This is what happened.
If you’re the type of person who reads legal blogs and trial advocacy books to learn how to give a good opening statement, you know you have to grab the jury’s attention. None of this “Good morning ladies and gentlemen. What I’m about to tell you is not evidence. It’s like a roadmap that I think will help you blah, blah, blah” crap. Grab the jury. Lead them where you want them to go.
I’ve always been a big proponent of the Keenan/Ball (mostly Ball) opening statement:
A driver is required to stop at stop signs (or whatever).
If the driver does not, and as a result hurts someone, the driver is responsible for the harm.
Now let me tell you the story of what happened in this case.
It’s clear. It’s succinct. It tells the jury what to look for without telling them how to think. It might not be the best start to a novel – but that’s not what we’re trying to do. Or is it?
Consider this article from the Atlantic where Stephen King discusses his favorite opening lines from books. Say what you will about Stephen King, but he knows writing, he knows what’s popular, and he knows how to grab someone’s attention. His favorite opening line?
This is what happened.
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.
A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything–there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes.
That’s exactly what we want to do with our opening statments, right? I mean… really exactly.
“This is what happened” is so close to “Now let me tell you the story of what happened in this case” but yet so different. David Ball makes some good points about the use of the word “story” – we’re familiar with stories, we have learned to listen to them since we were little kids, etc. I’ve always bristled a little at it because “stories” aren’t always true. I read stories to my three year old daughter every day – and none of them are true. Stories are what your drunk uncle bores you with – where everything is exaggerated to make himself look more interesting.
I don’t tell stories in opening. I tell the jury what happened.
Of course, there is a story to it. There’s a narrative about how someone broke the rules, did something that put people in danger, hurt someone, the victim struggled and got better (or not) and the victim’s life was changed, etc. There’s a method to telling that story too, but that’s for another day.
(Howard Zimmerle is a trial lawyer from Rock Island, Illinois. He practices personal injury and medical malpractice law in the Quad Cities area, including surrounding areas of Iowa and Illinois. He can be reached at 309-794-1660 or hzimmerle [at] mjwlaw.com)