To process the extensive, complex, and often unfamiliar information heard in trial, jurors tend to rely on heuristics (mental shortcuts) to reduce their cognitive load and draw conclusions more quickly. Not all of these heuristics are problematic for your case, but some can certainly lead to hasty assumptions and false judgments.
And unfortunately, assessing witness credibility is one area in which jurors – and judges and arbitrators, too – engage such heuristics. For instance, the same witness behaviors attributed to nervousness are often perceived by an audience as evasive and dishonest. These realities make it even more important that a witness’ message and presentation style are adapted to connect with the audience’s sensibilities. That means preparing your witnesses so their testimony can best influence these pivotal decision makers.
But you have a lot of options when it comes to witness prep – so how do you know who will result in the best value and the most persuasive witnesses? To help in your search for the ideal consultant to assist with witness preparation, we offer six key criteria to keep in mind:
Best Qualities of a Witness Preparation Coach
- Education. While many lawyers and jury consultants have experience preparing witnesses to testify, few have the educational background to know and apply the principles and practices rooted in communication and learning theory. When selecting a consultant to work with your witnesses, the ideal candidate has a doctorate in communication or a closely related field, with direct research experience in persuasion, rhetoric, and communication studies. This research experience enables the consultant to apply the proven methods for enhancing witness credibility and persuasion.
- Experience. Each witness is unique, so it takes decades of experience to recognize the communication stumbling blocks that hinder poor witnesses and prevent even good witnesses from reaching their full potential. Anyone can help a bad witness improve somewhat, but it takes a skilled and experienced consultant to make a problematic witness great. Be sure that your consultant has experience working with a variety of witnesses (including both fact and expert) and has sufficient years of experience to identify and correct the various behaviors – both verbal and non-verbal – that might affect how the witness is perceived.
- Shareable Knowledge. We believe seasoned communication consultants should share their knowledge with their audience, be it attorneys, colleagues, or witnesses. Presenting their knowledge and having a body of published work are paramount to demonstrating that the consultants not only possess the applicable expertise, but can also teach effectively.
- Approachable Demeanor. Though education and experience are expected, the most effective consultants are those who can connect with witnesses and put them at ease, enabling them to absorb and implement the information provided during the sessions. The importance of humility, sincerity, and humor cannot be overstated. Ultimately, your consultant should have a sympathetic and approachable demeanor; from early in the sessions, the witness should feel like he or she is confiding in a friend and mentor – not being judged or lectured by an outside expert. For that reason, be sure your consultant places emphasis on the witness’ comfort and is not someone who has the potential to intimidate.
- A Proven Process. A witness’ problematic behavior has been ingrained for years and is therefore resistant to change. Thus, while every witness’ issues are different, a witness prep consultant should have a process that is proven to help witnesses enhance both verbal and non-verbal communication. Being able to explain that process and how it effectuates change within a witness is a key component of successful witness communication training.
- References. Even the most seasoned consultant should offer a repertoire of references from in-house counsel, attorneys, and witnesses (if appropriate) who can speak to the consultant’s ability to assimilate the case issues and who can evaluate the consultant’s process and demeanor.
Take the time to interview your candidates and ask some tough questions. If a witness prep consultant can demonstrate these qualities, you can feel much more comfortable that your witnesses will ultimately perform confidently and persuasively on the stand.
By: Merrie Jo Pitera, Ph.D. – CEO & Christina Marinakis, J.D., Psy.D. – Director, Jury Research