The Value of Video

Jennifer Shapiro, pictured here, stands before a jury of her peers – students in her comprehensive trial advocacy class at Seattle University Law School. She delivers her first opening statement in the class. It’s not her first opening because she has competed in mock trials before.

As she delivers the opening, a fellow student videos her. After Ms. Shapiro delivers her opening statement, she takes the video card and loads the video on her computer so that later she can watch and critique her performance. The goal of the video review is to see herself as others see her and by this means improve performance. Shortly, we will come back to what she learned.

At the National Advocacy Center in Columbia, South Carolina, where federal and state prosecutors receive advocacy training, the courtrooms serve as classrooms. Each courtroom has multiple cameras that feed into a video room. Student prosecutors are videoed as they do everything from opening statement to appellate argument. Following each performance and courtroom critiques, the prosecutor picks up the video in the video room and goes to a video-review room where a faculty prosecutor sits with the student-prosecutor and critiques the student’s performance while it is shown on a television monitor. While the critiques in the courtroom focus on content and speech, the video-review critique concentrates on non-verbal communication.

Video review is common in other trial advocacy training settings. For example, the Advance Trial Advocacy Course conducted at the University of Montana Law School is like that used at the National Advocacy Center. On the other hand the equipment we use in the Seattle University class is neither fancy nor expensive – a handheld Kodak PlaySport video camera on a small tripod placed on a jury box rail. However, both the picture and sound are good enough to accomplish the task.

Seeing yourself as others see you can be a painful experience because you are your own worst critic. Initially, you might focus on such things as needing to drop a few pounds or your hair thinning on top. But, after you get past that, you discover ways to improve.

Video review is best used to correct and perfect nonverbal communication skills. You can see distracting habits, such as pacing (watching the video in fast forward can produce an amusing dance), awkward fiddling with a pen or looking down at notes. You can adjust your behavior so that you maintain eye contact with the jurors, have good posture and gesture naturally. It is also helpful to hear your voice so that you can get better. You can learn to do such things as modulate your voice rather than have a constant monotone, pause to take advantage of silence rather than going at a steady pace and slow down rather than rushing ahead. Video review is a valuable catalyst to improve advocacy skills.

Ms. Shapiro viewed her video and this is what she wrote to me:

“I learned a lot from the video review. I have competed in a few mock trials, so I think I have a good understanding of what an opening should consist of substantively, but, as a former teacher, I feel awkward in front of the jury without a white board to point at or a book in my hand. After watching the video, I understand why you told me to, “Watch my hands.” It was not until I saw the video that I even knew what I was doing with my hands as I spoke.

“The video was also helpful regarding my recovery if I forgot something or misspoke. In those moments, my appearance to the jury is last on my mind, so it is helpful to see how quickly I recover and what I look like as I try to remember something.

“Overall, the video review was very helpful.”