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July 26, 2016 Articles

Engaging Jurors with Technical Information: Building Trust and Cognition Without Overload

Using small-group strategies can help deliberative groups like juries, who can be easily overwhelmed by process and information.

By Janell Walther

Juries can often struggle to understand and trust complex information, as is typical of groups that deliberate to reach a consensus. Because of this, expert witnesses should keep in mind how such groups come together and understand information. By using the following techniques, expert witnesses can help jury comprehension, memory, and deliberation.  

First, it is important to capture jurors’ attention. Jurors, by definition, are supposed to be a captive audience. However, it often seems difficult to present complex information to jurors in a way that engages them with an idea and increases deliberative thought. Jurors are more likely to remember key points, consider concepts more thoroughly, and use knowledge to support decisions when information is shared in an engaging way. To engage jurors, expert witnesses should focus on sharing information clearly and through narrative. 

Second, expert witnesses and attorneys should consider the importance of how to establish trust in the witness and the information presented. Trust increases when people can discuss an idea and deliberate decisions with each other. The act of deliberation helps people to understand complex ideas, and when there is understanding, trust increases.  

Sometimes information can work counter to how it is intended. In particular, when people hear or see too much information, they start to rank and filter this information based on what appeals to them or is easiest to remember. Legal scholar and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein argued that because there are so many options for information, individuals often focus their attention on people and topics they already like (C. Sunstein, “The Daily Me,” in 3–22 (Princeton Univ. Press 2001). For example, on polarizing issues, like climate change, presentation of statistics causes individuals to believe even more strongly in their position rather than consider whether the information supports or contradicts their position. 

Understanding how groups interpret ideas and make decisions can shape how witnesses present information. There are three techniques that help engage jurors when presenting complex information: simplicity of language, narrative, and clarity. 

Simplify: The Space Team’s Up Goer Five
Randall Munroe is the author of the popular web comic xkcd. Munroe gained increasing fame for publishing a book called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words (2015). This book used the 1,000 most commonly used English words to explain concept ideas. It all started with his web comic US Space Team’s Up Goer Five, in which Munroe described NASA’s Saturn V rocket technology using simplistic terms.  

While this idea is a fun exercise in language, it also helps to explain concepts to others in a way that does not turn off their ability to navigate complex ideas. When ideas are presented in a way that is easier to understand, audiences are likely to have more trust in expertise and a greater ability to change positions based on new information. However, oversimplification can seem patronizing to an audience. It is important to consider how statements and ideas can be simplified through word choice while conveying a concept that engages the listeners.  

Narrate: Turning the Technical into a Story
Using stories to share ideas helps build trust and cognition because stories make it easier for the listener to relate to the concepts and they improve retention. When concepts are presented in narrative form, listeners show more knowledge increase than when concepts are not presented in this way. Storytelling works so well with jurors and other deliberative groups because a story creates opportunities for jurors to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.  

With technical information, one way to develop a narrative is to walk individuals through the process of understanding a complex concept or analysis. For example, in “How to Tell a Story with Data” (Harvard Business Review, April 24, 2013), Jim Stikeleather suggests that the process of sharing complex ideas through story can involve taking the audience through the exploration and discovery process in a way that allows them to develop their own insights and consider questions while learning . Attorneys can help experts to develop testimony that presents how they came to understand their findings and thus walk the jury through the learning process.  

Clarify: Organizing Testimony to Easy to Understand Models
Finally, remember that the audience cannot follow an oral presentation on paper, so presenters must use language to help the audience remember and move through a speech. Organizing content in traditional ways, like selecting a key claim and three supporting points, is a great place to start. Using signal language, like “next” or “first,” guides the listener through the organization of the presentation. Using bridge statements such as “Now that I’ve detailed this first point, I’ll highlight why that is important…” can prompt listeners to summarize what they have just learned and to be ready for more information. To coach the presenters, ask a mock audience member to outline the presentation while listening to the presentation. This can demonstrate to the speaker what he or she is actually conveying. 

Working to convey complex information for a deliberative group such as a jury can seem a bit daunting. Both too much information and too little information can decrease trust in the expertise of the presenter and the material presented. However, if the presenter strives for cognitive engagement through direct language, narrative, and clear organization, each group member is likely to remember, understand, and feel more open-minded to complex topics.  

Keywords: litigation, expert witnesses, expertise, jury engagement 

Janell Walther is a research specialist at the University of Nebraska Public Policy Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

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