One of the more entertaining talks at the American Society of Trial Consultants meeting this month in Seattle was given by a Harvard Business School professor, Michael Norton. He showed that a likeable witness can persuade people simply by smiling confidently and talking eloquently about a topic, regardless of the substance of a message.
Michael gave examples of how politicians skillfully move from how questions to why answers. When asked how they will solve a problem, skilled dodgers often say something like “First let me tell you why issue X is so important to the American people…” After several minutes of nodding and smiling, most people will forget the question and assume it was answered.
Another tactic: when someone begins an answer with “I’m glad you asked me that…” it feels like they will answer the question so listeners are less likely to notice a subtle dodge, such as when the speaker generalizes their response then refocuses on their preferred topic. As long as the topic of the answer has about 10% overlap with the topic of the question, people are generally satisfied with an answer if it is confidently and fluently spoken, without too many technical qualifiers.
There are several things you can do when you’re faced with a smooth-talking expert who sounds like they are answering your questions but is actually shifting the topic to their talking points:
1. You can write your question down on a board and remain standing next to it while the witness changes topics. Remind jurors of the question so they are aware that the witness is dodging it and you will win this contest.
2. You can also say something like “That is a fantastic answer. Can you try to answer my question instead of yours?”
3. Separate the likeable person from their statements by reading a transcript of their answers so jurors focus on the testimony alone. Most of our communication is nonverbal so messages stripped of a likeable person’s body language, voice tone, facial expressions and charisma sound strikingly less believable.
4. Remain calm and collected. People dislike tension — and the troublemaker who’s causing it, which makes them less credible and trustworthy. We base decisions on our emotional reactions to people. Research shows that we tend to believe people who seem confident and make eye contact, no matter what they have to say. Furthermore, jurors are unlikely to understand that testimony damages one side unless a witness, attorney or others “admit” this by emotionally reacting. If you show frustration with a witness because they are not answering your questions, jurors may misinterpret your frustration as acknowledging defeat on a point.