It may sound obvious, but one may be surprised at how often witnesses ignore this rule. When that happens, the judge has to remind the witness and it can be embarrassing. Witnesses are always nervous and sometimes they tend to jump ahead and anticipate what the question is going to ask. Don't do this. Take the time to listen, and you'll avoid unnecessary embarrassment.
Consider the Answer
A good witness makes sure the attorney has finished asking the question before answering. One should take time to think about the answer. For one thing, a court reporter will be taking down everything that's said, and two people talking at the same time will create chaos in the record. Secondly, waiting for the question to be asked in full allows the lawyers enough time to object if the question is unfair. Lastly, if you pause for a second or two before you answer, you'll give yourself enough time to organize your thoughts and give a more accurate answer. The object is to avoid making critical mistakes that may mislead the jury and will undoubtedly cause you unnecessary grief during cross-examination..
Answer the Question and Only the Question
This rule, too, would seem to be obvious, but one would be surprised at how often it is ignored. You know the expression, TMI? Too much information. Witnesses who offer TMI in their answers can severely hurt the chances of the very party by whom they've been called upon to help. Don't worry that the lawyer hasn't extracted all of the important information that you want to talk about. Lawyers are allowed go back and reopen their examination of a witness, even after their initial questions have been exhausted. It's called redirect and recross. The information will eventually come out, but it's better to wait until you're asked the appropriate question. Finally, don't concern yourself with getting your point across. As an unbiased witness, that shouldn't be your concern. Just concentrate on answering the questions and let the lawyers argue the significance of the testimony of the witnesses.
Tell the Absolute Truth
And don't concern yourself with what others have said in their testimony. Witnesses often see and hear things differently from the way others do, and when that happens, their testimony will differ from that of other witnesses. That's why witnesses are usually not allowed to listen to the testimony of other witnesses. We want to know hat each witness saw and heard. In fact, too much conformity can often create suspicion. If each witness simply tells the absolute truth as he or she knows it, cross-examination will be a snap. It's when witnesses decide to fudge and fib that they get into trouble. And that can and usually does result in unfair results.
Other Do's and Don'ts
"I don't know," and "I don't remember" are perfectly good answers if they are truthful, and you shouldn't feel the need to explain why you don't remember. In fact, you should avoid saying things like, "It's been over a year since this happened." The jury knows how long it's been since the incident. When you make excuses for not remembering, it sounds disingenuous.
Avoid interjecting phrases like, "To the best of my recollection" or "To the best of my knowledge." Every witness has sworn to testify to the best of his or her knowledge and recollection. When witness say this, especially when being pressed on a particular answer, it sounds as if they're hedging, that they're especially unsure of this part of their testimony, that they're afraid of being contradicted.
Don't look at your lawyer when you're being cross-examined. It looks like you're seeking clues or hints.
Finally, sit up straight, don't mumble, use the microphone, and speak loudly and with confidence.
Additional resources provided by the author
Go to markjsullivan.com for more information and for suggestions as to what to do when you're in court. Look for, "A Defendant's Guide to Courtroom Ettiquette."