Communicate & Advocate: Don’t make me wait

Theresa Zagnoli is a founding partner and CEO of Chicago-based litigation consulting firm Zagnoli McEvoy Foley LLC.  From her 25-plus years in the field, she shares the communications insights, advice, tactics and skills that litigators can use to effectively advocate for clients and communicate critical information in the courtroom. Reach Theresa with thoughts or questions at tzagnoli@zmf.com or 312.494.1700.

“We will get to that in a minute.”

It’s a distracting statement to hear in court and a mistake that even the most sophisticated lawyers make.

Telling the jury to wait to for information you have just teased them with is like waving a candy bar in front of a 6 year old while asking him to think about what gift to get Grandma for her birthday. The 6 year old, like your audience, can think of little else but the tantalizing treat.

Don’t be a Tease

Mentioning a topic, and then saying “I explain that a little later,” is maddening to the listener.  Even worse is posing a question to the jury – When did the defendant gain knowledge of the crime? – and again postponing the answer.

The problem with this tease-but-don’t-tell is that it distracts jurors from hearing anything you say after the tease. They’re focused on the answer, the bombshell, the smoking gun, that you’ve introduced. While you’ve moved on, they’re thinking, “If it’s so important, why didn’t she just tell me now?” Or, they’re left to wonder, “What does it mean that I don’t understand what he’s talking about?”

Show and Tell

The jurors are your audience; you need them with you, not struggling to keep up. So, organize your presentation in a way that allows you to pose a teasing question but give the answer in the immediate follow-up.

If, in your remarks, you need to use a legal term that is not generally well-understood, take the time to explain it. If you’re arguing that the defendant showed “gross negligence,” you’ll want to be sure your jurors really know what gross negligence means. You and I know; they may not. Even more importantly, by providing the definition or answer, you either reinforce your listeners’ existing knowledge or clarify information for them. Either way, your jurors will have a greater comfort level and will be able to relax and listen to you.

As a strategy, I’m not a fan of introducing a tease and coming back to it for a big reveal. But, if you decide to follow that strategy, be aware (and fore-warned!) that while you move forward with your presentation, you’ve probably left your audience in the field, trying to find their way out.

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