Improving Witness Testimony:

The Lost Art Of Storytelling

May 18, 1996

Every witness is a storyteller, and every jury is an audience.

Court testimony is often dry and boring. Despite that fact, jurors must pay close attention to that testimony because they must make their decision based on what they hear from the witness stand. Court rules prevent witnesses from "spicing up" testimony with irrelevant or inadmissible details, so witnesses are limited in their ability to make testimony more interesting. However, there are several simple techniques which a witness can use to keep the jury's attention.

As children, most of us were told stories by parents and schoolteachers. Some of us were fortunate enough to listen to tales told by skilled storytellers who kept us spellbound, hanging on every word. A good witness can have the same effect on a jury.

Plain, Simple Language

Plain language is an important component of courtroom "storytelling." Police officers are usually taught to write reports in a technical style that is loaded with police jargon. Too often, the terms used in report writing will creep into the officer's testimony. A perfect example is the initial testimony of an officer in a classic "D.U.I. stop":

"While sitting stationary on Smith Road, I observed the subject vehicle heading northbound, weaving erratically. I activated my overhead lights and initiated a traffic stop. I exited my patrol vehicle, and as I approached the subject vehicle, I noticed two occupants. I then asked the driver to exit the vehicle."

Although this type of "copspeak" makes an officer's testimony sound official, it is not as easy for a jury to understand. The same statements can be made in simple, plain language which is familiar to everyone:

"I was stopped by the roadside on Smith Road when I saw a car driving north; it was weaving all over the road. I turned on my overhead lights and pulled up behind the car to get it to stop. When the car stopped, I pulled in behind it and got out of my patrol car. As I was walking up to the driver's door, I saw that there were two people inside. The driver had already rolled down his window, and I asked him to get out of his car."

Vivid Descriptions

An experienced storyteller is also a master of vivid description. It is not enough to simply recite the bare facts and a few simple conclusions; the listeners must be able to visualize an accurate image of what happened. When describing the condition of a crime victim immediately after an offense, police officers will often make a flat statement that "the victim was distraught." Although that statement may be accurate, it does not create the vivid image which could be provided by a detailed description:

"When I entered the house, the victim was sitting on the couch, crying. She was sobbing uncontrollably, and it seemed like she could barely breathe. Every time I asked her what happened, she would try to talk, but nothing would come out, and she would start sobbing again."

Limited Demonstrations

The images created by vivid descriptions can often be enhanced by small, physical demonstrations. Just like the old storyteller who bares his teeth and stretches out his arms to imitate the raging monster, a good witness can use limited body language to enhance verbal descriptions. I once prosecuted a D.U.I. case where an experienced state trooper stated that the defendant "was swaying and staggering all over the place." As he said that, he gyrated erratically in the witness chair, imitating the actions he had seen. While that demonstration did not become a part of the record, it certainly provided a vivid picture to the jury.

Similar demonstrations can be coupled with statements such as "he drew back his fist like he was going to hit me" and "she ducked and put up her hands to avoid being hit." Flamboyant over-acting will probably not be tolerated by the court, but simple and accurate demonstrations will usually be permitted and may not even draw an objection.

Every witness is a storyteller, and every jury is an audience. Remember: the witness who paints the most realistic picture of what happened is the one which the jury is most likely to believe!

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