June 1, 2009

Experts must be effective teachers

In my years as a legal affairs reporter, I developed a lasting respect for jurors and their decision-making process. People who take the time and energy to perform their civic duty are earnest in wanting to do the right thing. Increasingly, they are sophisticated and educated consumers who are innately curious about the topics at hand. Frequently, however, they are turned off by expert witnesses, who may resemble one of the following:
  1. Ivory Tower: arrogant and condescending
  2. Swordsman: combative, defensive, hostile, nitpicky
  3. Waffler: uncertain and inconsistent
  4. Automaton: stiff, robotic, confusing, unintelligible
  5. Salesman: slick and overzealous
"Under all of these negative terms," advises trial consultant Richard Gabriel, "lies one fundamental problem: the lawyer and the witness did not have the intention of truly communicating with today’s jury."

The solution? Understand jurors’ innate skepticism and boredom, and become an effective teacher, "the translator for the jury in their journey into a foreign land." Writing in the current issue of The Jury Expert, Gabriel says the expert witness must be both understandable and relevant. How?

  • Good teachers break down complex topics into understandable language, without being condescending.
  • Good teachers anticipate questions. They "make sure they answer those questions, no matter how basic or obvious they seem."
  • Good teachers understand that students have different learning styles, and they use "a mixture of tools to convey their information."
  • Good teachers display passion. "Aside from a purely professional or academic interest, experts who resonate with jurors seem to have a personal connection that drives them to a particular level of excellence in their chosen field."
  • Good teachers narrate stories. They "know that even the driest subjects can be made interesting by highlighting the conflict, the characters, the action, or the environment within the story."
The full article, "Redefining Credibility: Turning Expert Witnesses into Teachers," which includes a lot of practical tips, is online HERE. Author Richard Gabriel is president of Decision Analysis trial consulting firm and co-author of Jury Selection: Strategy and Science.

Photo credit: Xin Le 88's portrait of her tutor (Creative Commons license)

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