Testifying in court is nothing like what you see from law dramas on TV. There is rarely a gotcha type moment. Wall lawyers love to hit home runs with the results of the testimony they take, the reality is that most of it is really just helping paint a picture. The best case usually is a single, not a homer.
Despite this, having to testify in court can cause people anxiety. That makes sense. Perception is often your reality. It’s not until after testimony is over that most people realize it isn’t that big of a deal.
While of course being honest is incredibly important, there is one tip I give to everyone that I think is the most important thing to think about when testifying. That tip is only answer the question that is asked.
Let’s say you are suing someone for a car accident that happened on your way home from work and the case goes to trial. Your lawyer asks you where you were heading to when you were rear-ended at a stop light.
The person who has been properly prepped by their lawyer to only answer the question asked would say:
I was heading home.
That’s a simple, straight forward, honest answer that starts to paint a picture and will lead the attorney in to the next question they want to ask so the jury can understand what happened that day.
The person who wasn’t prepped or is too anxious or thinks they have to “help” their case with their testimony might say something like:
I had just left work. I remember it because I was so mad at George for saying I didn’t finish my work when I did. It really pissed me off and it was all I could think about while I was driving home and then boom out of nowhere a car slams in to the back of me and my neck started to hurt. I realized I wouldn’t get home in time.
That’s a really problematic answer. First off it makes you seem like a crazy person which will be a turnoff to the jury. Second it’s very confusing. Third it creates a possible defense because you admit you were distracted. And most of all it didn’t answer the question that was asked. That doesn’t mean you will lose your case, but it certainly won’t help your case.
Jurors want a clear picture. Jurors and Judges don’t want to be there longer than they need to be. That rambling answer would be followed up with a question like, “We’ll get to that, but all I want to know is where were you headed that day?” That’s a bad way to start testimony.
I see this a lot when people call us for legal advice. I get that they are nervous and we may be the first attorney they’ve spoken to. But we’ll ask one question and get five answers. It makes it hard to help someone.
So the best you can, if you have to testify, answer only the question asked. Don’t anticipate what they want to hear or say what you think would sound good. Any experienced attorney will tell you this before trial and even do a run through of questions, but unfortunately too many fail to take this simple step.