When I first started working with lawyers, I was surprised to find that voir dire was the part of trial most lawyers dreaded.
This made no sense to me: voir dire was the one part of trial that was unscripted. It was a conversation, a "get to know you" type of deal. But I soon realized that the "unscripted" part of voir dire was the very thing that made it difficult.
So I set out to fix this problem. I developed a method to help attorneys craft a voir dire that would get jurors talking. And it helped. But there was still a problem.
You can prepare your side of the conversation, but you still have no idea how the jurors will respond.
And that's when I realized that good questions are important, yes, but they're just the start. What you really need to get good at is listening.
When you think of listening you probably think of focusing intensely on someone else (in this case, the juror) and giving them your full attention.
You might be surprised to learn that there are three types of listening.
The first type of listening is the listening I see all the time in voir dire: listening to yourself. This is where you act as though you're listening to the juror but what you're really doing is listening to your own inner chatter.
"Is this a good juror for me?"
"How do I follow up on this?"
I hardly need to point out that this is -not- the type of listening you want to be doing in voir dire.
The second type of listening is where you listen to someone else. This is what most of you have been taught to do in voir dire, but to stop here is a mistake. There's a third type of listening you need to develop.
You need to listen to your intuition. When you listen to your intuition you listen for what's not being said, what's in the room, and how the group is reacting to what individual jurors are saying. This is where every good thing in voir dire happens.
When you listen to yourself, you miss out on all the good information the juror is sharing.
When you listen intently to individual jurors, you risk boring the group.
But when you listen to both jurors and your intuition, you can shape the conversation and infuse it with meaning and purpose. You are present with the individual juror, yes, but you also have an eye on the entire group and what needs to happen next.
But here's the thing about intuition: it doesn't shout at you or slap you in the face. (At least, not most of the time.) It shows up when you get quiet and give it space to arrive. And yet most of you are afraid of silence! So when the juror stops talking you immediately jump in and crowd out the opportunity to let your intuition speak.
Stop. Slow down. Trust that what needs to be said next is just lurking under the surface. Start giving your intuition time to show up and you'll begin to master voir dire with each passing trial.
Give this podcast a listen to learn more.
I bet you've been told you need to build trust with jurors, haven't you.
Here's the problem: trust takes time. Yet, you don't have the luxury of time to get jurors to believe and trust you.
What you need is permission.
What is permission?
Permission is how receptive someone is to you or your message.
Permission is a function of three things:
You can increase permission with jurors (or anyone else) by meeting their need.
For example, what do jurors need at the start of jury selection? Information. They want to know why they're there and what they have to do. So tell them. Forget phony "rapport builders" like asking about hobbies or what jurors have read lately. Get straight to the issue and watch permission go up.
You also increase permission by doing things at the right time. Jurors need to feel empowered, yes. But telling them they're the most important people in the room at the beginning of trial nearly always fails. Why? It's the wrong time. Jurors are on the lookout for any hint of manipulation and this fits the bill. You empower jurors in closing, not when you begin.
Finally, you increase permission by meeting people's needs at the right time and in the right context.
The different parts of trial represent different contexts. The context of voir dire is to get information. The context of opening is to give information. The context of closing is to argue your side. Stay in your lane! Don't argue in opening or deliver a presentation in voir dire.
You need jurors who are receptive to you and your message. Forget about getting them to trust or like you. Instead, focus on meeting their needs at the right time and in the right context and watch permission steadily increase.
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.