Opening Statements for Attorneys (Part II)

Last week on the blog we shared a snippet on Opening Statements from Faith Pincus’ Being Heard: Presentation Skills for Attorneys, written by Karen Kimmey of Farella Braun & Martel LLP in San Francisco. Karen is a veteran speaker who continuously receives high ratings from our attendees.

The following is Part II of a the three part discussion on Opening Statements. Part I was published last week and you can find it here. Keep an eye for Part III next week!

Part II:

Jurors often are quick to form opinions regarding the competence and credibility of counsel.  Aside from voir dire (which is severely limited in many courts), opening statement is counsel’s first chance to make an impression on the jury.  Jurors appreciate counsel who are efficient and respectful of their time, well prepared, credible and easy to understand.

How does a lawyer create such an impression with a jury?  Aside from being well prepared and knowing the evidence, a lawyer’s delivery style and non-verbal behaviors will have a substantial impact.  Every lawyer must determine the delivery style that is most true to himself or herself.  A lawyer who is naturally reserved will look false if he or she puts on a flashy demeanor before the jury.  A lawyer must work to maintain the jury’s interest, but too much drama or too many gimmicks in an opening are likely to fall flat, and potentially draw an objection.  Speak clearly and with conviction – aim for the style of a trusted educator.

While notes are helpful to ensure that all important points are covered, counsel should never merely read from notes.  Practice the opening statement until it can be presented with minimal or no reliance on notes.   In particular, the first few minutes of the opening statement should be completely smooth and delivered without any reference to notes, if at all possible.   Reduced reliance on notes will also allow counsel to make eye contact with jurors and to evaluate how they are reacting.

Research in advance what the judge’s expectations are regarding where counsel can stand during opening, and whether it is acceptable to step away from the podium and move around the courtroom.  If counsel does choose to walk during the opening, the movement should be purposeful and not distracting.  Counsel should be aware of any non-verbal tics or habits that might be distracting to jurors or might communicate shiftiness or nervousness.  Counsel should be very familiar with the rules of the courtroom and facile with all use of visual aids, technology and documents to avoid any fumbling or distractions.

Almost all opening statements of any complexity will generally benefit from some type of visual aids.  Counsel should think carefully about the types of graphics that will be most helpful.  As mentioned above, timelines and bullet point outlines of the topics to be covered can be very useful in helping a jury orient itself to the facts in the opening statement.  Other good options for opening statements include: (1) documents that identify the key players and witnesses by name, and perhaps with a photo; (2) graphics that explain processes or concepts necessary to understand the case; or (3) photographs or actual examples of important evidence (such as a photograph of an accident scene or a sample of a product alleged to infringe a party’s patent).  Beware, however, of using too many visual aids or relying heavily on a power point presentation.  Graphics can lose their power when overdone, and counsel can lose his or her chance to connect with jurors if the jurors are busy looking at a screen exclusively, rather than looking at counsel. Most courts require that the parties confer in advance about graphics to be used during opening statement in order to avoid any objections during the presentation.

Four Classic Ways to Organize Your Speech

Simply put, there are many ways to organize thoughts, ideas and themes.  Pick an organizational pattern that is right for your presentation.  Here are a few choices:

  • Sequential/chronological: Does your presentation move through a series of points that can be organized in a sequential or chronological pattern?  If so, do not attempt to jump around and explain your points non-sequentially or your audience can easily get lost.  If the points you wish to make or the story you have to relate occurred one at a time, stick to the chronology.  Your audience will follow right along with you.  It’s a lot like that two-page instruction manual that comes with your new electronic device and always goes through each step in sequential order.  Some topics just require this form of organization to be understood: What happened first? What happened second? Then what happened?  And sometimes you can start with the end and work your way back, but you definitely can’t skip around if a topic really needs a sequential presentation.
  • Categorical/topical:  Your main points may be most easily presented by category or topic.  Clearly state what you’re going to be covering during the course of the seminar or speech, give the audience a means to remember it and then proceed exactly as you described.  (For heaven’s sake don’t tell them you’re going to talk about Earth, Wind and Fire and then present it as Fire, Wind and Earth.  Stick to the categories you establish from the get-go.)
  • Compare and contrast: When making comparisons, be sure the comparisons are valid.  Apples are not oranges.  Don’t make the mistake of mixing up the two.  If you want to compare raising a child to raising a domestic animal, you run the risk of alienating the parents in the room.  (Or the pet owners, for that matter.)  But if you hit upon a comparison that works, by all means use it.  The same rule applies to contrasts.  Baseball is similar to football in that both are sports, both use a ball and both employ a points system.  In that way, you can compare the two.  But there are also many ways you can contrast them and examine the differences.  (George Carlin did this famously and to great effect.)  Using comparisons and contrasting examples is a wonderful way to hammer home an important point.
  • Problem — solution:  This is a simple way to both organize and present a speech cleanly and with little digression:  Set up a problem and then offer a solution (or several solutions) to that problem.  Be sure that the problem is one common to most members of the audience (the less obscure you can be the better) and try to offer novel or clever solutions rather than merely obvious ones.  You don’t want to talk down to them.  Within the problem — solution framework, you might, for example, discuss the causes and impacts of problems (such as gambling compulsions or addictions), review past or outmoded solutions that have failed in the past and, finally, provide a new or time-tested solution that is most likely to work.

Opening Statements for Attorneys

Recently Faith invited one of our speakers, Karen Kimmey of Farella Braun & Martel LLP in San Francisco, to write a chapter on Opening Statements for Faith Pincus’ book,Being Heard: Presentation Skills for Attorneys . Karen has spoken at our programs for many years, including at our Superior Court Boot Camp almost every year since 2011.

Karen’s expertise and ability to teach is what led Faith to invite her to write this topic for her book. We’re reprinting it in portions on the blog, to give you a taste of what is in the book!

The following is Part I of a three part discussion about Opening Statements, written by Karen:

Part I:

Opening Statements

The opening statement is the attorney’s first opportunity to tell the jury what the case is about and what the attorney expects the testimony and evidence will show.  It is also counsel’s first real opportunity to establish his or her themes and build rapport with the jury.  In order for an opening statement to be effective, it is critical that the attorney has carefully prepared, planned, developed, and practiced the opening statement.  The attorney should discuss his or her theory of the case.  The statement should include all of the uncontested facts as well as the client’s version of the disputed facts.  It should be non-argumentative, logical, simple to comprehend, and believable.  In short, the opening statement is storytelling.

Opening Statement Theme

Every opening statement should have a theme.  The theme shared in the opening statement should be revisited throughout the case, and should be reinforced by the evidence.  As a result, it is critical that the attorney is well prepared and has an intimate understanding of the facts, deposition testimony, witnesses, evidence, strengths, weaknesses, and jury instructions.  This intimate understanding of the complete case will help the attorney develop the theme that will assist the jury in remembering and understanding the case from the client’s perspective.

Ideally, the theme will be one that resonates with jurors and is consistent with their existing views on how people act and what motivates behavior.  The theme should be relatable and not legalistic.  For example, a theme like  “this is a case about a defendant who made a promise, but then regretted it and is now trying to get out of the deal he made” is more effective than “this is a case about whether two parties formed a valid contract.”  Even the most complex or technical case should tell a human story.

Opening Statement Strategy

In order to deliver a case winning opening statement, the attorney should be efficient, non-argumentative, trustworthy, persuasive and strategic. As far as efficiency, jurors are often anxious to hear from the witnesses and receive evidence.  In complex cases, the jurors may have been sitting around for days listening to the lawyers dig into their personal history and potential biases.  Candidly, by the time the jury in sworn, they are tired of hearing from the attorneys and prefer to see and hear something else.  As such, it is critical for the attorney to make good use of his or her time by providing the jury with a concise story of what occurred and what the evidence will show.   Counsel should aim to present the opening statement in as little time as he or she realistically can.  Rarely is it advisable to use all of the time permitted by the court for opening.

The opening statement is not argument.  An argumentative opening statement will likely draw a sustained objection from opposing counsel, frustrate the presiding judge, and cause the attorney to become distracted or flustered.  It is also important that the attorney does not oversell the evidence or testimony.  If the attorney is unable to deliver on the oversold evidence or testimony, opposing counsel will remind the jury at closing.  It is best to under-sell and over-deliver.  Of course, the opening statement is also not merely a neutral recitation of facts – it should persuade through a clear and strategic recitation of the facts, not through argumentative rhetoric.

Counsel should anticipate the weaknesses in the client’s case and, if the weakness is admissible, volunteer the information to the jury.  It is important that they jury believes the attorney is credible and honest.  Attempting to hide the weaknesses or the damaging facts may cause the jury to think that the attorney and the client are attempting to pull a fast one.

Before presenting an opening statement to the jury, counsel should review the opening with colleagues and others with little or no familiarity with the case.  If the case is not sufficiently large to justify a formal mock trial or retention of a jury consultant, family members, friends and law firm staff can be excellent sounding boards!  Obtain feedback on the proposed theme.  Push for honest reactions; explore the listeners’ questions and evaluate the effectiveness of the approach.

Creating an Outline

Creating an Outline

Creating an outline can help you in several ways, but perhaps the most important is this: A well-crafted outline is all you need at the lectern to deliver a winning presentation. A truly well organized outline will allow you to sail through your speech without a hitch.

There are several wonderful software tools you can use to create outlines (Scrivenor, Evernote and MindMap spring to mind), but they are not essential. If you can put together an effective outline without digital assistance, do it. But don’t feel bad if you need the help. (Full confession: I’ve used these tools myself.)

The trick to creating an effective outline is to develop one that has just the exact amount of information you need – no more, no less. Put too much verbiage in your outline and you risk writing something you have to read verbatim, right off the page (as we discussed back here, reading a speech verbatim has a lot of drawbacks). Put too little on the page and you’re likely to forget some important point or other that you meant to make.

Be economical, but not stingy. Write in full sentences when you have to, bullet points when you don’t. Remember the acronym PEP: Point Explanation/Example Point.

Don’t Forget to Practice, Practice, Practice!

And, of course, rehearse. This cannot be emphasized enough. If you do not practice out loud, with your outline by your side, you will run into enormous trouble when the time comes to actually deliver your presentation. You will hem and haw, pause awkwardly or get completely lost. There is only one way to avoid these traps: PRACTICE.

Keeping up suspense … in a good way

We’re taught not to keep an audience hanging, but … well, let me tell you a story.

I once attended a presentation where the speaker used a very unusual technique in a presentation, but being the speak-geek that I am, I stashed it away and have put it to good use myself a number of times. Now I pass it along so more can give it a go — the secret is suspense.

It looked like the speaker had his work cut out for him when it was time for him to begin. This particular audience was full of members of a local chapter of the National Association of Speakers – a professional public speaker association – and we were all busy chatting with each other and catching up when his presentation began. But instead of calling for attention or announcing that he was going to begin his presentation, he began telling a very moving story. He told it well, using pauses, repetition and vocal variety to grab and hold our attention and create suspense.

We were hooked. The story was compelling, and he told it well. We weren’t thinking about listening — we were just listening. When he got to the climax of the story, he had us all on the edge of our chairs waiting to hear what happened next. Just as it seemed he was going to get to the big finish … he surprised us all by moving directly into his main presentation instead of finishing the story.


The verbal cliffhanger

You could hear a collective groan from the audience – we wanted to know how the story ended! But he had us hook, line and sinker. For the next 45 minutes or so we were captivated by his performance and when his speech was finally drawing to a close, he returned to his story and finished it for us. It was an emotional, powerful story and you could look around the room and see the impact it had on the audience. Even more importantly, the story he told had a direct correlation to his message, which made the emotional punch of the presentation that much more effective.

So write the word ‘suspense’ and toss it into your mental toolbox. It could come in very handy. But there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind about getting the most out of this technique:

  1. Have a good, engaging story to tell that builds to a climax and leaves the audience desperately wanting to hear the end.
  2. Be a good story teller! Work on your vocals, your non-verbal cues, your presence and your body movement to help you tell the story well and with impact. (As I have said before, a speaker needs to look for opportunities to hone the skill of storytelling.)
  3. Make sure the story has some moral — some real-world application that relates to the purpose of your speech and helps you reinforce your message.

Once you’ve got the story, the skill and the point, you’ve won the war before the battle has even begun.