Some people think the opening statement is one of the most important aspects of a trial and jury consultants and social psychologists have done studies that show that most people make up their mind early, during the opening statement. Other jury consultants tell me that they believe juries make up their minds after the cross-examination of the key witness, which is after the opening statement. There are different theories, but recently I saw an interview with a very intelligent woman, who is a film professor at Yale. She was saying that opening scenes are one of the most important parts of movies because they set the stage for the balance of the film.
She gave three examples of opening scenes in movies that she thought were very powerful. One was the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg, called Schindler’s List. The opening scene starts out focusing on a candle and smoke coming up from the candle, and the camera pans out to reveal a Jewish family on a Sabbath, saying a prayer and lighting a candle. Then, the candle goes out and you see smoke going up and it segues into a train moving into a concentration camp, with the smoke of the train going up. You then see a businessman, but you don’t see his face, you only see his hand as he is walking, and he is very powerful. It turns out to be Schindler, who is played by Liam Neeson. The film is very powerful because the opening scene immediately grabs you.
An opening scene is certainly similar to an opening statement. You want to really grab the parties with your emotional reaction of what the case is about to get them interested. I used to start my opening statements by thanking the jurors, identifying myself and who I represent, and then I’d spend about five minutes talking about things that really weren’t that interesting. I’ve realized that a better approach is to use emotion in the opening statement to grab the attention of the jurors at the earliest time possible. There are other theories about using primacy and recency in arguments and statements, and it means that people remember the first thing they hear and they remember the last thing they hear.
You have to make a very good first impression in your opening statement. Go immediately to the emotional aspect, talking about the triggering event and the emotional appeal it had or the emotional effect it had on your client. Then, bring up the tagline at the very earliest possible time. The opening statement needs to have an emotional response and you are also going to tell the jury the factual background and the evidence. You don’t want to overstate your case, but you want to make an emotional impact on the jury and tell them the story of what happened.
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