One time when I was working with an attorney getting ready for trial, I was there when the attorney learned that they would be able to give “mini-openings” prior to voir dire. But by “mini,” the court really meant “mini” — three to five minutes per side. The attorney’s reaction was to dismiss it. “I cannot really cover anything in three minutes,” she said. In response, I stressed that it was a chance to create a first impression, and to provide some context and greater usefulness for voir dire. I also said, “You would be surprised how much you can cover in three minutes.”
I recalled that advice just recently when I came across a page called “TED in Three Minutes.” The site features a number of speeches in the classic “TED-Talk” mode — dynamic and interesting “Ideas Worth Spreading,” but they’re shorter than the already-economical TED-Talk length of 18 minutes or less. As advertised, they’re just three minutes each. After watching a few, I was surprised at just how comprehensive they can be. So, if you need a short break, I’d encourage you to take a look. The goal of these speakers to do what they can in three minutes parallels an attorney’s need, not just in a mini-opening, but in the first few minutes of a more conventional opening statement or closing argument as well. In this post, I will draw from the TED examples and discuss five factors that make it work in three minutes.
You want short and succinct expression. You want simple sentences. Later on, you will need to dig into details and introduce legal and technical language where it helps. But for now, you want to chose the shortest way of expressing it, and that can require some preparation. In her three-minute talk, Carolyn Porco asks, “Could a Saturn Moon Harbor Life?” That talk does include some sophisticated content as she introduces the chemical components for life. And if you asked her, I bet she would say she left out a ton of information. But she effectively boils down what would otherwise be scientifically complex.
2. Say It Once, But Make it Vivid
Repetition and analysis can become habits for lawyers. And, over the course of the case, there will be a need for both. But in your three-minute version, find one way of expressing it that is punchy. In Nilofer Merchant’s talk, “Got a Meeting? Take a Walk,” for example, she begins with “What you are doing right now, is killing you.” And she proceeds to talk about the fact that we sit more than we sleep, and that sitting is the new smoking when it comes to previously unrecognized health problems. This vividly sets the stage for her focus on walking meetings.
3. Ditch the Preliminaries and Get Right to the Point
Don’t waste time on standardized comments at the beginning. There may be a time to emphasize the importance of jury duty, to thank them for being there, and to introduce your team. But in the first few moments, get right to the point. For example, Matt Cutts’ talk is called, “Try Something New for 30 Days.” He begins by saying, “A few years ago, I felt like I was stuck in a rut.” He decided on a response: “Think about something you want to add to your life, and try it, for 30 days.” Just 20 seconds in, you have his main point.
4. Base it Around a Simple and Memorable Phrase
For a brief presentation, or a self-contained introduction to a larger presentation, it is essential to ask yourself, “What is the one sentence I need them to understand and accept?” That message, also known as a theme, is critical for litigators. In addition to being the centerpiece of your “silver bullet” introduction, it should also be a recurring message that runs through testimony and demonstrative exhibits. In the TED talk discussed above, Matt Cutts’ simple theme is that, “Small sustainable changes are more likely to stick.”
5. Make It Visual
I’ve noticed that some attorneys have a tendency to treat courtroom visuals the way they would treat evidence: They wait to use them until they are supporting a specific point. For that reason, they’ll often be skipped during an introduction. But, more broadly, visuals are a way of focusing and grabbing attention. At the overview stage, simple pictures used to illustrate your themes, as you would use in a PowerPoint, can be more effective than designed demonstrate exhibits. For some extraordinary visuals in the TED talks, check out Camille Seaman’s “Photos from a Storm Chaser,” but for simple iconic images that might help illustrate a story in litigation, take a look at Richard St. John’s “8 Secrets of Success.“