Adding Impact to Opening Statements

Every single second of every single moment of his opening statement was filled with the sound of his voice which when you think back upon it you have to admit you were kind of amazed because there wasn’t a single comma or period or pause I mean did this guy even need to breathe it didn’t seem like it because he just kept going and going and going without regard to oxygen or jury expectations or even the court reporter it was almost as if he was afraid that the thought of pausing would let someone else start talking and that would simply be unacceptable for him so rather than pausing for even a moment and letting you think about what he was saying he just kept talking and talking and…

Unfortunately, many trial lawyers’ opening statements and closing arguments seem to feel like this.

Pause for a second!They either have such a poor understanding of the pause’s importance of pausing or don’t know how to effectively pause that you’re tempted to say, “Whoa, buddy! Stop! Take a breath before you pass out!” One of the most powerful tools in your opening statement and closing argument toolbox is the well-placed pause. Often, that brief moment of silence following a profound thought can be more important that the words themselves.

Imagine reading a newspaper without a single comma, period, or paragraph indentation – just word after word after word. How far could you read before losing your train of thought?

An opening statement or closing argument without any pauses feels exactly the same way to your jurors.

Do you want the jury to remember your message? To understand it? Do you want them to take the message into the jury deliberation room, and incorporate it into their verdict? If so, you need to give them a chance to stop and reflect upon what you’re saying. Here are three reasons why you need to effectively pause during your opening statements and closing arguments:

A pause lets us think. Many trial lawyers ask rhetorical questions during closing argument, but then move immediately to their next sentence without pausing. This robs the jury of their chance to think about how that question should shape their verdict or how it might apply to their deliberations. Pausing for a moment lets the audience answer the question and wrap their minds around your message.

A pause helps us feel. During opening statements, you often describe emotional scenes of great pain, fear, or loss. The best trial lawyers describe these moments with such clarity that the jurors feel exactly what happened to the clients and, on their own initiative, place themselves in the clients’ shoes. (Notice that I said, “on their own” — please don’t think I’m encouraging you to make any arguments that violate the Golden Rule!) After describing an emotional scene, give the jurors a moment of silence so that they can absorb its impact and “feel” the same experience.

A pause helps us absorb ideas. Your message travels at the speed of sound. Even in the largest of courtrooms, it travels from your mouth to the jurors’ ears almost instantaneously. But often, it takes a few extra seconds for your message to travel the last few inches from the jurors’ ears to their brains. Pause for a moment, and you’ll give your message enough time to complete its journey.

There are several opportunities in every opening statement and closing argument where you might consider pausing:

  • After you’ve said something important
  • After you’ve asked the jurors a rhetorical question
  • When you want the jurors to think
  • When you’ve asked the jurors to remember a moment in
    their past or envision a common experience
  • When you hit an emotional moment
  • As a transition between points

Look through the outline of your opening statement or closing argument to find moments where your jurors need to mentally “breathe.” Notate your outline or make a mental note, so that you purposely pause at the appropriate moment.

Even when they purposely pause during their presentations, most trial lawyers underestimate the amount of time that they’ve paused. What seems like an eternity of silence before the jury may, in fact, last only a second or two. Here are three tips for holding your pauses for maximum impact:

Count silently. “One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi…” and then resume.

Look around. Make eye contact with at least three different members of the jury before continuing.

Get uncomfortable. Pause for one second longer than feels comfortable. The pause won’t be nearly as long as you think it is. You’ll feel uncomfortable, but your jurors won’t.

Effective trial lawyers know how to pause at the right moment and hold their pauses long enough to let jurors think, feel or respond appropriately. When you master the skill of pausing in your openings and closings, you’ll enhance the impact of emotional moments in your case and will help your jurors absorb the important issues in your case. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but before long, those pauses will become a natural part of your repertoire, and an essential element of your winning arguments.

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5 thoughts on “Adding Impact to Opening Statements

  1. Great article. I think people always forget but they shouldn’t. It is good to remind them. For my, I will try during my next trial. I hope it’ll work…

  2. Great points. Many trial attorneys forget the critical importance of the opening and that when you start your opening, the theater has begun. The jury is watching and listening to everything. The attitude and air of confidence you display is critical, and so are the very crucial pauses. A pause is like a well placed period in a conversation. You are placing your emphasis where you, as the attorney want it to be. You can choicefully place it or clumsily ignore it. A jury expects you to be at your best and they expect to see the best. The confidence they place in the trial attorney at the outset (or the lack of it) immediately transfers to the attorney’s client. Placing the pause where you want it is your subtle way of placing the emphasis where you want it. It can mean the difference between a bland opening statement and, you are so right, an opening statement that is nothing short of brilliant opening argument in the guise of a statement. After 30 years of trials I can tell you that Trial Attorneys, especially younger ones, would do well to learn the lesson you teach here.

  3. Great information, as always. For civilians acting IPP, do you have articles for outlining an opening statement ? (I am a mother of a minor girl who was assaulted by a man and I have pursued a civil case against him, we are awaiting our trial date.)

  4. As a prosecutor in a murder case, I took silence as far as I could. The defendant was accused of strangling the victim to death with an electrical cord. The medical examiner opined that it would have taken at least 4 – 5 minutes of strangulation to cause death. In my closing argument, I had a life-sized dummy seated before the jury. As I argued to the jury, I stood behind the dummy and pantomimed the strangulation. I stood silent for 4 minutes. Guilty. The jurors remembered and remarked on it to me after.

  5. Great article. That silence always seems to last a whole minute and feels awkward. Have you written on the issue of grabbing jurors attention in opening and keeping it?