Character under fire: what makes strong witnesses and spokespersons

Sean Murphy

There’s often a distinction made between the two arenas where litigation plays out: the courtroom and the court of public opinion. Certainly these venues have different sets of rules. But what they share is the critical need that the primary storytellers—witnesses and spokespersons—demonstrate character under fire in order to establish credibility and win the narrative.

In the end, it’s about how witnesses and spokespersons are prepared to fulfill their respective roles. Both responsibilities can induce high stress, especially if it’s not something people are accustomed to doing. For example, the operating executive who is called upon to testify about seemingly arcane company practices or act as the spokesperson in a crisis that will no doubt lead to litigation. Stress has both a cognitive and physiological impact and affects both verbal and nonverbal behavior—a critical point since demeanor impacts credibility as much or more than the content of what is said.

The approach that works is to provide witnesses and spokespersons with realistic experiences, so they truly know what to expect, as well as training to ensure they acquire the skills required to stay calm, engaged, professional, clear-minded and in control.

In this training model, both witnesses and spokespersons can practice the critical skills specific to their respective roles while receiving timely feedback from an observing expert and are given the opportunity to immediately apply the advice they receive. Basic skills are taught, practiced and mastered, before more advanced skills are addressed. Lastly, the witness or spokesperson is tasked with performing under the most realistic conditions possible. This way, they are not only told their role, but learn to perform it and what to expect. 

 Differing Priorities

Of course, the basic skills of testifying versus spokesmanship differ somewhat, particularly given the audiences and rules for each venue. That means the focus of the training shifts while the underlying practices remain the same.

There are three basic skills a witness must master if they hope to testify well under pressure:

                  A.     Actively listening to the question.

B.     Pondering to acquire the simple truth.

C.     Delivering the answer with confidence, and then returning to step A.

This ABC model may appear obvious but performing each step separately and in sequence does not come naturally. The ABC model must be taught and practiced as a process that is distinct, sequential, cyclical, and is applied to every question.

Training to be a spokesperson is about providing timely, truthful and accurate information, while also working to define the public narrative. Shaping the narrative has become even more critical in a social media climate where reputations can be lost in the time it takes to tweet—and when considering the major influence external factors can have on litigation strategy. For example, will public furor cause you to settle a case quickly, but on unfavorable terms?

In spokesperson training, executives practice techniques for delivering the company’s messages with clarity, credibility and repetition. Those messages are defined in terms of actions you want your audience to take—and are aligned with the litigation strategy. This can be challenging in a crisis situation where there’s intense pressure and media need proximity, facts, updates, access, and consistent, reliable information. Spokespersons learn to show concern, diffuse negatives, and remain calm, while avoiding the human temptation to speculate, overstate or understate, place or accept “blame,” or make promises they can’t deliver on.

The common thread in both approaches is to demonstrate character under fire by being seen as someone who is polite, professional and engaged, whether you’re being subjected to a tough cross examination or fielding a volley of questions in a high-profile news conference.

 To learn more about crisis readiness and training for witnesses and spokespersons, contact CSI today.

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