By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
By now, it is familiar advice to trial lawyers: Tell a story. Jurors and judges will appreciate the familiar structure, pay greater attention, see the world from your party's perspective, and have an easier time remembering and using the information. We might think that the advice applies to attorneys, especially during opening statements -- and it does. But it doesn't end there. Rather than being just a handy technique for organizing the attorney's first presentation, the narrative is a paradigm for how people learn new information and use it. So the advice to "Tell a story" applies in settings wherever people are being taught new information. An expert witness's trial testimony is one such setting.
Scientific experts, whether talking about chemistry, design, medical care, or economics, can be hard to follow. Not only is there the unfamiliarity of the scientific language, but jurors and other fact finders often lack a basic understanding of the method and the process as well. Present that in the wrong style -- a style that assumes motivation and attention, for example -- and it is easy for your audience to shut off. One thing that helps is to frame the unfamiliar science in the familiar structure of the story. A recent study of published scientific literature (Hillier, Kelly & Klinger, 2016) looks at 700 scientific papers on climate change, asking what factors in a crowded literature made some papers more influential than others. What they find is that those papers written in narrative style are more likely to be used and cited in other publications. First author, Annie Hilliar, wrote in a ScienceDaily release,"The results are especially surprising given that we often think of scientific influence as being driven by science itself, rather than the form in which it is presented." But when it comes to comprehension and influence, form does matter. Science presented in story form made for a more influential contribution. The expert in trial is not interested in being cited, but does want to be used -- by a jury later in deliberations, for example. So rather than following an analytic outline that blandly covers credentials, methods, and conclusions, it is better to turn the testimony into a tale of sorts. In this post, I will break down the steps and provide an example of what this means.