" they might be thinking in a sex abuse case. So say it, just like they'd think it, with proper inflection. This creates a connection between you and the jurors.
Trial can be overwhelming. Simplify your communication by focusing on these three things.
If you've conducted a voir dire that gets jurors interested in the principles in your case, then your jury should be eagerly anticipating your opening to learn more.
Don't blow this chance to inform and inspire jurors by making these three mistakes:
Too Long. Most opening statements are too long.
When your opening is too long, jurors get bored. Opening should be a preview of the evidence and jurors should be left wanting more after you're done. In addition, you want to "hum the tune" of your trial theme in opening so that as the other players (witnesses) sing that tune throughout trial (badly, and often out of tune), jurors remember the original. When you're opening is too long, jurors forget the original song and you start to lose them.
Too Complex. Most opening statements are too complex.
When your opening is too complex, jurors get confused. Names, dates, medical terms the jurors don't understand, stories out of order, tons of visuals...all of these things add to a juror's confusion. When jurors get confused, they go inside to try and figure it out, which means they stop listening to you. If they do figure it out, they'll miss the last few minutes of content you delivered, and if they don't figure it out, they feel stupid.
Too Legal. Most opening statements are too legal.
When your opening is too legal, jurors don't care. And I'm not just talking about legalese either. I'm talking about words like "vehicle" instead of "car." Or "collision" instead of "crash." When you use this type of language no matter how "off code" you're trying to be, you clearly communicate to jurors, "I am a lawyer."
Instead, create an opening that is short, simple and sane.
Short. Condense your opening as much as possible. Short openings communicate, "this is a very simple case that can be decided easily." If you need a 2-hour opening, fine, but really make sure that's the case first.
Simple. Clarify terms for jurors. Remove names and dates. Use the lowest number of visuals you can get away with. Make it easy on jurors to follow along.
Sane. Clean up your language. Use "car," "crash" and other non-lawyer words. Talk like jurors talk.
When you make your opening short, simple and sane, you communicate to the jurors that you have confidence in your case. Half of what you throw into your opening you don't need. So ditch it. Jurors don't commit to content; they commit to people. So make sure your content isn't getting in the way of your connection to jurors.
Give this podcast a listen to learn more.
Verbal information is the most difficult information to get across. Because verbal information is difficult to process, audiences tend to tune out things they don’t understand or have trouble following.
The answer, then, is to create hundreds of PowerPoint slides, right?
No. No no no.
Last year I had an attorney come through my opening statement class. A few weeks before the start of the class, he sent me a 150-slide slide deck.
That’s when I knew we were in trouble.
After he presented his opening to the jury, one juror said, “I thought you were very credible.” The attorney responded, “Thank you!” But the juror continued, “until you started with all the PowerPoints. That’s when you lost all credibility with me.”
When you use hundreds of PowerPoints, what message do you send jurors? This case is really complex. It’s so complex, in fact, it’s going to take HUNDREDS of PowerPoints for me to explain it to you. This is not the message you want to send to jurors.
SO complex = TOO complex = Defense Verdict.
In addition, using tons of PowerPoints interferes with your ability to connect with jurors. Jurors can only look at one thing at a time; you or something else. If you’re constantly using PowerPoints, that means jurors must look at the PowerPoints, not you. You’re missing out on real connection with jurors when you use an insane number of PowerPoints.
I'm not saying never use PowerPoints. What I am saying is every single visual you use should support your presentation, not detract from it. You may think that PowerPoints reduce information overload, but they often do the opposite.
YOU are the main attraction in opening. Focus on telling a good story with excellent nonverbal communication. Use visual information to deepen a juror’s understanding, not as a substitute for teaching from you.
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!
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