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.”
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.
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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