It is not easy to get up on the stand, but if you are planning on testifying anytime soon you would be wise to review these 15 rules for testifying.
1. Answer Only the Questions Asked
Don’t get distracted. It is the lawyer’s job to ask the question, and you should answer only the question the lawyer or the judge asks, otherwise you risk side tracking the testimony or giving the other side more information that you should. You should also always answer the question fully, but balance this by not volunteering extra information that is not necessary to answer the question.
2. Use the Nine-Magic-Word Answer
When asked by the opposing side, “Is that all?” You should say, “That is all that I can recall at this time.” This leaves the door open for more information if you remember something important later.
3. Think About the Question
This is not a race, and it is important to get your information straight. Think about each answer. A good strategy is to take a slow and relaxed breath before answering any tough question. Don’t get in a hurry.
4. Support Your Conclusions with Facts
After you give testimony about facts you may be asked, “What do you base that on?” In a divorce case you may be asked, “What is the value of your Lexus SUV?” If you say, “13,000,” be prepared to offer the reasons why you believe this to be the case.
5. Obey the Approximation Rule
You will be asked about times, dates and numbers. If you are not for certain, you should say ‘approximately’ when giving out this information. You can’t always be so precise, and by couching your answers as approximations you leave the door open to get the exact dates and numbers out later.
6. Don’t Guess
Never guess at an answer without explaining that you are estimating or approximating! The facts in your testimony are important, and if you come down as definite on something that you are not, it opens the door for the other side to show that you don’t know what you are talking about.
7. Never Say “Never”
Never say always! There are always exceptions, so don’t make blanket statements that can get you in trouble later.
8. Do Not Be Intimidating or Intimidated
The judge and everyone else expects you to be polite, and the judge expects this from the other side’s attorney as well. Don’t argue, make faces, raise your voice or be insulting. You will make yourself look bad and, perhaps, prejudice the judge against you.
9. Wait Until You Hear the Full Question
You will not like the questions the other side’s attorney asks you, but you need to listen to the whole question before you start answering. Not only is this polite, but it will give you time to think about your answer, and answer the question you are asked instead of reacting to the question you think you are being asked.
10. Point Out Interruptions Politely
The other side’s attorney may interrupt you during your answer. If they do that, then just sit quietly, and when they finish you say, “I am sorry, I did not finish answering the first question,” then proceed to answer.
11. If You Don’t Understand, Ask for Clarification
Don’t be afraid to ask for clarification about the question. If you don’t understand ask the other side to repeat the question. If that fails, simply state that you do not understand the question. However, don’t do this unless you truly do not understand, and try not to do it too often. It can appear that you are trying to avoid answering the question or are making up your answers.
12. Always be Polite
This is like an job interview, you are on display. You should try to be very polite and gracious, even when you believe the other side is not being so themselves.
13. Look the Judge in the Eye
In a divorce or family law case, it is the judge that hears the facts and decides the case. You are really speaking to the judge, so you should try to direct your voice in his or her direction and look him or her in the eye. Show your confidence.
14. Dress to Impress
As I said, this is like a job interview. It is important to look your best so that you can convey a good impression. Remember, that judges are used to being around lawyers, and most are lawyers themselves. If you want to look professional and serious you need to dress up in a way lawyers understand. Think about wearing a nice shirt and a tie if you are a man, or a nice blouse and a tasteful full-length skirt or pants if you are a woman. Appearance matters.
15. Tell the Truthy
This is the best policy in any case.
Adapted from the Oklahoma Family Law Practice Manual.