Since the webinar I’ve had many questions about some of my go-to resources and general tips about testifying. So here are some of the things I think are important about testimony. But keep in mind, these are just *my* 10–I know that many FHO readers have plenty of experience with testimony, so please add your tips (shy people), to make this an even richer discussion.
In no particular order:
- Read. For the love of all that is holy, please read. Not just abstracts. Not just the highlighted section a colleague provided you that answers some statistical question. Read the whole article. And read all the time. I know that you are busy, but the beauty of reading is that it can be done in 5 or 10 minute increments. Reading is a part of your job, so look at the small spaces in your day and have an article at the ready for when a few spare minutes present themselves. While you are waiting for a kit to be picked up or waiting for a staff meeting to begin, or a patient to arrive–read. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of reading material out there? Start with the monthly lists here and see what sounds relevant to your practice. At least an hour of my work day is spent reading, and every article I read makes me better at what I do, because it makes me better able to articulate what I do and why I do it. And every once in awhile reading makes me rethink what I’ve been doing all along. That’s good. That’s the evolution of a clinician.
- You never stop getting better. It doesn’t matter how many times you take the stand, you never stop improving your testimony skills. The more you do it, the better you get. But you will always be able to be better–there will always be something you could articulate more clearly or answer more succinctly. Even experienced witnesses occasionally get cornered on cross or are less than artful in their explanations. So learn from every opportunity to testify and take a colleague with you to court whenever possible. This allows you to get objective feedback from someone you trust. Or see if you can get transcripts of your testimony, if that’s an option.
- Opinions may change. If you do this long enough, at some point you are bound to give an opinion that is different from one you have given previously. We work in a relatively young profession and the science around what we do and what we know is still emerging. Wood’s Lamps are a perfect example of this (click on the link to review the research)–when I started doing this work, they seemed like a great tool for identifying semen–now, not so much. My opinion, since my initial training almost 20 years ago, has evolved based on newer science.
- I don’t know is a complete sentence. It’s okay to admit when you don’t know something–in fact, it’s critical. Testimony isn’t like your oral comps in grad school–you aren’t going to get extra points for guessing. And you will most assuredly lose points if you just make stuff up.
- You are there to teach. Your job is to teach judges/juries/panels what you know, what you did, what you saw, and in some cases, what you think. So expect that you will be asked to define every science-y and jargon-y term you use. Be prepared to draw diagrams or give a rudimentary anatomy lesson. Healthcare providers are educators, and that doesn’t end when you walk into the courtroom. And remember, you aren’t getting paid by the word up there–keep it simple and concise.
- Resist the urge to update the world. I know that Facebook, Twitter and the like have become places many of us go to let people know how or what we’re doing. That being said, don’t do it while you’re in trial. You cannot comment on any aspect of a trial while it’s going on–not a post about what a schmuck the attorney was; how resilient you were on the stand; the fact that the judge spent the length of your testimony doing the crossword puzzle; not even about how cold it was in the courtroom. Trust me, I know it can be nice to get that virtual high-five from your peers after a grueling day, but when it comes to status updates, save them for another day (and another topic).
- You’re a professional–look like one. Okay, I know there are some places where this won’t apply (yes, Alaska, I haven’t forgotten our conversation about courtroom attire), but generally speaking, Would it kill you to wear a suit? If you have met me then you know that I am a fairly casual person. I don’t wear suits very often. In fact, I have one black suit. But I trot that one black suit out every time I take the stand. Why? Because court is a serious place, and I like my clothing choice to reflect that. And because I am a professional, and I want the way I look and the way I sound to be in concert. BTW, I would argue that no matter where you are in the world, if you are testifying at a court-martial (military court), dress your professional best.
- Take comfort in your knowledge. The courtroom is an intimidating place. If you’re not used to spending any significant time there, it can feel a bit Stranger in a Strange Land. One thing you can take comfort in–you generally know more about the subject matter to which you are testifying than just about anyone else there. Maybe this is the 1st time you’re testifying, and maybe you’ve only seen a handful of patients with this particular chief complaint. You still bring highly specialized education and a rich clinical background (one that includes more than just your work with forensic patients) to the table. Don’t sell yourself short. Draw on the breadth of your knowledge and feel confident that you do in fact know what you’re talking about.
- Practice. While testimony as a general experience is unpredictable, parts of it are pretty routine. Questions about your background, about how you conduct your exam–these don’t vary all that much. Get together with a colleague and go over your 30-second-cocktail-party-conversation line about your role as a forensic clinician. Have someone walk you through your education and clinical background. Practice talking about yourself. It’s not all that comfortable if you’re not used to it, but it’s an important part of testimony. Practice listening to a question from one person, and responding to someone else. Practice the art of patiently waiting until the full question has been delivered, rather than jumping the gun and answering the question you think you’re being asked (that would be me). You’d be surprised at how much you can practice.
- And also, prepare. Not just pre-trial prep (although that’s good, too). Pre-subpoena prep. Get your CV up to date (or finally create one, if you still haven’t done it). Look for some continuing education to help build your skills. Plan a staff meeting where everyone can review a recent transcript and discuss the effectiveness of the testimony. You should rightfully anticipate having to testify in this line of work–no reason to wait until the subpoena comes to start working on your competency in the courtroom.