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April 18, 2016 Articles

Technically Speaking: Sharing Complex Information with Juries

An audience-centered approach.

By Janell Walther

Winston Churchill famously said, "I'm just preparing my impromptu remarks." The most talented speakers know the importance of both practice and preparation. Indeed, public speaking professionals often echo the mandate of my grade school piano teacher: "Practice, practice, practice." For presenting technical topics, this preparation is especially crucial. Often presenters will focus on the detailed content of their presentation, rather than on how it will be expressed. However, without careful thought put into the expression of complex subjects, audiences are likely to be lost in jargon or specialized reasoning.

Experts play an important role in shaping jury decisions—and probably increasingly so, as many cases now involve questions requiring technical knowledge. Finding the right expert to provide insight into and clarification of complex and technical topics is thus vital. The presentation of technical information must be accessible and organized—and paired with the necessary nuance to share a sophisticated narrative with a jury. When communication techniques with proven cognitive impacts are employed, jury members will feel more engaged and retain more information. These techniques include telling a story, clarifying the message, and considering the audience to enhance jury understanding.

Tell a Story
Research shows that the human brain produces reason through narrative, similar to the idea of "putting yourself in someone else's shoes." In her book Poetic Justice (1995), Martha Nussbaum presented judges with novels (for example, Charles Dickens's Hard Times) that demonstrated multiple understandings of an incident. In her study, Nussbaum showed that judge's decisions were formed through rational processes working with a literary imagination.

In their 1992 study "Explaining the Evidence: Test of the Story Model for Juror Decision Making," 62 J. Personality & Soc. Psych. 189–206 (Feb. 1992), Nancy Pennington and Reid Hastie found that the role of stories in jury deliberations was central. The story model included evidence evaluation through story construction (by the juror), decision alternative representation (the verdict category establishment), and story classification (the verdict category best fitting the story based on evidence). Pennington and Hastie found that as individual jurors were asked to create stories regarding the evidence presented, the juror's stories were related to the juror's verdict decision.

Framing topics in a narrative format is proven to increase the listener's cognition and knowledge retention, as well as promote an informed discussion and decision making. A story can be told by framing a technical topic with a beginning, middle, and end. The story should not include complex analogies and metaphors; instead, presenters should discuss a technical topic in a way that is accessible and allows listeners to put themselves in someone else's shoes. Simple metaphors can be clarifying, so if a presenter intends to use one, coaching the presenter to consider how it will clarify the information for the individual juror will help to prevent confusion.

For technical topics in courtrooms, a story technique can be used by reframing the technical topic in a personal way. Subject-matter experts are often asked to provide a narrative style of testimony, with attorney questions following for clarification. Preparation can focus on the narrative testimony to make it comprehensible to jurors. Lee Gutkind, the noted "Godfather of Creative Nonfiction," conducted a study in which scientific scholars worked together with creative writers in an effort to expand the publication and accessibility of scientific information in more mainstream outlets. When completed this way, 50 percent of articles were published, compared with, for example, a 91 percent publication rejection rate in the Journal of Nature and a 68 percent rejection rate in the Journal of Physical Geography. These rules of narrative, according to Gutkind, are research, real-world consideration, and review. The narrative approach is increasingly used in the courtroom to help lawyers make cases.

Make the Key Message Stick
Susan Danish, a consultant and executive director in New York City, regularly thinks about how to share information efficiently and quickly. She defines a key message as "a short, memorable statement that informs, engages, and/or motivates others." These key messages help to focus the attention, provide a common language, answer a question, or assert a viewpoint.

To create a key message, consider the purpose, audience, and message. A key message consists of a key point supported by one to three facts, statistics, or examples. When a key message is created and supported, a jury or audience will have a key item to take away from a presentation. This key message can be repeated and made clear in a strong conclusion. A good way to prepare a message is to consider how jury members will discuss the topic over lunch.

Emergency responders often face this same challenge under the auspices of "risk communication." Individuals, during and after a disaster, may feel fear, uncertainty, and anxiety, which can impede their understanding. At the same time, emergency professionals need to send out clear messages about a particular situation. For example, a public information officer may need to share information about dealing with population anxiety about Ebola. Similarly, jurors may be busy thinking about their lives beyond jury duty, so presenters should make the information easy for them to understand.

Engage the Audience
In a courtroom, there may be a captive audience, but it is critical to consider how individuals will process information. In a 2004 study, researchers examined the role of psychological engagement in educational settings. Johnmarshall Reeve, Hyungshim Jang, Dan Carrell, Soohyun Jeon & Jon Barch, "Enhancing Students' Engagement by Increasing Teachers' Autonomy Support," 28 Motivation & Emotion, 147–69 (June 2004). They define engagement as a behavioral intensity and emotional quality of a person's involvement. This engagement considers the person's motivation, emotion, and efforts toward a task. In the courtroom, keeping jurors engaged will help them retain complex information.

An engaged audience member will consider the key discussion points, how to apply them, and what questions he or she may have. Using key messages and using a narrative approach to the technical topic will help keep and audience engaged. Similarly, communicative processes assist in audience understanding.

Managing word choice. Presenters should use simple, everyday language to explain issues, being careful to avoid acronyms. Often presenters will use metaphors and analogies to explain complex topics, but the best solution is to use simple language. An exemplar here is web comic author and physicist Randall Munroe of, who works to present complex ideas in simple ways. He recognized that scientific topics often seem inaccessible to outsiders, keeping them away from science entirely. He recently published a book, Thing Explainer, which works to explain complex ideas using the 1,000 most common words in the English language. While this may seem pedantic, the concept of using common language is important to making complex topics accessible and easier to retain. Simple syntax and vocabulary—rather than long, subordinated sentences and technical jargon—appeal to listeners' aural perception and understanding.

Using a positive valence. Some research suggests that negative language can impair cognitive capability. Using the word "but" rather than "and" as a conjunction in a sentence causes a pause in the cognitive process for the listener. Robert Bacal, a customer service expert, discusses how using negative language can impede customer processes and response. He shows that using a positive valence in presentations and conversations can improve the trustworthiness and respectability of the speaker. Technical speakers can be coached to avoid negative words when preparing to share their expertise, which will help with both juror trust and cognition.

Organizing a presentation. A strong introduction and conclusion are part of a clear organizational structure that should also include explicit transitions, internal summaries, and the repetition of key messages. Because the listening audience is at a speaker's mercy for organizing content, "signpost" language such as "first," "next," or "finally" reinforces transitions and marks progress through the presentation, as it does in a paper, paragraph, or conversation. Signpost language can link the details to the overarching message and acknowledges where the response is in relation to where it is going. Questions can be helpful to direct and guide movement through a presentation, and using signpost language in a presentation or response can help jurors follow along when complex information is shared.

Along with content organization, it is important to prepare for delivery. Speakers must be aware of the pace of their responses and presentations in order to pay attention to the jurors' need to understand. Subject-matter experts, because they have such in-depth knowledge of an issue, often speak quickly and at length. By creating a well-organized content and by practicing, speakers can slow down and use quick and clear statements to describe a complex subject, answer a question, or share technical details.

Broadly, it is necessary to employ an audience-centered approach, simplify technical topics, and stick to key messages. Focusing on how a juror will interpret technical and complex information is key to understanding how a jury will deliberate on an issue. Focusing on communicative techniques to stimulate cognition will help frame expert testimony in a way that jurors will remember even beyond the courtroom.

Keywords: litigation, expert witnesses, technical subject, jargon, key message, delivery, expertise, communication

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

Copyright © 2016, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).