“The Truth? You Can’t Handle The Truth!” – Part 2: Practical Tips

So from last time we have in mind some of the theory of what’s going on when a witness is giving evidence.  But knowing the theory is one thing; what about putting some of that into practice? Here are seven practical tips to enhance the process of giving evidence

1. SIT UP STRAIGHT

The importance of non-verbal communication cannot be underestimated.  Whatever the content of what you’re saying it’s the way you’re saying it that gives away most of what you really think.  Slouched shoulders and a witness slumping forward in their chair looks like someone who is beaten by their questioner…but someone who is sat straight, hands calmly on the table (not fiddling) and with head held up is someone who is confident of what they’re saying, even if they’ve been through the wringer with their evidence.

How to best achieve this when seated?  Plant your feet approximately shoulder width apart squarely on the floor and keep them there.  Relax your shoulders back and keep your chin up.  It’ll project confidence and help project your voice.

 

2. TAKE A DEEP BREATH…AND RELAX

When nervous, people tend to speak really very quickly.  This is a twofold problem for witnesses giving evidence, since firstly that speed of delivery will betray your nerves and secondly there’s a limit to the speed at which other human beings can process spoken words.  Imagine back to when you were sitting in a seminar or lecture; I’ll bet that the seminars where you took the most information in were those that the speaker was more slow and purposeful in their delivery than if you were chatting with a friend down the pub. 

So how to control that urge to speed up?  Well that ‘speeding’ urge comes with the rush of blood and heartrate that kicks in when you’re about to speak, especially for the first time.  When you’re settled in at the witness table (see #1 above) take a deep breath in and hold it for a slow count of two then exhale slowly and in a controlled manner.  You’ll find your heartrate starts to drop from the peak it had reached and you should find it easier to speak at your intended delivery rate.

 

3. SPEAK UP LAD!

Many Inquiry venues are now amplified, however you may still find yourself at an Inquiry where there is no such system.  Even where you are amplified it’s important to be aware of and have control over the projection of your voice.  Mumbling shoe-gazing murmurs are fine if you’re the singer in an indie guitar-band but less so if you’re trying to pursuade a tribunal of fact that you are a competent professional with a full grasp of the relevant facts and that the tribunal should attach weight to your interpretations and judgements.

Proper projection of your voice, even where amplified, conveys confidence which will then be positively transferred by your audience to the content and quality of what you’re saying.  It also ties in with speaking at a proper pace and with clarity; it’s hard to speak quickly and unclearly when you’re also seeking to project your voice.

 

4. KEEP YOUR EYES PEELED

This is really about two points.  Firstly eye contact.  You are seeking to pursuade others and to cause them to invest trust in what you’re saying.  There are innumerable studies revealing the western cultural beliefs relating trustworthiness and eye contact.  Failure to make eye contact is often cited as a significant ‘tell’ for when someone is lying or trying to conceal something.  Conversely making eye contact is engaging and pursuasive.  Make sure you make eye contact with both your questioner and your tribunal, since you don’t want the decision-maker (even subconsciously) wondering why you wouldn’t or couldn’t look at person X when you were saying Y.

The second aspect of keeping your eyes peeled is to watch how your tribunal is reacting to what you say.  In its most simplistic form this can be simply watching the Inspector’s pen – if she’s still writing, don’t talk.  Stop.  Draw breath and thought.  Let the Inspector finish writing down your last pearl of knowledge.  Why would you keep talking and make the Inspector feel rushed about the note they’re making?

Conversely if the Inspector is making no note of your evidence then they don’t think it is a material point for them.  So move on – why keep banging on about something that is not persuading anyone?

At a deeper level you should try and be aware of how the tribunal is reacting to what has been said.  This will give you cues and clues as to which parts of your case are working and which are not.  Why focus all of your efforts on pushing at an open door, when there may be other areas of your case that might require more effort or input?

 

5. DON’T MAKE IT UP

What?” you might think, “I don’t need to be told this!”.  Don’t misread this – I’m not simply warning against lying in the course of giving evidence (although to be honest, some witnesses I’ve seen giving evidence should have had that engraved on a plaque and kept permanently in front of them in some Inquiries!).

What I mean is, listen carefully to the question(s) you are asked and do the best you can to answer them.  That includes if you don’t know then say “I don’t know” and if you can’t remember then say “I can’t remember“.  Guessing, or setting off on a meandering answer hoping somehow that you’ll stumble upon something relevant that you remembered a small hint of at the back of your mind is not acceptable and nor is it in any way convincing.  You might finish your answer thinking “Phew!  Managed to get through that!” but we’re all thinking “What on earth was he talking about?“.  Much more convincing for a witness to display the openness about their position and simply confess their shortcomings.  It also means you’re unlikely to do any unintended damage to your own case by saying something inadvertent in the course of any such meanderings…

 

6. DON’T ARGUE

You might not agree with what’s being put to you in questioning.  You might strongly disagree.  But you aren’t going to convince anyone if you lose your cool and start trying to go toe-to-toe with the opposing advocate.

Even more, you aren’t going to get the opposing advocate to suddenly stop and say “you know what, you’re right.  I have no case.  Sorry to have wasted everyone’s time”.  Think about it, which do you find more convincing – a controlled, reasoned, well thought out and considerately delivered argument or an ill-tempered tit-for-tat exchange?

So remember, keep calm and carry on.

 

7. REMEMBER YOU ARE NOT SUPERMAN

You might think it odd that you have to be reminded of this too, but everyone, and I mean everyone, will finish giving evidence and walk away from the witness table thinking “why did I say that?” or “why didn’t I say that?“.  If someone says they’ve never experienced that, they’re lying.

It’s like when you’re sat at home screaming at “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire” on the telly when the numpty in the chair doesn’t know what the capital city of France is.  When you’re not the one in the hotseat it can be blindingly obvious what the answer is or what the next piece of evidence should be.  But when you’re the one who is  put on the spot and your mind goes blank…you know what you wanted to say, that killer point you wanted to make…but it’s gone.  Simply relax and let go.  If it comes to you, great.  If not, don’t beat yourself up about it.  At least you didn’t lose yourself a shed load of cash on national television.

 

Those are some of my practical tips for giving evidence.  Why not post a comment with your top tip(s) or experiences!

Scott

About Scott Stemp
Barrister specialising in planning and criminal law

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