How Preparing to Be a Good Witness Is Like Weight Training

On behalf of Peterson, Berk & Cross, S.C.

When I prepare with an individual before a legal proceeding in which he or she will testify- say, for example, when I meet with a worker before a deposition or an unemployment hearing- I discuss with that person what it means to be a good witness.

Being a good witness does not simply mean telling the truth, although that is certainly a necessary and important part of it.

Being a good witness also means work.

And the hardest work involved is not memorization of facts (you already know them pretty darn well). Nor will you spend hard work on thinking of ways you’re going to tell your story, explain how your opponent was wrong, or convincing someone how you were right- or at least you shouldn’t put work into these things, or you’ll lose.

Your job as a witness is to listen carefully to each question, and to answer ONLY that question.

Sounds simple, right?


See, your human instinct (like all of ours) is wired to do the opposite. Your mind, during a legal proceeding, will NOT want you to listen carefully. Your mind will have you hear questions as you WANT to hear them, and to answer with something MORE or OTHER than what you are asked for. Your mind, when asked a simple question (say, yes or no) will want to give the questioner an elaborate answer, with volunteered facts and opinions (often true) that explain your “side.”

This is where the hard work comes in.

To really focus on a question, and focus on only answering that question alone- directly, factually, and truthfully- well, for most of us, that does not come naturally. It takes practice answering questions, i.e. work, to get to the point you actually do what a witness is supposed to do.

One exercise you could do is to have someone- whether your attorney, trusted family member or friend, etc.- ask you questions. And then, your task is to closely listen and answer only the question you’re asked. If the question is a yes or no question, the answer should be “yes” or “no.” It should not be “Yes, but …[extra details to explain/tell your side]…”

Practice this act of listening and answering questions before your legal proceeding, repeatedly, until you are comfortable with your results. It’s much like physical exercise, like lifting weights.

If you want your metaphorical muscles as a witness to get stronger, so to speak, that will take practice and work.

But if you don’t put in time and work as necessary to improve as a witness, you won’t turn out as strong at the legal proceeding as you hope you will.