A TRIAL CONSULTANT WALKS INTO A COURTROOM—AND YOU WON’T BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!
If you have spent any amount of time on social media sites like Facebook, you have inevitably seen headlines similar to that of this blog. Other favorites include: “Your Jaw Will Drop at What Happened Next!” and “Tears Will Roll Down Your Face When You See What She Does!” The theory behind these headlines is that creating suspense will result in a strong desire to see what is next, and lead to the coveted “click” that follows.
Suspense building is an effective strategy no matter what the communication context. The use of suspense as a literary device harkens all the way back to Aristotle’s Poetics, and is considered a basic technique in modern literary theory. There is a reason mystery novels sell so well: audiences love the challenge of trying to solve the mystery and the thrill of wondering what will happen next.
Suspense is not only an important technique for writers, but also for public speakers. Building a little suspense can prevent an audience from tuning out from your presentation, since they are curious to learn what happens next. My colleague Jonathan Lytle recently explained how curiosity promotes attention and increases learning in the audience (and is pleasurable as well!).
In a legal context, building suspense is a strategy that can be used in opening statements to keep a jury attentive and wanting more. Jurors will often find the subject area of trial dry and a bit inaccessible. As a result, they may start to lose interest or tune out during openings. Using a rhetorical strategy like building suspense can help counter these tendencies and keep the jury focused on your message.
So what are a few techniques to build suspense in opening? [DRAMATIC PAUSE] Allow me to share a few:
The strategic uses of pauses. Waiting a beat to reveal information can help build anticipation in the jury and heighten their interest. As Mark Twain once said, “The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” An important note is not to overuse this technique, as it can get annoying and lose its effectiveness if used excessively.
Withholding key information. Instead of revealing everything the jury needs to know about an issue all at once, save some information for later in the opening. The audience’s curiosity will build as they await this information that is critical to understanding an issue.
Show, don’t tell. Audiences love to discover the answer to a mystery through their own logic and reasoning, so give them that opportunity. Provide a lot of facts to an audience and let them draw the conclusion. This is also a useful strategy when the conclusion you would like them to draw is critical of someone in a manner the jury might find offensive if stated overtly, such as calling someone a “bad parent” when they have already suffered the loss of a child.
The slow unveiling of the final answer. One of the key issues that often arises during trial is that of motive. Why did a business choose to ignore the signs its product was defective? Why did an employee choose to deceive his employer? Author Lee Child (writer of the Jack Reacher novels) suggests that in any story “the basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.” Letting the answer to the question of motive slowly unspool throughout opening can keep the jury entranced and tuned in to your message.
There are differing opinions about whether it is a useful strategy to wait until after opening to allow certain key components of your case to be revealed to the jury, such as during the examination of a witness in your case. I am not a proponent of such an approach, as I believe that leaves unanswered questions in the jury’s mind for too long. By the time the fact is revealed, it might be days or weeks later (if you are on the defense), and the jury might have already made up its mind about certain issues. It could also cause jurors to conclude that you don’t have the answer, and lead to them to make it up for themselves. Suspense is a useful tool, but leaving unknowns in your story for too long can have negative consequences. I suggest unveiling (or previewing, as the judge will remind you) all of your critical facts in opening, but doing it in a measured way that keeps the audience curious throughout your speech.
It is time to end the gripping suspense: what happened when the trial consultant walked into the courtroom? Like most of the stories on social media, I’m afraid the outcome is a bit of a letdown. There were no violent outbursts or life-saving actions taken by the esteemed consultant. The trial consultant simply watched an attorney present an attention-grabbing opening statement, using the strategy of suspense building, that wowed the jury and led to a verdict for their side. Though this might not be the kind of drama that results in a viral video, it will create a happy client, which is reward enough for most attorneys.