Trial and the KISS Method

The “K.I.S.S.” Method, an acronym for “Keep it simple, Stupid,” is a guiding principle for trial of every case in court. This is not a criticism of the judge, jury, law, or lawyers, but a basic recognition of the proper method for communication of complex concepts. There is nothing new about this.

The measure of a great teacher is one who can explain complex concepts so that a child can understand them. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate in physics, took this a step further. When he was asked by a Caltech faculty colleague to explain why certain sub-atomic particles obeyed certain statistical rules, after rising to the challenge later conceded: “You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.” In other words, if you really understand something, you should be able to explain it – simply.

Nearly a thousand years ago, a Jewish scholar and teacher, Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki, known by the acronym, Rashi (RAbbi SHlomo Itzhaki – RA-SH-I) wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible – known as the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy) and the Talmud. He was acclaimed as a great teacher for his lucid explanations of the text. The highest praise of his teaching: he could explain the most complex concept so that a bright child of five could understand it! John Taylor of the Church of Latter Day Saints wrote: “It is true intelligence for a man to take a subject that is mysterious and great in itself and to unfold and simplify it so that a child can understand it.”

Aristotle taught of the three routes of persuasion as Logos, Pathos, and Ethos: roughly, an appeal to Logic; an appeal to Emotion; and an appeal to Ethics founded upon the character or credibility of the persuader. When teachers, such as renowned trial lawyer, Gerry Spence, and the Trial Lawyers College based upon his teachings, speak of being the “Truth Teller” in the courtroom, they are speaking of Ethos: persuading an audience of the character or credibility of the persuader by making sure the lawyer is honest, fair, sincere, and worthy of belief.

None of this talk of simplification should be confused with “dumbing things down.” To the contrary, effective trial presentation is, like great teaching, born of clarity, getting to the essence of things. Many famous communicators have recognized this. Attributed variously to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire, Blaise Pascal, Rudyard Kipling, Henry David Thoreau, Woodrow Wilson, Marcel Proust, Pliny the Younger, Goethe and Cicero is the apology: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.” A shorter letter is superior communication, distilled and potent, not diminished in any way by the fact that it contains fewer words. It is clear. It is persuasive.

Every form of modern communication, from telegrams to Twitter, places a premium on economy of expression. The intended audience in the courtroom, the judge or jury, has grown up in a society where it is harder than ever to rely on the listener’s forbearance while you are “getting to the point.” Modern political campaigns are based on “sound bites.” The evanescent and protean images in videos, computer screens, televisions, and film have done nothing to help us as a society practice on prolonging our attention span. It is a poor workman who blames his tools, the saying goes. A trial lawyer must understand the context or social milieu in which his case is being presented and not wear out the patience of his audience with minutiae, trivia, extraneous information, or unnecessary detail.

However one may decry the simplicity and brevity of slogans, one cannot deny their power: from Patrick Henry’s patriotic cry “Give me Liberty or Give Me Death!” to trial lawyer Johnny Cochran in a turning point in the O. J. Simpson murder trial: “Remember these words: If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” One may be justly critical of over-simplification of complex ideas through misleading catch phrases. At the same time, consider that some of the most poignant and powerful expressions of the human heart have been simple poetry. As Walt Whitman wrote: “Logic and sermons never convince, The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.” [Song of Myself].

A trial lawyer who wishes to communicate effectively is almost always well-served by remembering that “Less is more.” The challenge of explaining complex ideas is not new. Consider the challenge of the Gentile who asked of Rabbi Hillel that the Jewish moral law as expressed in the Torah be explained to him while he stood on one foot. Rabbi Hillel responded with what has come to be known as “the Golden Rule”: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary; go and learn.” This was not “dumbing down,” but, rather, brilliant insight, perspective and compression of thought. Getting to the essence, the just principles that form the underpinning of your case, that justify the outcome you seek, is the purpose of your trial. Everything else, as Hillel said, is “commentary.”

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