Everyone and his brother will have a viewpoint on who did the best job during any political debate. However, we, as trial lawyers, should also view them as learning opportunities for lessons about communications. Let me start with a local political debate between candidates for governor. The present Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna is running against a Democratic former member of congress, Jay Inslee. They held one of several debates last night. It should be noted that I am a strong supporter of the Democratic candidate, but my observations are about communication and not content.
Appearances and impression trump logic at a subconscious level in the absence of strong values or opinions. To start with Mr. McKenna is a thin man compared to Mr. Inslee’s large athletic build. To compensate McKenna should sit or stand very erect and with body language projecting poise. However, the most noticable difference was McKenna’s demeanor and manner of responding to Inslee. He projected total annoyance and dislike of Inslee by his facial expression, body language and manner of speaking. He was too often excited and out of control while responding. It was similar to a lawyer in court who is really annoyed with his or her opponent and is semi out of control. In response, Inslee remained totally calm, poised and acted self assured. The comparison was striking because the illusion was that one speaker was excited, angry and out of control whereas the other was in total control with a self confidence. It makes no difference that McKenna’s talking points might have been right on target about Inslee or his position. It is perception that counts if you haven’t already made up your mind.
That brings us to last night’s presidential debate when the body snatchers were driven out of President Ombama’s body and the real Obama took over. Here are some of the points I thought were important to note.
Asking for help Have you ever asked the judge to instruct the witness to answer the question or asked the judge to instruct your opponent to refrain from doing something? If you have made that mistake, nine out of ten times the judge won’t do it because (a) they want to show they are running the court, not you or (b) they want to avoid showing favoritism. So, you lose and look silly in the process. But, worse, the jury sees you as weak and not able to deal with problems on your own. You have to ask “teacher” for help. When Obama asked the moderator to step in that’s what happened. He lost more often than not and looked unpresidential to boot.
Interruptions What happens during an argument before the judge when you interrupt for attention? Almost every time you are reprimanded by the judge to wait and not interrupt. Worse, you look like a child in the school yard arguing with another child. Interruptions, except to object, are annoying to listeners and a bad practice. Yet both candidates did it and when they did they looked like school children arguing with one another.
Respect You learn quickly, if your mother handn’t already taught you good manners, that you must treat everyone involved in the court room with respect and chief on that list is the judge, particularly if you are a man and the judge is a woman. Male alpha lawyers too often offend every woman on the jury and everyone involved in the trial by not treating someone, often a woman opponent, with respect. Too often both candidates did that to the woman moderating the debate. Talking over her, ignoring her request to stop and turning their back on her. It was more offensive when the president of the United States did it because he needed to act presidential at all times. Think about that when you are arguing to a judge or with your opponent.
Self Control Every great trial lawyer I know or know about has at least one characteristic and that is confident, calm self control. They don’t get excited or show out of control anger. They don’t lose self control. In every situation they exhibit calm poise that exudes power and they are in the right. Think Bill Clinton. I thought Romney did a masterful job in that regard. I think Obama did that most of the time as well, but it is an important thing and most difficult thing to learn.
Demeanor How important is body language, expression and appearance. Note the difference between Romney’s erect posture compared to Obama’s often slumped shoulders. Open gestures by both are meaningful rather than hands closed in front or back or arms crossed. A confident smile is different then a insincere smirk. A confident appearance is important no matter how you really feel inside. Most of our communication is non verbal so we need to learn these things.
Other points Simple and short is better than long and thoughtful when it comes to making a point. Sound bites and metaphors work for that reason. Abstract ideas are quickly lost on the listener. Note how good communicators stay on the theme no matter where the conversation or question takes them. Does anyone have any doubt that “jobs” are what Romney cares about? The same is true at trial. Stay on the theme in direct, cross and argument no matter where the examination goes.
There are many other lessons to be learned from the debates, but these struck me as important. By the way, I thought Obama crushed Romney, but I am biased to the core about the campaign.