Are You Looking Jurors Squarely in the Eyes?

The fewer obstructions between you and your jurors, the more persuasive you will be. Yet many trial lawyers purposely place an obstacle between themselves and their jurors. That obstacle? Their notes.

Here’s the slippery slope your notes create: The more notes you bring with you to the lectern, the more you will depend upon them. The more you depend on your notes, the less eye contact you will have with your jurors. The less eye contact you have with the jurors, the less persuasive you will be.

Look at the jurors, not at your notepadRather than bring copious notes to the lectern, try to bring no more than a one page outline with you. Write out the main bullet points of your arguments, rather than word-for-word arguments, and you’ll force yourself to spend more time talking with your jury. Your goal is to use an outline, not a script. It’s okay to read quotations, it’s okay to read snippets of testimony, but please, don’t read your argument!

Here are a few tips you can use to minimize the amount of notes you bring to the lectern:

Use visual aids instead of an outline. If you use posters or computer images to help the jury follow your closing argument, you can embed your notes directly into your presentation. Let’s say you have three posters for closing argument, one for each of the three elements you need to prove. You can use the posters to remind you what point you should argue next.

Add secret messages on your flipchart. If you are using a flipchart, you can write notes to yourself on the flipchart. If you write the notes in pencil, your jurors will never see your notes. You can quickly glance at your handwritten note while explaining the flipchart to the jury, and they’ll never know you’re reading from your notes.

Use Presentation Mode in PowerPoint. In presentation mode, your laptop projects images onto two different monitors: the projection screen and your laptop monitor. The jury only sees the images projected on the big screen. You, however, see a completely different image on your laptop screen. So you can either see what is coming up next which could be some amazing 3D visual elements (click here for examples) to wow your audience. Or on that screen, you can type in whatever reminders you need, so you appear to be presenting without the benefit of notes.

PowerPoint slide exampleEmbed secret images into your PowerPoint slides. You can also add secret to your PowerPoint slides. In the bottom left hand corner of your slide, create a text box and type a few bullet points. Use a simple font like Arial, and change the font size to 8 points. At that size, most jurors won’t even see the text. Their eyes will be focused on your larger text, and won’t look down at your hidden message.

Use bullet points. Rather than use an entire script of notes, condense your arguments to single bullet points. Try to use fewer than 7 words to describe each of your argument points. With only a few words written for each point, you’ll be forced to take your eyes off the paper and look at your jurors.

No matter which technique you use, endeavor to become less dependent upon your notes. Eliminate the barriers between you and your jurors, and you’ll make more frequent eye contact with your jurors. The more eye contact you make with them, the more persuasive you’ll be.

Monkeys in Business Suits

“You’re not even listening to me!”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time I hear that phrase, either.  And candidly, no, I wasn’t listening to her.  But there’s a pretty good reason why I wasn’t listening…

I wasn’t listening to her because of the monkeys.

Let me explain.  Behind her head and directly in my line of sight was a big screen TV showing an ad for a job search website.  The ad shows a young guy in an office surrounded by monkeys.  The monkeys are dressed in business suits and they’re seated around a conference table, conducting a business meeting.

I love monkeys.

Just once in my life I want to dress a chimpanzee in a business suit, bring him to court, and seat him next to me at counsel table for the entire trial.  (If I can train him to hold a sign that says “Tell Us What Happened Next,” he could even perform a direct examination or two.)  Monkeys in business suits are hilarious.  Probably the only thing funnier than monkeys in business suits are monkeys in spacesuits.  It doesn’t matter how bad your day is, when you see a monkey in a suit, you start laughing.  Monkeys in suits make the world a better place.

So anyway, that’s why I wasn’t listening to her.  I could see the monkeys on the TV, and my mind was immediately distracted.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to listen to her, and it wasn’t that I meant to ignore her.  It’s just impossible for anyone to compete with the visual image of monkeys in business suits.  When I see a monkey in a business suit, I’m compelled to watch.

If you’re not careful, the same compulsion can harm your presentations.

When you present to an audience, you want them to focus on your message.  Most of the time, your message comes from the words you say and how you say them.  As we improve our presentation skills, however, we’ve started adding more visual imagery to our presentations.  We now show jurors poster-size photos in opening statements, use overhead projectors to zoom in on important portions of documents during testimony, and make dramatic use of PowerPoint during closing argument.

These advances can dramatically improve your presentations.  However, you want to make sure that your visual aids are helping the jurors focus on your message, rather than distracting them from it.

Make sure your visual aid isn’t becoming a monkey in a suit.  Don’t let strong visual aids distract the jury from your message.  The only time they should see your visual aids is when the images emphasize the particular presentation point that you’re making.  If your visual aid emphasizes [A], you don’t want the jury focusing on that image while you’re discussing [B], because they’ll ignore the point you’re trying to make.  Here are three quick tips to prevent visual aids from hijacking the jury’s attention:

1. Don’t show the image to the jury until you’re ready. Once the jurors see your image, their eyes will be irresistibly drawn towards it.  Stack your posters out of the jury’s sight or cover the projector lens until you’re ready to discuss that point.

2. Don’t compete with your images. When you first display the image, give the jurors time to read it to themselves.  If you talk while they’re reading it, they will ignore you.  Read it quietly to yourself twice before you resume speaking, and that should give them enough time to digest the message.

3. Hide the image when you’re done. When you want to direct the jury’s focus back towards you or towards your witness, remove the image from their sightline.  If you’re using PowerPoint, hit the “B” key to turn the screen black (hitting “B” again will return you to your image).  If you’re using a physical prop, completely remove the image from their sightline before moving on to your next subject.

Most of us can only focus on one thing at a time.  Before you start your next presentation, determine when you want the jurors to focus on what you’re saying and when you want them to focus on what you’re showing.  With a little advance planning, you’ll prevent your visual aids from competing with your verbal messages.

And if your visual aid involves monkeys in business suits?  Just forget it — no one can compete with that!

What Impression Does Your Table Make?

Your courtroom presentation includes your desktop!

Courtroom tableCourthouses vary from county to county, and courtrooms vary from courthouse to courthouse.  But for the most part, the tables inside those courtrooms are pretty consistent.  Sometimes they have modesty panels, sometimes they don’t, sometimes they have electrical or internet access ports, sometimes they don’t, but regardless of where you try cases, you and your opponent will usually end up sitting behind identical 96″ x 30″ x 30″ tables.

The question you need to ask yourself is, “What impression does my table make on the jury?”

Before the trial begins, both tables will look exactly the same.  But once trial commences, your table and your opponent’s table will start looking dramatically different.  In my courtroom career, I’ve witnessed thousands of different table scenarios.  Some of the tables have been clean and neat, while others have been a complete disaster.  Typically, the table represented the personality of the attorneys sitting behind it, and was also a pretty fair representation of how neat and organized their cases were.  For example, the table with dozens of documents, books, and loose leaf papers strewn about:

Desk with lots of books and papers scattered

They had 4 different theories of the case and were asking the judge to believe all 4 of them.  Compare that to the table with a single legal pad in the middle:

Desk with single legal pad

They had a streamlined view of their case, stipulated to everything that didn’t matter, and focused on their primary issue.

Keeping in mind Albert Einstein’s thoughts (“If a cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”), here are a few guidelines for you to consider when organizing your counsel table:

1. Don’t remind the jurors of something they can’t have. Coffee?  Water?  Soda?  if your jurors aren’t allowed to have those items with them in the jury box, don’t have it at your table.  When you have a nice tall, cool glass of refreshing water at your table, but your jurors don’t, every time you reach for a glass they’ll be thinking about how thirsty they are.  And if they’re thinking about that, they’re not thinking about your case.

2. Don’t let them see exhibits that haven’t been admitted into evidence. It’s direct examination, and your opponent’s witness is testifying about the dimensions of the accident scene.  You’ve got a photo of the accident scene which contradicts the witness’s testimony, but it hasn’t been admitted into evidence.  During your opponent’s direct examination, you might be tempted to place the photo on your desk to remind you about questions you want to ask during cross-examination, but make sure you don’t get careless and leave the document on the desk within view of your jurors.  You may think the jurors aren’t peeking at the items on your table, but they are.  Until your exhibits have been admitted into evidence, take extra precautions to ensure those items are kept from the jury’s view.

3. Don’t let anything block your view of the jurors. Some attorneys bring printers with them to court.  Laptops and LCD screens are routinely a part of the landscape.  Sometimes we’re even tempted to place our briefcases or casefiles on the table for easy access during trial.  But the trouble with these items it that they can block your view of the jurors (and block your jury’s view of you).  Before trial begins, take a walking tour of the courtroom and sit in the jury box to ensure that you can see over the items on your desk, then take a clue from the 18 wheel truck drivers: If you can’t see them, they can’t see you!  Move the items out of view to ensure an unobstructed view of the jury, so you can keep an eye on the jury and calibrate your case to their needs.