I was working with a young group of lawyers this week and we were struggling with crafting persuasive opening statements. Given their level of experience these advocates are quite accomplished. I suggested that each of them prepare, on their own, an opening statement based on a criminal case that I provided. I then had them present their openings one after the other.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Opening Statements: Finding the Essence....
It was amazing to see the degree of similarity between their presentations. Each told a story in a relatively chronological fashion. They focused on both the strengths and the weaknesses of their cases and ended with the standard plea to the jury that you could hear by stepping into any local courtroom.
They were procedurally correct, cohesive and quite presentable. Unfortunately they did not sing. I literally found myself unable to remember any specifics within 10 minutes of having heard them. Why?
I think it is because they did not put a question in my mind that I would spend the rest of the trial trying to answer; the openings simply lay in the courtroom – like a day old buffet that no one has the will to put away. I was not energized to pay attention to their case in chief, in fact, I was somewhat concerned about how they might present it intelligibly - and this was from some good lawyers.
So, I have these advocates who are capable, accomplished and competent. How do I make them something more? There's the rub....
All of us who teach advocacy have struggled with the competent attorney who has done the okay thing, the safe thing - the predictable thing. What to do? There are a lot of different ways to potentially proceed, but the one I chose was to focus them on the core of the reason behind their case and how the opening statement reflected that. I wanted them to identify the essence of their case so we could see if they had told the story that would bring us to that point.
I wanted to know the core of what they were trying to prove, why it was important and how they were going to do it.
The answer to these three questions leads an advocate to the path they must take during the opening statement to capture the jury’s attention. When searching for these answers force the advocates to answer the questions succinctly.
They should be able to tell you their goal in 3 sentences or less. When they reduce it to that degree they can begin to get their arms around it conceptually. This almost invariably leads them to the hook that captures the essence of the story. Sometimes that hook arises from what happened, sometimes it comes from why it matters, and occasionally it can be found in how it is presented. But find it you must, there can be no try here - only do.
Using these three simple questions focuses the advocate, but the only way to make certain that they get it is to then have them craft and present an opening based upon the answers they have just rediscovered.
Of course before you do that you need to model the behavior for them so they see how to do it, but that is fodder for another post.
All the best,