TAKING THE WITNESS STAND By Professor Curt Baggett
THE FIRST FUNDAMENTAL STEP – PROFESSIONAL PRESENCE
The mystique of power, presence, and control has long fascinated business professionals. It is an intangible quality that can produce extremely tangible results. In business, we want others immediately to recognize our presence as being self-assured and thoroughly competent. We want to be able to impart a confidence that others can quickly discern and actually experience the first time they meet us or the first time we make an appearance in the courtroom.
How do we do it? Can “presence” be broken down into component parts? Can “presence” even be broken down at all? How can you develop more Personal Professional presence?
I’ll answer my own rhetorical question: Certainly it can. That is what Professional Presence is all about. It is a look at the intricate puzzle pieces of power, control and self-assurance.
Professional presence is a blend of poise, self-confidence, control, style and savoir-fare that can empower us to command respect in any situation. Professional presence is approaching every situation with a strong belief in our skills and a clear knowledge of how our presence will impress and impact others.
Ultimately, professional presence is the understanding how each of us can use the power of our own presence to feel fulfilled, empowered and successful. Professional presence produces results; it helps give us focus, momentum, and control over our situation and environment.
O.K., are the component parts a mystery that only special people are born with, or can we learn how to acquire the success traits (parts) that show up in certain people who seem to easily display “professional presence”? By following the steps I have outlined below, you can acquire and begin to exude this wonderful, seemingly evasive presence, one part at a time.
THE FUNDAMENTAL STEP 2 – APPEARANCE
You must look like and act like a professional. Dress is very important to make a good first impression. There are only two rules: dress as neatly as possible, and try to look like your client or like the other professionals in attendance. Suggestions: conservative dress, moderate amount of make-up, small amount of perfume and jewelry, clean and polished shoes, and freedom from pompousness. You are what you wear! If you have doubts about your appearance or you feel that you need to improve, you should seek professional help. Hire an expert consultant to help you look great!
THE FUNDAMENTAL STEP 3 – BODY LANGUAGE
Body language, the universal language, is subconsciously spoken and understood by all peoples from all arts of our world. The silent body language you speak can make you or break you. If you now have a good presentation by your body, enhance it. If not, retrain your body and practice until new habits are established – until everyone who meets you instantly likes or respects you. Have you ever met someone and immediately liked them? Or not, but you did not know why? When you meet a person for the first time your subconscious mind reads the body language at the subconscious level and evaluates and makes conscious decisions based on the knowledge learned at subliminal level. We only remember our thought at the conscious level but the subconscious is working all the time. So other people will judge you based on what your body language projects at their subconscious level and they will make conscious decisions about you accordingly.
Therefore, a good presentation from our body language is essential to impress others, demand dignity, and it is essential for you to develop a good professional presence.
THE FUNDAMENTAL STEP 4 – VERBAL COMMUNICATION
Use simple words. Give decisive statements and deliver powerful body language. Always listen to the question and wait to be sure the question is complete before you begin to answer. Use the good habit of pausing before each answer to give you the time to formulate a brief, specific answer. Don’t volunteer information. NEVER explain yourself. Don’t answer one question if you were asked two or three questions. Ask often for the question to be repeated, answer one question at a time, or answer all three. Example: Yes, Yes, and No. Don’t answer questions if you are not absolutely sure that you understand the question. Remember, you are in control of you and exactly what you say. Don’t lean into the microphone. Don’t speak too soft or too loud. Practice your speech (make up answers to routine questions that generally get asked) in front of a mirror until the answers become natural to you. Get a friend to practice with you by pretending to be a really good, informed attorney who asks lots of questions, then practice some more. Be like the Boy Scout motto “be prepared!” Work hard and develop this very important part of your professional presence.
If you need more help with your public speaking skills, join a local Toast Masters Club. Toast Masters is the only organization in the USA that I know of that operates for the sole benefit of improving its members.
THE FUNDAMENTAL STEP 5 – POWER OF SILENCE
Shut up. Ask questions and listen. Have you heard this before? Have you practiced this at home or at your work? The power of silence is one of the best-learned communication skills that you will ever acquire.
In simple language, if you talk too much, eventually you will give away too much information. Of course, you already know that anything you say can and will be used against you. Remember, you do not have to be paranoid to know others are after you. In every courtroom about half of the people present are on the other side. Other benefits of silence are just as great. Silence gives you time to think. Silence from you often keeps the other side going. Most people, including attorneys, feel like they have to fill the silence. (Remember how you used to feel before you learned and mastered this technique? Wow!) Some attorneys will keep talking and will give up too much information, say the wrong thing, change the questions, and/or ask several questions at the same time. Silence equals power!
THE FUNDAMENTAL STEP 6 – STAY IN CONTROL
How to deal with: Embarrassment, Anger, Criticism, Intimidation, Liars, etc.
Eleanor Roosevelt state, “No one can make you feel inferior unless you consent.” How profound to think that we are in control of ourselves, our mind, which incidentally, is the only thing that God gave us over which we can actually have complete control. Guess what? You can control your own mind with lots of practice if you decide to do so. Most people are like a leaf flapping in the wind. Whoever blows on them takes control of their mind. Not anymore. You have now decided to take charge of your very basic God-given right to be in control of yourself. Obviously, you know you cannot control the weather, your kids, other people, or politics, but beginning right now with a firm decision and commitment you are in control of yourself.
So what if an attorney attempts to embarrass you, criticize you, intimidate you, or lies about you? What should be your response? Maybe just silence (what a great technique), or maybe just say with kindness, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “no, that’s not what I said. What I said was…” etc. Learn some answers and practice them. You know what the questions will be.
Recently in a court case in Oklahoma, a young attorney questioned the other expert for over an hour going over every letter and every word asking for comparisons of handwriting. When I took the stand, I said “Before we go any further, I will stipulate that there are similarities in the comparison handwriting. I will not discuss each letter or each word.” Guess what happened next? The attorney said, “Mr. Baggett, I understand that you will not answer questions about all the similarities, but can I just ask you one question?” Wow! He was asking me permission to ask me a question! I answered his one question politely about that subject and we moved onto another. Guess who was in control of me? Remember, we get paid to tell the truth and answer questions. The only control we have in the courtroom is how we answer.
THE FUNDAMENTAL STEP 7 – ANSWER QUESTIONS LIKE A PRO
Researchers have determined that in normal business interviews with consultants, about 85% of the questions are anticipated. I estimate that the statistics in our business would be very similar. As we attempt to prepare for court, we must, of course, prepare answers for both sides. It is imperative if we intend to help our client win and present a professional presence, that we are 100% ready to answer attorneys’ questions from either or both sides of the case. We too, can anticipate most of the attorney and/or court questions and prepare adequately.
When we begin to think like a pro, we have to begin to emulate the behavior of the real professional. A professional makes it look so easy! Don’t forget “why”. A good example follows:
Many years ago, a famous ice skater had just won an Olympic Gold Medal in the ice skating contest. An admiring uninformed fan approached her and said, “You were so great. I would give half my life to be able to skate like you.” The ice skater’s reply was, “I did – that’s exactly what I did – I gave half my life practicing to be able to skate like this.”
Most of us spend about 12 to 20 years learning in school. You may not desire to give up half your life to achieve such a level of greatness as a gold medal or to develop a really good professional presence, but it will take a lot of effort if you desire to be a professional. To begin your preparation today, I suggest you seek out many of the questions attorneys ask experts and learn the answers. Practice out loud your answers until you can perform like a medal winner, a contender, or just a professional expert witness, perhaps.
In summary, I quote Robert Frost from Vogue, May 15, 1963: “The reason worry kills more people than work is because more people worry than work.” Don’t worry. Be happy. There is nothing to worry about if you are a professional and you are properly prepared. With a little more knowledge, a little more practice, a little more control, and a little more silence you will accomplish your goal of having a really great Professional Presence on the witness stand. I believe in you.
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