The Advantage Blog

Helping Witnesses Overcome Stage Fright

February 1, 2016 | By |

It’s a fairly well-known statistic that public speaking ranks as the #1 most common fear among Americans, finishing just above heights, bugs, and snakes.  Thus, it’s not surprising that many witnesses are fearful of giving testimony in a deposition or at trial.  This setting is uniquely fear-inducing, as most witnesses are unsure about what to expect.  Worries range from being questioned by the opposition to the fear of possibly damaging their side’s case.

There are some techniques to help a witness manage this fear.  The old tried and true approach of imagining your audience in their underwear is usually not enough, and can create some unfortunate side effects like inappropriate bursts of laughter.  The Anxiety and Depression Association of America suggests a number of more realistic tips for addressing stage fright, most of which revolve around positive thinking and visualization.  But what are some of the other approaches to combat the inevitable stress of speaking in an unfamiliar situation?

The first strategy is to ascertain exactly what kind of apprehension your witness is experiencing.  For some individuals, everyday social interaction is not a problem, but standing alone and speaking to an audience creates more anxiety.  This is likely true of the majority of witnesses one will encounter.  This type of anxiety is called “context-based” apprehension, because it is a fear that is only exhibited in certain communication contexts – not in every interaction.

Those who experience context-based apprehension are distinct from those who are reticent to speak in any communication situation, whether it is interpersonal, in small groups, or to an audience.  These people are said to have “trait-like” apprehension, because the fear is more like a personality trait and occurs in all communication contexts.

Once you have determined the type of apprehension the witness is experiencing, it is easier to implement a plan of action to address the speaker’s concerns.  According to James McCroskey, an expert on communication apprehension, in the context of public speaking, the components that typically trigger anxiety include the degree of evaluation, the degree of conspicuousness, the degree of ambiguity, the degree of novelty, and the degree of prior success.[1]  The degree of evaluation can be a major trigger for some witnesses, as they may feel both their attorney and the opposing counsel are assessing their answers to determine the ultimate probability of success in the case.  These individuals need to be assured that they are not the linchpin of the case, and there are many other factors that will determine the outcome of the matter.

A realistic practice session will help minimize the other likely concerns of the average witness.  A session where the witness is asked questions while remaining “in character” will help eliminate some of the ambiguity and novelty of the situation.  It is especially important to simulate a realistic cross-examination on the more challenging topics.  It is helpful to conduct such a session in a mock courtroom when possible to give the speaker a realistic perspective of the trial setting.  It is not enough just to sit down and review the facts with the witness.  He or she needs to practice in a similar situation to address the fear created by the novelty and ambiguity of the situation.

A successful practice session will also address the lack of prior success for someone who has not testified before.  If they complete a rigorous mock examination with a degree of success, they will feel more confident going into the examination and feel less anxiety.

A speaker who suffers from trait-like apprehension requires a different approach, especially if that anxiety is more severe.  The recommendations for those with context-based apprehension still apply, but it might take more than that to make significant strides toward creating a less anxious speaker.  Two of the most recommended approaches require going beyond counsel and trial consultants for assistance.  The first is to have the speaker engage in “cognitive restructuring,” or changing the way the person thinks about communication interactions.  There are techniques a person can do on their own to make some progress in this area, but counseling might be required to achieve a greater degree of success.

For example, a process called “systematic desensitization” teaches people how to relax in the face of tense situations.  With about 10 hours of work, this approach has been successful in 80% to 90% of cases.[2]  This certainly is a more significant investment of time than might usually be asked of in a witness, but it may be worth it if the speaker is a critical component of a highly important case.

No matter what the cause, one of the best bits of advice I have heard about addressing stage fright is to use the nervous energy to help with the speaker’s presentation.  A little bit of nerves can add enthusiasm and variety to one’s delivery and help keep the mind focused on the task at hand.  Someone who is feeling no anxiety at all might be an even more dangerous witness, as they might not treat the situation with the level of attention required for success.  In fact, recent studies in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and Emotion found that speakers who were told to get excited about a speaking situation had better outcomes than those who were told to calm down.

The fear of testifying at trial or in a deposition is perfectly normal, a fact that should help most witnesses feel a little more comfortable about their upcoming task.  A realistic practice session will help further calm most people’s fears, but sometimes that is not enough.  Identifying the type and cause of a speaker’s anxiety is a key step to developing and implementing the right solution.

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