A Misconception about Storytelling at Trial

Trial lawyers can be great storytellers. Think of Scott Turow and John Grisham. World-renowned storytellers with reputations as excellent trial lawyers. Just how much, though, do those storytelling skills transfer to the courtroom? How much of their success in the courtroom can be attributed to their ability to tell a story?

Some legal commentators and professors are quick to share their opinion that the difference between great trial lawyers and weak ones is the ability to "tell a story" to the jury. If you tell a great story, the theory goes, the jury will be enthralled and will be more likely to decide in favor of your client. If you tell a poor story, you will lose the jury's interest and, consequently, its support.

It is an excellent theory in the sense that it certainly appears logical: If a jury is listening to what you have to say, it is more likely to agree with you; if it is not listening, it has nothing to agree with. However, this simple theory is weakened more than a bit when it runs head-on into a number of studies that have been conducted on a different, but related, issue: How much do juries actually retain of what they hear?

For litigators who spend hours polishing their opening statements and closing arguments, and fretting over the details of witness examinations, it can be discouraging to learn how little of what is presented to jurors orally is retained by them. Over the years, several studies have been conducted, and most seem to conclude that jurors retain as little as 10% to 20% of the content of that which is presented to them orally.[1] That is not a typographical error, and it bears repeating — they retain as little as 10% to 20%. What that means is that the overwhelming majority of that great "story" that a trial lawyer carefully and enthusiastically presents is ultimately lost on the jury. Days, weeks and even months of listening to the judge, lawyers and witnesses talk, and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk can have the effect of white noise on jurors. They experience the phenomenon of talking, but do not hear the actual words.

That critical point you made 30 minutes into your opening statement? Lost.

The crucial admission you obtained from the opposing party on the second day of his testimony, just before the lunch break? Lost.

The artful manner in which you tied together Fact A and Fact B in the second hour of your closing argument, establishing that Fact C was simply not possible? Lost.

The 62nd jury instruction, the one with the critical language that you fought over tooth and nail? Lost.

In one ear and, eventually, out the other.

The fact that spoken words can be lost in the courtroom is not meant as a criticism of jurors. Their job is an enormously difficult and taxing one, one that challenges them to listen to and recall hours upon hours of speaking at the very time when we know that what we ask of them runs contrary to human nature. We are not designed to sit in a poorly lit courtroom and listen to day after day of testimony, and to retain all, or even most, of what we hear.

This is not to say that there is no hope. At the same time that studies have concluded that jurors retain a very small percentage of what is presented to them orally, they also indicate that jurors may retain as much as 65% to 80% of that which is presented to them visually or through a combination of oral and visual components.[2] Again, that is not a typographical error — they retain as much as 65% to 80% if a visual component is employed.

The difference in retention that visual elements can make is clearly a staggering one.

Present everything orally, and jurors will likely retain 10% to 20%.

Add a visual component, and they may retain as much as 65% to 80%.

One need not be blessed with great intellect to reach the conclusion that appears inescapable: In many, if not most, cases, adding a visual component through a demonstrative exhibit can be the key to having the jury receive, understand and remember the essential points of your case. That does not mean that a trial lawyer's storytelling skills are worthless. Demonstrative exhibits are support, not substitution, for a well-presented and well-argued case. Combining a trial lawyer's storytelling skills with the effective use of demonstrative exhibits can be the difference between winning and losing your case.

That would appear to be especially true for defense counsel, who have to present their opening statements after the jury has already sat through plaintiff's opening statement, who have to cross-examine plaintiff's witnesses after the jury has already had to sit through the direct examination, and who have to present their case after the jury has already spent days, weeks, or months sitting through the plaintiff's case. Defendants' counsel, it seems, are always talking to the jury after they have already been tired out by plaintiff's counsel. Demonstrative exhibits could be the key to getting juries to sit back up and pay attention.

The Jury's Role at Trial

The jury's role at trial is a deceptively simple one: To receive evidence, then apply the law to that evidence. Of course, what sounds relatively straightforward is really a much more complex process. In order to do their jobs effectively - - and the word "effectively" should be emphasized - - the jurors must do each of the following:

1. Jurors must remain awake and alert. Do not underestimate how difficult it is for an individual to sit still for hours at a time, in a stuffy courtroom, listening to people talk in (frequently) monotone voices using legal expressions that (frequently) have no meaning whatsoever to a layperson. It is not unusual for jurors to doze off. And it goes without saying that a juror who is sleeping is a juror who is not receiving the evidence that is being presented.

2. Jurors must pay attention to what is being presented to them. Tired or bored, jurors will daydream or doodle or count the ceiling tiles. It goes without saying that critical testimony is meaningless if it comes at a time when jurors are not listening.

3. Jurors must understand what is being presented to them. Simply, if the jurors do not understand the evidence, they cannot make an informed decision based on that evidence. Technical language must be explained in terms they can comprehend. A doctor's testimony about a patient's myocardial infarction means nothing to a juror who does not know what "myocardial" or "infarction" mean.

4. Jurors must be able to determine the importance, or lack of importance, of the evidence being presented to them. Not all evidence has the same value. A witness's testimony about the spelling of his last name is not as critical as his testimony about his whereabouts when a harassing comment was allegedly made. Jurors must sift through the evidence and determine what is important and what is not.

5. Jurors must be able to recall the evidence that is important. Bombarded with evidence, jurors can easily forget the information they identified as important, particularly in a long trial. After several weeks, jurors may have difficulty remembering witnesses' names, let alone their testimony.

6. Jurors must understand the laws they are to apply. Attorneys argue vehemently over the language of jury instructions, often forgetting that the instructions will provide little help to the jury if the jury does not understand them. How often do you think a jury makes a decision based on whether an action is the "approximate cause" of some event, rather than the "proximate" cause? How many jurors know what the word "pervasive" means?

7. Jurors must be able to articulate to the other jurors how they feel about the merits of the case - - and why. Of course, the jurors' role only starts in the jury box. It continues into the jury room. And, once there, the jurors must be able to tell each other, in words they can all understand, how they feel about merits of the case — and why. A juror who cannot articulate his or her opinion, or support it with references to evidence, is not going to be effective in persuading other jurors. In fact, he or she may not even try to persuade others.

8. Jurors must be invested enough in the case to care about its outcome. If jurors do not care about the case, they would seem unlikely to want to speak out in the jury room about their feelings about the case. They may be inclined to just go along with the majority just so they can all go home. Of course, that could work to your advantage. Just as easily, it could work against you and your client. No attorney wants a juror who agrees with his or her position in the lawsuit, but does not care enough to maintain that opinion in the jury room.

Use of Demonstrative Exhibits at Trial

It is easy to complain about jurors. Fully half the lawyers in any case end up complaining about the jurors. What is more difficult is realizing that jurors are being asked to do something new and unusual for most, and to take that fact to strive to make the jurors effective - - to keep them awake and paying attention, to help them understand the evidence, and to make them care. This is particularly true for defense counsel in an employment case. Where jurors are not focused on the evidence, do not understand it, or do not care about the outcome of the case, they would seem to be more likely to reach a verdict based on other factors such as sympathy or fairness, rather than on the evidence. And in employment cases which often involve terminations or alleged inappropriate conduct, the plaintiff is much more likely to garner sympathy votes in the jury room than the defendant.

Each of the eight criteria set forth above for an effective juror should be considered goals of the trial lawyer. The use of demonstrative exhibits can assist in helping jurors to fulfill each of these eight criteria so that they will reach a decision based upon the evidence rather than on sympathy or vague notions of fairness. Whether through the use of enlargements of key documents, timelines, graphs, text insets or some other device, demonstrative exhibits can be helpful in stimulating the jurors and keeping them focused on the evidence. They can summarize key points. They can remind the jurors of the key testimony and help explain otherwise complex information in a meaningful way. They can help them understand and retain the facts of the case, while, of course, persuading them. In short, demonstrative exhibits can help attorneys to create good jurors.

Use of Demonstratives in Arbitrations and Mediations

It is not uncommon for lawyers to articulate their belief that while demonstrative exhibits may be helpful in a jury trial, they are an unnecessary expense in arbitration or mediation. After all, in arbitrations and mediations, the evidence will be received by persons with some amount of specialized training who, not incidentally, are being well-paid to perform their roles and have an incentive to do their jobs well. (Unlike jurors who often hope to never be called for jury duty again, arbitrators and mediators want to do their jobs well precisely so they will be called upon again.)

While it may technically be true that arbitrators and mediators may not need demonstrative exhibits, such exhibits may nevertheless be enormously helpful in arbitrations and mediations. Anything that can be done to simplify the arbitrator or mediator's task, within reason, is worth considering. Demonstrative exhibits can help clarify and summarize information for arbitrators or mediators, helping to focus them on critical issues and saving invaluable time in their analysis of the case. A simple chart showing the number of warnings the plaintiff received in comparison to her colleagues, or a timeline showing the long gaps between allegedly inappropriate workplace conduct, can save arbitrators and mediators considerable time that they might otherwise have to spend pouring through voluminous documents, while reminding them of your key points.

Misuse of Demonstrative Exhibits

The mere use of demonstrative exhibits alone would seem unlikely to turn a sure-fire loser of a case into a victory. As mentioned above, such exhibits are support for a well-presented, well-argued case, not a substitute.

At the same time, not all demonstrative exhibits are helpful - - and some could be counterproductive. Demonstrative exhibits that may appear meaningful to the attorneys involved in the case may not have the desired impact upon a jury, arbitrator or mediator if they use confusing language or are difficult to read. The same is so if a demonstrative exhibit includes too much information or unnecessary information, or if too many demonstratives are used. Simply, there can be a point of diminishing returns. The more information that is contained in a demonstrative exhibit and the more demonstratives that are used, the less likely a jury, arbitrator or mediator would seem to focus on the most critical information.

Of course, a demonstrative that includes "facts" not based upon admissible evidence is not likely to be permitted by a court, and is likely to raise the ire of an arbitrator or mediator. Many trial attorneys and their clients have spent a great deal of time and money preparing demonstrative exhibits that they were ultimately unable to use because the evidence upon which they were based was not admitted. This can be avoided by preparing alternate versions of a demonstrative exhibit, or by not finalizing the exhibit until all of the underlying evidence has been admitted.

There is another concern about demonstrative exhibits of which defendants in employment lawsuits in particular should be mindful. On the one hand, jurors appear to enjoy the use of technology. On the other hand, the use of a great deal of expensive demonstrative exhibits or technology could send two unwanted messages to a jury: It can convey to the jury that the defendant is troubled by the case and, as a result, has spent a great deal on these materials; and the use of expensive materials and technology can also remind the jury that the defendant has "deep pockets" and can afford to pay the plaintiff something, regardless of the merits of the case. A defense lawyer should weigh these concerns in determining what types of demonstrative exhibits to use in a particular case.

To avoid misuse of demonstrative exhibits, a trial lawyer may want to ask the following eight questions:

1. Is the exhibit unclear or confusing?

2. Is there too much information in the exhibit?

3. Is there unnecessary or unimportant information in the exhibit?

4. Is the exhibit too cluttered?

5. Are there words or phrases used that jurors may not understand?

6. Is the exhibit deceptive or otherwise vulnerable to attack by opposing counsel?

7. Do the demonstrative exhibits send an unintended message to the jury about the party's financial status?

8. Is there anything in the exhibit that is not supported by admissible evidence?

If your answer to any of these questions is "Yes," you may want to go back to the drawing board. Demonstrative exhibits should help you tell a "story" to the jury, not detract from that story.

[1] See, e.g., John Selbak, The Prejudicial Effects of Computer—Generated Animation in the Courtroom, BERKELEY TECHNOLOGY LAW JOURNAL, Fall 1994 338, 352 (citation omitted).

[2] Id. See also Mary Quinn Cooper, Practitioner's Guide — The Use of Demonstrative Exhibits at Trial, TULSA LAW JOURNAL 1999, 567, 568 (footnotes omitted).

This documents has been provided for informational purposes only and is not intended and should not be construed to constitute legal advice. Please consult your attorneys in connection with any specific questions or issues that may impose additional obligations on you and your company under any applicable local, state or federal laws.



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