#WritingTips Guidelines for Testifying in Court

I originally wrote this article for PI Magazine's December 2010 issue. These guidelines were written with private investigators in mind and provide handy info if you have a private eye character who must testify in court.

The section under "To be most effective when testifying" has tips for any character who's taking the stand at a trial. Or turn a tip or two upside down and make a more conflict-filled situation in your scene!

Ten Tips for Testifying in Court

by Colleen Collins, All Rights Reserved

The ultimate presentation of an investigation is testifying in court, either before a judge or a judge and jury. The idea is to make an effective, articulate and organized impression on the fact-finder (the judge or jury).

If, as a PI, you were hired by an attorney, together the two of you will most likely prepare your testimony directly from the investigative reports you authored. Keep in mind that the reports themselves are not presented as evidence because they meet the definition of hearsay; however, well-written, clear, and informative reports support the testimony and help the lawyer immeasurably.

If you were hired by a citizen, you need to make sure they read your reports. The burden is on you to make sure your client’s questions are organized, written down, and that they have rehearsed their direct examination of you.

To be most effective when testifying:

  • Make eye contact with the jurors. If you look at the attorney when answering questions, it might look as though you’re unsure of what you’re saying or that you’re asking for help.

  • Answer yes or no whenever possible.

  • Never explain an answer, nor volunteer anything!

  • Provide adequate detail, but scrupulously avoid being mired in too much detail

  • Avoid equivocal or qualified answers.

  • Dress professionally. Studies have shown that the colors blue (for men) and black (for women) make them appear more believable. (For more tips on attire, check out "Tips for What to Wear to Court")

  • Use simple terms, common language.

  • Be mindful of a jury's sense of fairness.

  • Know the facts, but don’t repeat the testimony word for word as though it were memorized.

  • (This tip applies specifically to PIs) Don’t bring your investigative file to court. Anything you have in your hand (whether you’re on the stand or in court) can be admitted into evidence at the request of opposing counsel. On the other hand, think how it could bump up the stakes if a file carried into court becomes evidence...even more interesting, what if the PI-character had planned that all along.

    Perhaps the most important tip is to remain respectful of the court, the judge, the opposing counsel, and especially yourself.