Let ’em wait
A simple technique to share with your expert that confers extra credibility—no extra training or knowledge required.
A couple of minutes into our expert’s explanation of the finer points of structural steel repairs in confined spaces on operating vessels, the barrister asked a simple question: ‘So what?’
Her tone was neither frustrated nor sarcastic, but curious. And, fortunately, not posed under cross-examination. The dispute was in its early days, and discovery was underway, with our expert attending meetings to discuss the technical aspects with our client’s legal team.
The question was a good one from two perspectives and well-timed. First, she could ascertain if our expert was prone to filling the space with superfluous information while he thought of an answer. Second, she could better understand if the information imparted had any value to the points at the heart of the dispute. If not, she could change tack and have the expert cut to the chase.
Experts are clever people. Amassing the knowledge required to be viewed as an expert witness takes intelligence, experience, and detailed memory. All that domain learning is, however, rarely required to form an opinion or answer the question set before them. Grasping what’s needed in a specific context, and what to leave out, is not the same skill.
Therefore, it’s crucial your expert understands the importance of asking the ‘so what’ question, both when investigating the facts of the disputed areas and when writing their opinions. Otherwise, they’re assuming an interest in the wider subject that the judge, jury, or tribunal members simply don’t have. Vital time will be lost getting back to the point, by which time audience interest and expert credibility will have eroded.
The tactic of buying thinking time with on-subject rambling is commonly used but best avoided if you want your expert to come across as assertive. You will no doubt have witnessed the odd groan or eye-rolling from listeners who are clearly thinking, ‘Will you please just answer the effing question?’
Better to remind your expert that silently taking time to process the question, nod sagely, and then answer it displays an air of consideration and quiet confidence.