ALL THINGS JURY: Witness likeability equals credibility

CHARLESTON -- One subject that I haven't addressed to any significant degree in this column is the credibility of witnesses at trial and during depositions.

This issue, of course, has great importance for the trial team. More importantly, it is an area that can be addressed by assisting witnesses through communications training.

First, let's review the basics. The initial focus of communication training for witnesses should be to make sure the witness understands the underlying keys to credibility. In order to achieve credibility with an audience, the communicator must gain the audiences' trust and confidence. The keys to trust and confidence for communications include:

* Speak confidently. You can't gain the confidence of a jury unless you are confident in how, and what, you say.

* Know the subject matter. It is vitally important to have a thorough understanding of the subject matter in order to speak confidently regarding case issues.

* Preparation is essential. A large part of knowing the subject matter thoroughly and having the ability to speak confidently about it is preparation. The trial team must work closely with witnesses to prepare them to tell their story AND to anticipate areas of their testimony which may be challenged.

* Consistency is key. Both the facts that witnesses relate and the manner in which they deliver them must be consistent. While everyone has a different speaking style, the astute trial consultant will focus on helping the witness maintain consistency in their delivery as opposed to trying to fundamentally change his/her communication style.

* Body language counts. Many, many witnesses have never had any communications training or speaking experience. They often need to be directed to focus on the basics such as making eye contact, posture, good diction, etc.

Now, for the dirty little secret of witness credibility: The more trust and confidence that jurors have in a witness the less important the content of their testimony. Huh?

Time and again I am astonished by mock jury panels that ignore facts, issues, evidence, and documents during their deliberations. As I have pointed out in this column many times, we are emotional beings. Likeability counts. If you can get someone to like you, you have a much better opportunity for them to believe what you communicate to them.

A major challenge in my practice is to convince litigators to focus on the credibility of witnesses in this manner. After all, litigators feel the need to focus on the CONTENT of a witness' testimony. Rightly so.

As I wrote earlier, knowing the subject matter is essential to gaining credibility with an audience. However, my position on the subject is to BALANCE the focus on content with a focus on the likeability factor.

Therefore, witness training should focus on the witness' communication style at least as much as the content of their communications.

Samples is president of RRS Research, a communications and opinion research agency headquartered in Charleston. He has extensive crises communications, counseling and litigation research experience and has worked for clients throughout the nation during the last 25 years. He can be contacted at rsamples@rrsresearch.com.

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