There’s no doubt about your expertise. You have impeccable academic credentials and the knowledge to become a sought-after expert witness. But being an effective expert depends on more than expertise—you’ll also need sharp communication skills to maintain your expert witness credibility in the courtroom.
Courtrooms are special arenas with a distinct set of communication demands. As an expert, your primary audience is the jury—known as the “trier-of-fact.” In this coliseum, the opposing counsel’s job is to dismantle your credibility so the jury won’t believe your testimony. When it comes to ensuring a successful case outcome, how you come across to the jury is everything.
Non-verbal communication plays a huge role in how you are perceived in court. Here, we cover exactly what communication skills you need to survive the courtroom and sway the jury.
Pay Attention to Your Non-Verbal Communication
Let’s start with all the subtle communication that goes on regardless of the knowledge you impart to the court. As you speak, the jury, the judge, and the opposition will take cues from your non-verbal communication.
When in court, you want your facial expressions and posture to convey that you are confident in the expert opinions you are sharing with the jury. Be aware of your non-verbal communications that could convey a negative message. A lack of eye contact with jurors, for example, can create a sense of shiftiness or lack of honesty. As you speak, periodically look at each juror for a few seconds. Your eyes should be relaxed as you look them in the eye. Avoid penetrating or intense looks that can make jurors feel uncomfortable or intimidated.
Dress and Personal Appearance
Dress plays a bigger role in how you come across in court than you might think. Casual dress can convey a lack or respect for the jury and judge. Unconsciously, this may cause fact finders to tune out your testimony. This may seem archaic in the age of highly competent engineering PhDs wearing sweats and sandals to work. However, a suit or at least a jacket, is a safe dress code for the courtroom. In legal arenas, this still tends to bolster authority and credibility. Rumpled clothing is to be avoided, along with loud colors, which can be distracting.
Courtrooms are Not Lecture Halls
Sometimes expert witnesses go into autopilot mode and start lecturing the jury as if they were university students in class. This is not an effective communication style for the courtroom.
As an expert, your job is to break down a complex subject to help the jury understand the case issues. Academic or specialized jargon from your field will go over most juror’s heads, and you’ll lose them. Take the time to prepare your testimony with the audience in mind. Use simple terms most people can understand when you testify. Remember you are not talking to colleagues or graduate students. These are lay people, so you’ll need to start with the basics. Define terms and break complex concepts into smaller parts so they are easier to digest.
You also want to stay away from classroom habits, like looking off into the distance as you contemplate a complex problem. Turn towards the jury as you speak with them create a connection and establish rapport. Project authenticity, even friendliness, in your demeanor. Your tone should be moderate—loud enough to be well-heard but certainly not shouting. Remember a jury will see all the little facial expressions you make since they are sitting only a few feet from you.
Keep Your Composure
Make no mistake about it, the courtroom is a battlefield. Depending on the case, millions of dollars or even prison time may be on the line. Be prepared for the opposing counsel to be aggressive in trying to undermine you and your testimony. When you think about it, that’s their job. They are trying to win the case for their client, and your testimony might stand in their way.
Your job is to keep your composure and answer their questions, truthfully, calmly, and confidently. There are some things you can do to manage the heat of the moment during cross examination.
If a question from the opposition throws you for a second simply ask, “could you repeat the question please?” This can give you time to take a breath and formulate your answer. Remember too that it’s perfectly fine to say that you believe the question is outside your area of expertise.
The lawyer who asked you to testify may also register legal objections to a question from the opposition. For example, the lawyer may appeal to the judge that opposing counsel is leading you to answer a certain way. They may also say that opposing counsel is badgering you as a witness. Subsequently, the judge may ask that the question be rephrased. All of this gives you time to keep your composure and only answer questions within your area of expertise.
No matter what happens, don’t let the opposing counsel get under your skin to cause you to respond emotionally or incorrectly. Take the time you need to answer accurately. Don’t be swayed by possible attempts to make you feel uneasy or doubt yourself. As Kipling said, “if you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs” … you will be a fine expert witness.