Three Quick and Easy Ways to Minimize Nervousness During Trial

By: Elliott Wilcox

To communicate with greater persuasion, when selling a product or service or opinion or position, especially within writing such as email where body language and voice inflection is absent, a good writer will write to the reader rather than from the writer.  Indeed, when a person writes from the writer, the person tells; but, when a person writes to the reader, the person sells.

You are a professional communicator.  It's your job to speak on behalf of your clients and ensure that their voices are heard.  But what happens if you're too nervous to properly present your client's case?   When you forget what you need to say or if the words get trapped and won't come out, your client suffers.  Nervousness can decimate the presentation of your case, but if you apply these quick and easy tips, you'll minimize its impact and present your client's case with strength and passion.

1. Be prepared.

Lack of preparation is the most common cause of nervousness in the courtroom.  Nothing will make you more comfortable in the courtroom than knowing you're fully prepared for trial.  When it comes to minimizing nervousness in the courtroom, the Boy Scouts still have the best advice: “Be Prepared.

Are you prepared?   Did you bring caselaw to support your position on expected evidentiary issues?   Do you have an alternative plan in case one of your witnesses is late to court?   Do you have a backup presentation plan ready to go if your technical equipment malfunctions?   Have you rehearsed your case and your presentation until you're confident?   (Until you're fully prepared for trial, none of these other tips will be much help to you.)

2. Don't speak to “the jury” -- speak to one juror at a time.

Another common cause of nervousness during trial is the fear of public speaking.  Public speaking routinely captures the #1 spot on the list of “Top Ten Fears.” Can you believe it even edges out the fear of death and the fear of spiders?!?   Just because you're a trained communicator doesn't mean you're immune from a fear of public speaking.  And don't make any mistake about it -- regardless of whether you're talking to a panel of 100 prospective jurors, or talking to the six or twelve jurors selected to try your case, what you're doing is “public speaking.”  It's not unusual for you to feel uncomfortable speaking to large groups.  Yet you probably feel perfectly at ease speaking to just one person, don't you?   If you would feel comfortable presenting your opening statement to just one person, then you're ready to present to six jurors, twelve jurors, or 1000 jurors.

Here's the secret: rather than speaking to the entire jury, speak to just one person at a time.  Make eye contact with that person and talk one-on-one with them.  Don't hold your eye contact so long that it becomes uncomfortable, but just long enough to make a connection.  Then make eye contact with another juror, and repeat the process.  Rather than talking to a group, you'll be carrying on a series of one-on-one conversations.  If you talk directly to each person, you'll forget that you're speaking in public -- it will feel like you're carrying on a conversation.  Not only will this technique help you minimize your nervousness, it will also help you develop a more personal bond with your jurors.  Apply this simple technique of talking to one person at a time, and your presentations will become more personal (and more memorable) to your jurors.

3. Have a checklist.

You've probably heard it said that “the faintest pencil mark is better than the sharpest memory,” right?   That's especially true during trial.  In trial, the stakes are high, emotions are high, and your mind is racing at breakneck speed.  If you were ever going to get nervous and accidentally overlook something, this would be the perfect opportunity.

To ensure that you never lose a case because you omitted an essential element, prepare a checklist of the elements in your case and keep it on top of your trial materials.  Here's an example of how a prosecutor might organize the checklist for a simple D.U.I. case:

  1. [ X ] Identity
  2. [    ] Venue
  3. [ X ] Drove (or in actual physical control of) a vehicle
  4. [ X ] Under influence of alcohol or drugs
  5. [ X ] to the extent "normal faculties" are impaired

As your witnesses testify to each element, you check it off the list.  Before you rest your case, you review the list to ensure that every element has been proven.  In this example, the prosecutor wouldn't want to rest his case yet, because he hasn't proven that the court has territorial jurisdiction over the case.  I know dozens of young prosecutors who have lost misdemeanor cases because they forgot to prove venue.  Almost without exception, they overlooked the venue element because they were nervous.  A checklist like this may not eliminate that nervousness, but it can certainly prevent their nervousness from sabotaging the case.

Understand that it's okay to be nervous.  You want to do a good job, and you're concerned about your client, so it's only natural that you'll be a little nervous.  With everything that's on the line, it would be a bigger problem if you weren't nervous.  But don't let your nervousness control you or debilitate your case presentation.  Follow these simple tips, and you'll be able to control your nervousness, rather than letting it control you.

WANT TO USE THIS ARTICLE IN YOUR EZINE, WEBSITE, OR BAR ASSOCIATION PUBLICATION?  You can, as long as you include the following blurb with it: Elliott Wilcox publishes Trial Tips Newsletter. Sign up today for your free subscription and a copy of his special reports: “How to Successfully Make & Meet Objections” and “The Ten Critical Mistakes Trial Lawyers Make (and how to avoid them)” at:

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