What first caught my eye when I was asked to review The Articulate Witness, An Illustrated Guide to Testifying Confidently Under Oath, was that it would take under a half hour to read. It struck me as appropriate not only for its intended purpose, to help ordinary people to testify competently, but that it didn’t demand a major commitment on my part to read it. Seriously, most books sent me aspire to mediocrity, and slogging through them is more than I can take.
The need for a good book on witness prep is obvious to lawyers. People whose testimony is desperately needed believe they will do just fine. Most won’t. Most are awful. Cops are well trained in the art of testifying, in deflecting hard questions, wiggling out of lies and mistakes, covering their holes. The rest of us are not
Does The Articulate Witness fill that gap? No. But then, how could it? It’s a quickie book, plenty of illustrations, that in real time takes about ten minutes to skim. Its authors are Marsha Hunter and Brian K. Johnson, legal communications specialists, whatever that means, who apparently teach lawyers how to be persuasive. Their Amazon bio is unreadable fluff, and so I stopped after the second line.
The book covers some relatively generic basics, such as staying calm, breathing, posture, hand position, eyes, etc. It provides some, but not other, basic explanations, like stop talking when an objection is made, and don’t start again until the judge says so. It explains differences between trial and deposition, and reminds the witness to listen to the question before answering, and answer only the question asked. All fine.
Some of it, particularly the stuff about physical status during testimony, is often overlooked by lawyers who tend to be more concerned about the substance than the appearance. To this point, it serves as a reminder that looking credible is as important as being credible. And it does so in a way that doesn’t make the witness come off as contrived and forced, but relatively natural yet confident.
The Guide is illustrated by Barbara J. Richied, and the illustrations add nothing whatsoever to the book. Aside from taking up some space, they’re poorly drawn and generally uninteresting and uninformative. If there is any reason to include illustrations, it’s the assumption that people can no longer bear to read anything without pictures. That may be true, and if so, provides the only justification for illustrations.
So does the book help? Well, yeah, as far as it goes. As an adjunct to witness prep, it’s okay. It would appear to serve a few needs, as an object potential witnesses can cling to in advance of their testimony, like a teddy bear. The contents cover some worthwhile points, as appearance and confidence matter, and the book implores readers to practice after each bit of advice. Nothing wrong there. It deals with some pieces of substantive testimony, like not guessing at answers or how to wiggle out of “yes or no” questions. Yet, there is no mention of wide swathes of other types of questions. Why? Beats me.
But it is no substitute for proper prep, and it makes no bones about the fact that it’s only a backup. The book really changes nothing about the need, scope or depth of preparation required before putting a witness on the stand, even with regard to the general witness preparation that is given in almost every case. It makes no mention, for example, of the questions commonly asked, such as “did you discuss your testimony with your lawyer before testifying today?” Or “did your lawyer tell you what to say?” (Answer: Yes. He told me to tell the truth.)
There are two issues with the book that I found disturbing. First, the book didn’t stress the value of telling the truth when it comes to witness confidence. One key piece to a witness’ ability to testify is that by telling the truth, his mind is put at ease to a degree that he need not fear getting jerked around nearly as much as most do. Rather than second guess on cross, just tell the truth.
The other major issue was that it persisted in calling testimony a “conversation.” It’s not. To suggest to witnesses that it’s just a conversation, in any way, is misleading and confusing. It’s an interrogation, and the witness ought to understand that it’s not a fair fight as a conversation might be. Then again, given the fact that this is no substitute for real witness prep, this can be corrected by the lawyer. Still, who needs a book that requires correction?
So is The Articulate Witness worth it? The price point at Amazon is $19.95, when the value of the book is maybe $4.99. At $5, it might be worthwhile for a trial lawyer to buy a box and hand them out. For $20, you would do better to buy the witness Kafka’s The Trial, and pocket the change.
But make no mistake, this book is by no means a substitute for solid witness prep, and to neglect real prep in favor of this book would be flagrant malpractice. The book is shallow and replete with gaps that demand filling, as one might expect from two non-lawyers. Of course, there is only so much that one can expect a potential witness to read and absorb, so the superficiality of the book isn’t necessarily a bug, but just a reminder of its limitations. On the bright side, the authors realize this and make clear that the lawyer’s prep takes precedence.
To the extent it offers a few tidbits of information for the witness, and gives the witness something to take home and obsess over late at night while fearing getting ripped apart by some crafty lawyer, it’s not a bad thing. It’s just not good enough, thorough enough, to do much else.
Update: Received additional info from the publisher:
[T]he price of the book is $8.99 for print and $6.99 for digital. This print price is listed on the cover of the book, and both the print and digital prices are on the press release. Amazon’s pricing is mysterious, and we and our distributor have been unable to make it change its price. I think it is unfair to judge Amazon’s price rather than the publisher’s. I would appreciate it if you would correct this point in your blog.
I’m both happy to hear it and happy to post this correction. Still a bit high in my view, but far closer to the right number than Amazon.