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Engaging the YouTube Attention Span

Written by NITA Program Director and guest blogger, David Mann

Ask yourself this: “When I see a video pop up on my social media feed – if the title has caught my attention and I’ve clicked play – how long do I give it before I click it off?”

I’ve asked this question to seminar audiences across the country, and the answer always seems to be “about ten seconds.” If it has engaged you, you’ll generally let it run to about 30 seconds before getting back to work. But if it still has your attention past 30 seconds, then past 60 seconds, there’s a really good chance you’ll find the time to watch that entire 13:42 video about something completely unrelated to anything you were thinking about prior to that moment.

That’s what I call the YouTube attention span, and we’re all subject to it now.

We expect – we demand – that whatever is being presented to us grabs our attention instantly and holds it. We “audition” the video clip, the speaker, the commercial…whatever it is. And yet when we present in court (and in most other professions that involve speaking) we tend to slog through a long background and history before getting to the main event. We load up that precious first few moments with technical detail, jargon, and abstract language. For some reason, we seem to believe cultural habits don’t come into the room when there are “serious” matters at hand. But nothing could be further from the truth.

How you organize your story is absolutely critical to it being engaging. What’s often frustrating for logic-minded attorneys is the fact that live delivery of a story needs to be decidedly non-logical in its organization. In other words, there’s no need to educate the fact finder about the history or background before getting to the point. You can do that later. Build your opening for engagement, not logic. Our brains don’t mind; we can be presented with well-designed, out-of-order story fragments and our brains will sort it all out into a clear picture. But the key is to make it well-designed. Have you watched Better Call Saul? Like its predecessor, Breaking Bad, part of its appeal is that you wonder what’s going on before it is made clear. That’s well-designed storytelling.

An opening statement is the purest storytelling you’ll do in court. The impressions made during the opening will last for the entire trial. When I’ve worked with attorneys on constructing and writing opening narratives for trial, I direct them to spend a lot of time on the overall construction: build the opening with the mindset of a performer, not a lecturer. That means paying attention to the pace and density of the material, not just the logic.

Here’s a quick overview of a shape I believe works well for getting a jury engaged and keeping them with you. Generally, a 20-25 minute opening can break down like this:

PART ONE: Establish the Players and Events – 5 minutes

  • Introduce characters so it is simple to know who to root for and against
  • Give a simple, streamlined version of the story
  • Introduce simple, common sense principle or theme
  • Establish simple version of the basic rules that were broken

PART TWO: Fill in the detail – 10-15 minutes

  • Give a longer, more detailed version of the story
  • Provide a more detailed background
  • Explain the details of the rules that were broken
  • Characterize opponent’s case

PART THREE: Make the Jury a Character – 5 minutes

  • Let the jury know they can make it right
  • Explain the details of the jury instructions
  • Give a context for damages

This is clearly a very general outline, and of course each case has its own unique features that will dictate the shape of the opening to a certain extent.

The goal of Part One is simply to get the jury on board. They do not need to understand everything at this point – they need to be interested and curious in understanding everything as it comes up later. That is a different goal. Five minutes in speaking time is a little less than two written pages, assuming it’s 1.5 space in 12-point font. It’s really easy to look at those two blank pages and fill them up with everything you know about the case…but don’t do that. Imagine a jury with their fingers poised over the “stop” button on the video if they’re not interested after two paragraphs. Then get them to the next two paragraphs…and so on.

The goal of Part Two is to fill in all the detail they’re now hungry for. So do that, but still keep it economical. It isn’t necessary to try your entire case in the opening; just get the jury acclimated to the characters, events, and crucial details that will emerge in the rest of the trial. Again, it’s about making them interested and curious so they’ll see the rest of the trial through the correct lens.

Part Three is simply to articulate the purpose of their role and to empower them with the tools they’ll need to play that role.

We joke about the shrinking modern attention span caused by social media’s influence. To an extent, it’s true. But keep in mind that people always find time to pay attention for a long time if they’re intrigued. By using well-designed narrative structure, you can keep them intrigued on your side all the way to the verdict you want.


If you’d like a more in-depth look at story construction and delivery, take a look at my October 16 NITA webcast or join me for my intensive 2-day NITA program, “Make Your Case Story Engaging.” Participants use a real case file, which we build into an engaging narrative opening statement in two days. See the NITA website for details, dates set for April 18 – 19, 2019 in Washington, DC.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system.

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