15 TIPS FOR TESTIFYING IN COURT
Some individuals may go their entire lives without having to step foot in a courtroom. For the average individual who may be apprehensive or nervous about having to testify in court, try to relax. Regardless of your reason for appearing to testify in court, you will get through it. To assist you, below are 15 general tips for individuals who may have to testify in court.
Dress Appropriately. Be sure to dress appropriately for your day in court. Appearing in flashy, unkempt, and/or revealing clothing may distract the judge and/or jury during the time you are on the stand and take away the jury’s attention from your testimony. This does not mean you need to dress in a full suit or dress- too dressy can also be distracting. Simply be sure to be presentable with a clean and neat appearance and proper attire.
Be Prepared for Trial. This may mean something different for each person. Before you testify, try to recall the facts as accurately as possible so that you may answer the question asked clearly. This does not mean you have to memorize your testimony. Be prepared to tell the court the known facts and do not feel obligated to memorize your answer word-for-word as doing so may cause you to look rehearsed during your testimony thus affecting your credibility. Trying to testify in a precise way may also actually hurt you on cross-examination as you will be asked questions out of sequence by opposing counsel.
Being Sworn in as A Witness. Be aware that before testifying you will have to be sworn in by an officer of the court. “Swearing in” requires you to take an oath which sets forth your absolute obligation to tell the truth. While taking the oath, make sure that you stand up straight, pay attention to the words the clerk is saying, and say “I do” clearly so that you are heard by the judge, jury, counsel, and court reporter.
You MUST Tell the Truth. Now that you have taken an oath, your obligation to tell the truth is absolute. So tell it. Every true fact should be readily admitted by you and you cannot fabricate or lie. Do not stop and try to figure out how your answer may be interpreted or whether your testimony will help or hurt either party. Just answer the questions honestly, candidly, and to the best of your memory.
Be A Respectful Witness. Of all these tips, this may be one of the most important. Respect the judge, jury members, the clerk, all other officers of the court, and even the opposing party and his or her counsel. When you are called to testify for any reason, be serious and avoid laughing. Appearing sarcastic or disrespectful may cause you to lose the respect of the judge and jury. You should make it a point to avoid saying anything about the case until you are actually on the witness stand. Try not to be disruptive to the judge and/or jury by talking or motioning to your lawyer while a witness is testifying.
Speak Clearly, Loudly, & Slowly. Present your testimony clearly, slowly, and loud enough so that every person in the courtroom can you hear you and understand everything you are saying. Annunciate. If asked to speak up or speak more clearly by your attorney, opposing counsel, judge, or court report, follow the direction. Avoid distracting mannerisms such as chewing gum or mumbling while testifying. While you may be the one on the stand, remember that the questions are really for the judge and/or jury’s benefit. Make sure you answer verbally and do not nod your head to answer the question. Speak clearly and out loud so that the court reporter or stenographer can hear your testimony and record your answer.
Speak in Your Own Words. Don’t try to memorize what you are going to say or feel pressured to answer in a particular manner. Doing so will make your testimony sound rehearsed and possibly unconvincing and/or not credible. Instead, be yourself and prior to trial go over the matter which you will be questioned about in your mind and be prepared to answer based on YOUR experience and knowledge only.
Do Not Embellish or Exaggerate Facts. Do not exaggerate or embellish your answers or try to fill in facts you cannot remember and are asked to testify about. Making overly broad or embellished statements may cause you to have to correct your statement which could affect your credibility. Be particularly careful in responding to a question that begins, “Wouldn’t you agree that…?” or “Isn’t it possible that…” as this may be an attorney’s attempt to put words in your mouth. Really listen to the question.
Listen Carefully to the Question. When you take the witness stand to testify in any type of proceeding, you will be subject to both direct-examination by your legal counsel and cross-examination by the opposing party’s legal counsel. This process may be repeated several times in order to clearly address all aspects of the questions and answers Direct examination is the questioning of a witness by the party that has called that witness to give evidence, in order to support the case that is being made. This is your time to tell the judge and/or jury what you know about the case. Cross examination is the examination of a witness who has already testified in order to check for accuracy or discredit the witness's testimony, knowledge, or credibility. You may feel as though opposing counsel is trying to cast doubt or discredit you- this is their job and the worst thing you can do is get angry or react in a poor manner to these questions. Be sure to listen carefully to the questions that you are being asked as legal counsel likely has a reason for every question they ask. If you do not understand the question or did not hear the full question, do not try to guess what was asked. Instead, do not hesitate to ask that the question be repeated.
Think About Your Answer Before Speaking. Of the most common issues I have witnessed, this is at the top of the list. While testifying many feel pressured to just hurry up and answer a question right away without reflecting on the answer or even thinking about what he or she is being asked. Don't rush into answering the question. For one, the court reporter cannot get an accurate record if she cannot hear what you are saying or when two people are speaking at the same time. The judge may even interrupt your testimony to tell you to slow down or tell you to wait for the questioner to finish his question before you begin you answer. Do not be alarmed by this but try to correct what the judge is telling you. The questioner cannot ask you another question until you have provided your answer. Pausing for a moment or two before answering will give you the time to organize your thoughts, consider your answer, and to respond accurately so as to avoid mistakes or misstatements. No one will question why you take a second before you answer and judges and/or jurors actually appreciate it. Attorneys especially appreciate it because it gives us the opportunity to make note of what you said, allows us to prepare follow-up question, and may even allow for us to make an objection if need be.
Correct or Clarify Your Testimony. People make honest mistakes, particularly when testifying about emotionally-charged matters, having to testify for long periods on the witness stand, or where being asked to provide a lot of fact-specific information. If at any point you realize you may accidently have provided inaccurate information, make sure that you correct it immediately. If you think your answer was not clear, clarify it immediately. Do not get flustered or upset- it happens. It is better to address your mistake head on and correct it yourself than to have opposing counsel discover an error and try to use it to discredit you. If you realize you may have incorrectly stated something or may have stated something unclearly, you have every right to say, “May I clarify something I said earlier?” Again, the judge, jury, and especially your legal counsel will not be upset with you and everyone present in the courtroom wants you to provide the truth.
Remember the Three Cs: Cool, Calm, & Collected. Throughout your testimony, be sure to sit up straight and direct your attention to the questioning attorney while being asked questions. When asked questions or while answering, make eye contact with the questioning attorney or the jury. Do not get angry. It is important to always remain cool and calm, even if the topic is very emotional to you or you feel as though the attorney questioning you is trying to get a certain reaction out of you. They will do that. Appearing angry or aggressive may cause the trier of fact to question your ability to be objective and/or honest or even whether you are emotionally unstable. Be confident in your answer.
Answer Questions Simply. It’s easy to feel the need to ramble on while testifying if you are nervous or feel unsure as to what information the questioning attorney is seeking. Do not volunteer information unless specifically asked to and answer ONLY the questions asked of you. If your legal counsel wants you to elaborate they will ask you to do so or ask you additional questions based off of your previous answer. Unless specifically asked, you should try to avoid speculating or giving your personal opinion about a topic and provide only facts that you have observed or personally know about. The trier-of-fact is interested in just that, the facts, so try your best to provide only that.
Don’t Set Yourself Up. Try to avoid setting yourself up for error by making overbroad or definite statements unless you are 100% sure of the accuracy of the statement. For example, don’t say things like “That’s all that happened.” Instead say, “That’s all I recall,” or “That’s all I remember happening.” It may be that after another question by counsel or further reflection you remember something else that is important and may affect your credibility.
Legal Objections. If an objection is raised either by one of the attorneys or even judge while you are testifying, make sure you stop speaking instantly and wait for the judge to consider the matter and to tell you it is okay to continue answering before answering any further. While you have certain rights against incriminating yourself, it is not your job to object to any question and doing so may cause you to appear argumentative.