By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Well, it has been yet another fascinating week for people like me who are interested in political communication. This week, Congress kicked off hearings dealing with some explosive charges regarding a foreign country's influence on our election, and possible coordination with a political campaign. On Monday, Adam B. Schiff, who represents California's 28th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives and is a ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, provided a compelling introduction when opening the hearings looking at contacts between President Trump's campaign and Russian officials. As I watched his remarks (video is available here, and a full transcript is here), it reminded me of a good opening statement in trial. Of course, there is an important difference between an investigation and a trial, and an important difference between prefatory remarks and conclusions.
But what stands out to me from Representative Schiff's message is that, for an opening, it is awfully like a closing. He starts by telling the story of everything that is known from the public message. The framing of his message is, "Here's what we know now... and it is more than enough to justify digging in a full investigation." In a trial, the reference point would be on "Here is what the evidence will show," but rather than just being a preview, or as the adage says, the "picture on the top of the puzzle box," the point is to build the case itself. In court, of course, you cannot literally argue, but if your judge or jury doesn't know what the argument will be, then you aren't building the right foundation for what's to come. The opening should instill a conviction or at least a solid frame of reference from the outset. Reviewing Schiff's introduction, widely shared on social media in the past few days, I believe he does just that. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising coming from a former prosecutor. Another representative with the same background, Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said, “The courtroom is different from a committee hearing room in almost every way, but Adam has managed to make the transition well.”
Whether you're following the story or not, and whether you think it's nothing or think it's a big deal, Representative Schiff's statement is worth sharing at length. So in this post, I thought I would share it along with my own commentary pointing out where it illustrates a few best practices in trial openings.