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Three Best Public Speaking Practices to Grab the Jurors During Opening Statements
Successful trial lawyers remember that trials are about people: the people who were hurt; the people who caused the hurt; and the people who make up the jury. These attorneys know what makes people tick and use that knowledge in developing and delivering their opening statements. The opening statement is not about what is interesting to lawyers. The opening statement should be about what is interesting to and will attract the attention of the jurors.
Three essential best practices, used by highly regarded public speakers, must also be used by trial lawyers who want to win.
1) Language. Use language that the jurors can relate to. Find and use everyday language in place of subject-specific terms and jargon. The more memorable you make your language, the better the jury will remember and take it to heart.
Ask your experts and other witnesses to use everyday language as well. If you create a substitute for a technical term, ask your expert witnesses to use that term as well. The witness may use the technical term at the beginning of their testimony and then redefine it at the attorney’s discretion, so it is clear that the expert and the attorney are talking about the same thing.
Speaking in everyday language does not mean using wasted words (‘like’, ‘you know’) or casual language like “bad stuff” when you mean “bad results” or “negative effects”. The jurors will lose respect for someone who can’t seem to be bothered to articulate ideas properly.
2) Sentence structure. Use short sentences in the active voice. This means one subject and verb per sentence. Where you think you would put a preposition (‘and’, ‘therefore’, ‘although’), use a period instead. Then start the next phrase as a new sentence.
The active voice sounds like this: “Dr. Defendant cut into the patient’s abdomen.” The passive voice sounds like this: “The patient was cut open by Dr. Defendant.”
3) Tell stories. Stories are based on the facts but emphasize action. The report of descriptive details interrupts the story’s action. Your short sentences in the active voice should be focused on action. Telling the color of the room, or the age and model of a piece of equipment in a standalone sentence does not move the action forward.
Incorporate the necessary descriptive details into the action. Instead of: “The car was a ’98 Chevy SUV. Mr. Defendant drove it through a red light. The red light was at the intersection of Maple and King streets” say” “Mr. Defendant ran his ’98 Chevy SUV through the red light at the corner of Maple and King Streets.” The jury will hear the action and be prepared to hear the next action, rather than be stopped in their thinking by the dead-end description of the vehicle.
Use the present tense as you tell your stories. Begin by asking the jurors to go back with you to the time when the action begins. Then you introduce the first action in the present tense, and keep the present tense throughout the story. The present tense helps the jurors stay with you and increases the power of the action verbs you use. The jurors feel the action because it is happening now. When they feel it, they remember it.
Look for opportunities to add vocal variety to the telling of the story. Vocal variety includes volume, speed of speaking and pauses. Pauses help the jurors keep track of you. Just make sure you don’t make the breaks so long that the jurors get impatient and feel like you’re talking down to them.
Speed of speaking means that you sometimes vary your speaking speed depending on the action you are telling about. If something is happening in slow motion, slow down your speech. If something happens as fast as the blink of an eye, you can tell that part of the story a little faster. Don’t overdo it and don’t do it for long periods of time. Just change the speed where it suits your content.
Voice volume should be used in the same way as speed. Speak louder or more softly, depending on the action you are describing. Be careful not to sound judgmental with your volume – if you shout during a sentence or two describing an action that people might find outrageous, you overwhelm the action with the emotion of the volume. People feel manipulated, and this is contrary to your desire during the opening statement.
These three best practices used by professional public speakers for all audiences in all situations and on all topics will serve you well as you ask the jury to pay attention to you and stay with you from the opening statement and throughout the trial .
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