Boost Your Credibility in Court

Credibility in court is the degree to which the Judge or jurors believe a witness. For a testifying officer to be effective, she must be found credible. In several past articles (web links below), we've looked at different aspects of courtroom credibility for the testifying officer.

This month, we're going to look at how vivid details can boost a witness' credibility.

Made to Stick

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, the authors, brothers Chip and Dan Heath, say,

We wrote this book to help you make your ideas stick. By "stick," we mean that your ideas are understood and remembered, and have a lasting impact - they change your audience's opinions or behavior.

That's not unlike what an officer must do in court. The facts she testifies to must be understood and remembered. Those facts, along with any other evidence, must change the jurors' opinions from presumed innocent to guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Made to Stick is a book I recommend to anyone who must communicate persuasively with others in a non-tactical situation. It would not replace Verbal Judo but it's a superb book for leaders, trainers, trial advocates, marketers, pastors, school teachers, public relations personnel, etc.

After extensive research, the impressively qualified Heath brothers (who do not come across as overly impressed with themselves) found that ideas that "stick" share six principles. One of those principles is credibility and they examine how to ensure that the messenger and message are believed by people.

Paint a picture because seeing is believing

Details are a way to boost credibility. Details give internal veracity to your account of something.

Vivid details create a striking, distinct mental image. Describing exactly what someone was wearing, where exactly they were, how exactly they were standing - even if those particular facts are not necessary to the case - creates a concrete picture in the jurors' minds that makes them think that what you are saying is credible. Seeing IS believing.

Also, if we can say it, show it, and prove it in the details, people are more likely to remember what we say.

Studies have shown that vivid details, even ones that aren't essential to the core message, have a dramatic and positive impact on how information is digested.

Consider these two possible ad lines from Six Keys to a Viral Message that Sticks: Part 4 - Carry Credibility (web link below):

  • Fact based: Duracell batteries last fifteen percent longer.
  • Vivid detail based: Using Duracell batteries in your portable DVD player will give you an extra hour and a half of play time. On the long drive to Grandma's this Christmas, that means an extra hour and a half of peace and quiet in your car.

In a criminal trial, the core message is the essential elements of the crime(s) charged and the facts necessary to prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt. Let's look at how vivid details can boost witness credibility in court.

Credibility and the Darth Vader Toothbrush

The Heath brothers relate an experiment conducted by Jonathan Shedler and Melvin Manis in which they simulated two trials. Such experiments have been replicated. (See, Social Psychology, Kenneth S. Bordens, Irwin A. Horowitz (2001), p. 213-14, relating a similar experiment in a construction contract dispute and Vivid Persuasion in the Courtroom, Brad E. Bell; Elizabeth F. Loftus, Journal of Personality Assessment, Vol. 49, Issue 6, 1985, Pages 659 - 664.)

In the Made to Stick account, two groups of subjects playing the role of jurors were given transcripts of a (fictitious) trial to read. Jurors were tasked with assessing the fitness of a mother, Mrs. Johnson, and deciding whether she should keep custody of her 7-year-old son.

The transcripts were designed to be closely balanced - each had 8 arguments for and 8 arguments against Mrs. Johnson. All the jurors heard the same arguments. The only difference in the two trials was the level of detail in the arguments.

In one trial, all the arguments that supported Mrs. Johnson had some vivid detail and the arguments against her were just the relevant facts with no descriptive detail. The other trial contained the opposite combination - vivid details in the arguments against Mrs. Johnson and none in the arguments for her.

For example, one argument in the mother's favor said:

Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.

The vivid form of this argument added the detail:

He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader.

An argument against the mother was:

The child went to school with a badly scraped arm which Mrs. Johnson had not cleaned or attended to. The school nurse had to clean the scrape.

The vivid form of the arguments against Mrs. Johnson added the detail that as the nurse was cleaning the scrape she spilled Mercurochrome on her uniform, staining it red.

The details were designed to be irrelevant to the judgment of Mrs. Johnson's fitness. It mattered whether she attended her son's scrape or ensured his hygiene. It didn't matter that the nurse's uniform was stained or what action figure the boy's toothbrush was modeled after.

The result? Jurors who heard the favorable arguments with vivid details judged Mrs. Johnson to be a more suitable parent than jurors who hear the unfavorable arguments with vivid details. The details had a significant impact.

Why did the details make a difference? They boosted the credibility of the argument. If I can see the Darth Vader toothbrush, I can see the boy brushing his teeth in the bathroom which, in turn, let's me see and remember Mrs. Johnson being a good mother. (Made to Stick, p. 138-139.)

I witnessed the power of vivid detail in a child sexual abuse case I prosecuted. One of the witnesses was a civilian who had come upon the defendant attempting to anally rape my 10-year-old boy victim behind a tractor trailer truck in a parking lot. It went to trial as an attempt because this witness and his co-worker apprehended the defendant and called the police before the crime could be completed. But not before they saw the defendant behind the boy with the boy's pants down and the defendant's penis exposed.

On cross examination, the defense attorney tried to raise some doubt about the civilian's eye witness account. When the witness described the young boy's Mutant Ninja Turtle underpants, it was all over. That vivid detail carried the rest of the sordid scene.

The lessons for officers

The public, including jurors, cannot begin to imagine many of the things you deal with on the street. One or two vivid details in your testimony - the kind that paint a striking and distinct picture - can help them. It can also boost your credibility and the credibility of your message. Look for such details and testify to them.

You can also boost the credibility of victims and witnesses you interview. Ask them to picture the incident and describe it to you in detail. Bring out in detail what they saw, heard, smelled, tasted and touched.

A detail about the smell of a suspect's aftershave or hair gel, the chaffing of his unshaved face, the Spiderman bedspread or pajamas, the Sponge Bob toy, the logo on a t-shirt, baseball cap, or belt buckle, the vanity license plate, the hula doll stuck to the dashboard may not be material to the essential elements of the crime, but they may be the difference in the jurors believing a witness - or not.