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The Rambling Witness

Question: How do you prepare a talkative witness who rambles instead of answering questions directly? If you don’t have a sock handy, use a stopwatch or an hourglass. Literally.

Your rambling witness can be trained to answer concisely when watching the clock. This will teach the talkative witness to shrink responses under pressure and stress, stress that will also occur in the deposition or courtroom. Continue this practice throughout the witness prep session. It will take time for the witness to become skilled and comfortable with short responses.

Some answers can be done in 5 seconds or less, some 10. Few answers need more than 20 seconds. Count out 20 seconds. A lot can be said in this timeframe, and research has shown that jurors and fact finders can lose interest in longer answers.

Even when a witness has much to say, like an expert, observers pay more attention when the attorney frequently interjects a question or comment, even if it is something simple like “Please tell us more” or “Can you elaborate?” This also ensures that the attorney maintains control of the testimony, and avoids the “runaway witness” syndrome! In addition, this keeps the interest of jurors and others because, out of curiosity, they want to know the answers to the questions.

In addition, in witness preparation, we ask witnesses to answer a question in one or two sentences, a short paragraph at the most. Have witnesses visualize this in terms of size. They can then better translate this to their responses.

Another approach is to ask witnesses to visualize the headlines and first few sentences of a newspaper article. This is where most readers focus. If important points are made in the middle of the article, they are often missed. Teach your witnesses to make their points quickly, up front, like newspaper articles.

When asked a “yes” or “no” question, teach talkative witnesses to answer with an affirmative or negative response first if they can before providing an explanation. Otherwise, the explanation can not only be perceived as an excuse or evasive, but observers can lose interest by the time the question is actually answered. Of course, if neither a “yes” or “no” response is correct, the witness needs to politely state this before providing an explanation.

Lastly, videotape the witness in both a rambling state and a concise state so the witness can view the difference. If all else fails, show a videotape of the rambling witness to office staff or a focus group, get their feedback, and share this with the loquacious witness. This often provides the needed motivation for change!

Jan Mills Spaeth, Ph.D.

Since 1980, Dr. Spaeth has worked nationally as a trial consultant on mock trials, focus groups, witness preparation, jury selection and case strategy. She has written extensively on legal issues, and published a series of DVDs on witness preparation with the American Bar Association. She is a member of the American Society of Trial Consultants, the American Bar Association, and the American Psychological Association. She can be reached at 866-505-4131, www.adjuryresearch.com, and jms@adjuryresearch.com.

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About the Author: Since 1980, Dr. Spaeth has worked nationally as a trial consultant on mock trials, focus groups, witness preparation, jury selection and case strategy. She has written extensively on legal issues, and published a series of DVDs on witness preparation with the American Bar Association. She is a member of the American Society of Trial Consultants, the American Bar Association, and the American Psychological Association. She can be reached at 866-505-4131, www.adjuryresearch.com, and jms@adjuryresearch.com.

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