Monthly Archives: June 2012

Why Only Positive Statements in the Opening Story?

I edit a lot of opening statements. A lot. And one of the most common mistakes I see is inserting negatives into the story structure. For example, stating that the defendant did NOT check the pressure in his tires or the defendant did NOT take the patient’s blood pressure. There are a few reasons why putting negatives in your opening story hurts you:

  1. Time Stops.One of the rules of good storytelling (see David Ball’s book on Damages 3) is that every sentence must move the story forward in time. When you state that a defendant did not do something, you don’t move the story forward. Time stands still. Unconsciously, you lose some ground with your jurors whenever you stray from good storytelling techniques.
  2. The Unconscious Can’t Tell a Positive from a Negative. When you say the doctor did not check the blood pressure, all the unconscious hears is that the doctor checked the blood pressure. You’re working against yourself when you do this.
  3. It’s too Adversarial. As a plaintiff’s attorney, you do not want to be adversarial early on. Jurors do not trust you. To say that a defendant did not do something sounds adversarial even though saying the same thing with positives would sound neutral.

So, what do you do when you have a negative to insert into the story? You need to show by implication what the defendant did not do without saying so. This is laid out in more detail in David Ball’s Damages 3 book.

Example 1: If, for example, you need to show that the defendant did not check the patient’s blood pressure and that is a crucial part of your liability story, then start with a rule stating that “When a patient exhibits X, Y, or Z signs, a doctor or nurse must check the patient’s blood pressure every 2 hours to ensure the safety of the patient.” Then when you get to that point in the story, you say:

“11am. Nurse Judy comes into the room. She checks the patient’s pulse and notes it in the file. She checks the patient’s pupils and notes it in the file. She changes the patient’s wound. She leaves the room.”

Example 2: Let’s take another example. Say you have a case where a car malfunctions due to repairs made at by a mechanic. Orient jurors in the beginning toward the rule the mechanic broke, for example, “a mechanic must make sure to check the X valve whenever they change the oil. Expert Mechanic will tell us that this is important because the car can blow up if the valve is not checked.” Then start your story and when you get to the point where the mechanic skips that step, you say,

“Roger changes the oil. He screws on the cap. He lowers the hoist. He calls the customer to say the car is ready for pickup.” Jurors know by implication that he did not check the valve.

If you have oriented jurors toward the rule ahead of time, they will be on the lookout for the point where it was broken. When you allow jurors to infer the action themselves, they become much more trusting of the conclusions they draw than if you had told them outright.


Filed under Opening Statement, Trial preparation

Confidence is Key

In doing some Voir Dire Coaching sessions with young attorneys and dropping in on trials in my area, I have noticed that many attorneys lack confidence. With tort reform, consultants such as David Ball have come out strongly and suggested not appearing like an attorney – don’t dress in black, don’t be cocky, don’t advocate too early. I second all of that, but I fear that some attorneys are going a bit too far and appearing weak in an attempt to avoid seeming demanding and overly zealous.

There is a difference between appearing confident and appearing cocky. The former is good, the latter is bad. In my Voir Dire Coaching sessions, I recruit some mock jurors and allow attorneys to practice their voir dire while I interrupt and coach them along the way. At the end, I ask the mock jurors for feedback about the attorney: Did he/she seem like a greedy plaintiff’s attorney? Do you trust him/her? What could he/she do better? I have had a few jurors say the attorney didn’t seem confident. One juror stated, “I would follow her [meaning me] into a fire, but I wouldn’t follow you.” That says it all. You need to command the courtroom and be in control. Jurors need to trust you and believe you are competent so they can follow you. If you are following Carl Bettinger’s “Twelve Heroes” book, you know that you need to be their mentor. Mentors are strong, not weak. No one wants to follow someone who is uncertain.

When you conduct voir dire, be strong and confident, but also warm and humble. When you do opening, be clear and concise, but do not argue. When you introduce documents, be sure you know how to do so without stumbling. If you are new to litigation, consider focusing only on being like-able and confident instead of trying to follow David Ball, Carl Bettinger, Rick Friedman, and all the others. It may be too much and if you are overwhelmed, jurors will see it. You need to be their leader – calm, assertive, confident, like-able. Going “off-code” for an attorney, as Ball and Keenan would say, does not mean seeming inept or unsure of yourself. Jurors look to you for guidance. Be sure you can provide it.

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Filed under Trial preparation