5 Things NOT To Do In Your Mock Opening Statement…And What To Do Instead
You’ve heard that you never get a chance to make a first impression. Well, your opening statement is your audience’s first impression of your case, so it’s super important that you get it right!
Here’s what you need to avoid doing…and what you should do instead.
Mistake #1: Forgetting What an Opening Statement Is and What It Is Not
An opening statement is not argument. You don’t explain why your evidence is better than your opponent’s or why your case theory is the one your audience should believe. And you don’t tell the judge what conclusions they should reach. These explanations aren’t proper in an opening statement; they belong in a closing argument.
What To Do Instead: Remember That An Opening Statement Is a Preview of the Evidence
A good opening statement does two things. First, it grabs the audience’s attention and makes them care about the case and the people involved. Second, it gives a preview of your case and lets your audience know how they’ll be spending the next 3 hours of their lives.
Think of your trial as a movie, and think of your opening statement as a trailer for that movie. A movie trailer shows quick previews of scenes from the movies – suspenseful scenes for a scary movie or funny scenes for a comedy. These scenes are mixed in with an announcer’s comments, which give you the basic plot of the movie. If done right, the trailer gives the audience an idea of what the movie is about and which actors are in it. And it makes the audience want to know more.
In your opening statement, you’ll give the judge an idea of what your case is about and who the characters and witnesses are. And hopefully, you leave the judge eager to hear the evidence.
Mistake #2: Confusing (and Boring) Your Audience
Mock trial opening statements are almost always written beforehand. That’s OK.
But they’re written as essays and then they’re delivered in court as essays. That’s a problem.
When an audience is listening to something, they can only hold one or two thoughts in their head at the same time. A person listening to a speech can’t go back and re-read the thesis statement, like a person reading an essay can. Someone reading an essay can see the paragraph structure, see how each paragraph ties in with the thesis statement, and figure out how each paragraph supports the thesis statement.
But when you’re listening, you’re processing ideas one at a time. You can follow how an idea relates to the last one you heard. But it’s really hard to relate an idea to another one that was shared five sentences before. And it’s sometimes hard to figure out, which of all the things the speaker is saying, is the main point.
What To Do Instead: SPEAK Your Opening Statement
Outline your opening statement by writing down phrases or topics, not entire sentences. Then, pretend you’re talking to a friend and explain the points on your outline.
Use your normal speaking voice. Don’t worry about awkward phrasing, “likes” and “ums”, or sentences that you start over a few times before you get them right. Just form the sentences out loud, instead of typing them out.
Record yourself as you do this. That way, you can just listen to your recording and type out what you said to come up with your script. If the idea of recording yourself talking sounds horrifying, practice a few times before hitting record.
I promise your opening statement will be easier for your audience to follow – and easier for you to memorize – if you write your script based on words that you said, not words that you wrote. You can edit your script to rearrange sentences, re-word things, or add a theme. But don’t over-edit and shift back into essay writing mode.
Mistake #3: Failing to Make Your Audience Care
Mock trial opening statements sometimes tell a story without giving an idea of who the characters are, or explaining their emotions and motivations. The audience can’t relate to the witnesses and parties involved in the case, and they don’t care about the outcome of the case. And sometimes, mock trial attorneys inadvertently alienate their client.
What To Do Instead: Humanize Your Client and Make Them Relatable
If you’re representing the defendant, make them relatable. Refer to them by their name, not “defendant.” Explain who the defendant is as a person – not just their occupation, but also their personal characteristics. For example, are they a hardworking student? A selfless friend? And don’t just tell the audience. Show them by using concrete examples.
If you are the prosecution, don’t constantly refer to “the People”. That’s a pretty vague concept. Consider focusing on the victim. Perhaps tell the story from their point of view, or make them the “main character” of your story.
Use emotions or analogies that the audience can relate to. For example, say the defendant in your case was motivated to commit a crime because they wanted revenge after the victim humiliated them. Everyone has felt embarrassed at some point, and everyone has felt the desire to get someone back. Pointing out those feelings helps your audience relate to the characters, and it makes them want to know more about the evidence.
Mistake #4: Forcing a Theme
A theme can be useful, but only if it fits with your story and case theory. Your theme shouldn’t feel like it’s just been crammed into your opening statement as an afterthought.
What To Do Instead: Choose a Fitting Theme and Use It Naturally
Use your theme to tell the story you want to tell. Don’t try to impose a theme on the story. If you can’t come up with a theme that fits your story and case theory, don’t worry about it; just don’t use a theme.
And if you do settle on a theme, use it artfully. Don’t refer to it every other sentence during your opening statement and closing argument.
Mistake #5: Failing to Establish Credibility
If you are giving an opening statement, your job is to show your audience that you (and therefore your case) are credible.
Attorneys can get carried away in their opening statements by making overstatements or making promises that they hope to keep but cannot. Or they get really carried away and get overly emotional.
Or sometimes they forget to mention important, but potentially damaging facts, hoping that the audience won’t notice when it comes up during trial or during opposing counsel’s opening statement.
What To Do Instead: Show Your Audience That You Can Be Trusted
Don’t make promises you can’t keep. For example, don’t tell your audience they’ll hear certain testimony, if that testimony is likely to be excluded from evidence.
If you’re a prosecutor, you might not want to promise that you’ll “clearly” prove your case beyond a reasonable doubt, because mock trial cases are never clear! Don’t overstate your case.
And don’t be overdramatic. The opening statement is about the evidence and the case. It is not about you. Keep your tone professional. While you want to speak loudly and project your voice, you should avoid yelling or screaming. A yelling or screaming lawyer is not very credible at all.
Be honest with your audience. Bring up the weaknesses in your case and, without crossing the line into argument, give a preview of how the weakness is overcome.
These 5 mistakes almost always lead to a boring and forgettable opening statement, but even worse, they can make the audience cringe for the entire time the attorney is delivering the opening statement. Avoid these mistakes – and instead use the tips described above – to make a great first impression with your opening statement.
Here’s a quick visual recap of what we’ve just discussed.