What Netflix Can Teach Us About Opening Statements
By: Bell Law Firm
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What Netflix Can Teach Us About Opening Statements
“Face the Jury” is a podcast dedicated to confronting the issues involving medical malpractice in America– what it is, how to spot it and how to protect you and your family from medical negligence.
In this episode, Lloyd breaks down Netflix’s famous storytelling structure used to captivate audiences worldwide and how lawyers can learn from these tactics to craft powerful, compelling opening statements in court for their jurors.
I’ve spoken on this topic at many trial lawyer seminars around the country and dubbed it the so-called “Netflix opening.” It replicates the structure that Netflix uses when telling a story for entertainment in their documentaries and other movies and TV shows. The story begins at a point in time that illustrates the essence of the story, much like how Shakespeare did when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. At the beginning of that play, he tells you that this is a story of star-crossed lovers and who exactly will die. So, you know the entire story from the start, yet you still stick around to see the plot unfold.
If you’re like me, then you have been hooked on the Murdaugh murders and the story of the disgraced South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh, who has been convicted of murdering his wife and his son and is currently serving a life sentence. I binged the whole Netflix series on the story and trial. In the opening scene, drone footage follows a boat as it makes its way down the river in the low country of South Carolina. You hear the music and narration in the background describing that evening’s events and know something horrible will happen. Then Paul crashes the boat into the bridge support, and a young woman is tragically killed. Netflix has pulled you in, and from that moment, turning the show off is tough because you’re hooked.
This structure is standard for Netflix. They do it in Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, and more shows. The idea is to capture your audience at the beginning and grip them, so they stick around for the rest of the story.
In trial practice, we spend a lot of time unlearning the lessons we were taught. In law school, we learned how to make opening statements. You typically introduce yourself, thank the jury for their service, and then explain the case’s reasoning. But after 15 or 20 minutes, jurors’ eyes glaze over, and you haven’t even gotten to the essence of the story.
I suggest using Netflix’s model. Start your opening statements with a scene from a point in time that illustrates the conflict between the physician or the nurse, whoever the defendant is, and the plaintiff. The scene must be short, engaging, and pull your audience into the moment.
For example, medical malpractice cases are challenging because you deal with complicated medicine and sophisticated expert witnesses. The complexity of the case is intimidating for a jury. The “Netflix Opening” is twofold. First, when you stand up in front of the jury for the first time, immediately start telling a compelling story of what happened. The jury is drawn into a well-told story. Second, ensure the structure is familiar to the jury so they can comprehend the case at some level. In the opening statement, you have prime real estate to tell your story. Start with a 10,000 feet mini-story that encompasses the entire trial. The jury wants to hear the unfiltered truth, and there are rarely any objections.
Tell the story in the present tense, engage with jurors and make good eye contact. Move your body intentionally, step away from a podium and throw away your notes. Don’t use notes and talk to the jury like real people. When you transition from one point to another, that’s the time to move your body so that the jury is subtly keen that you’re transitioning and switching to a new topic.
In terms of the structure, start with an expansive view, so the jury knows quickly what the story is about within two to three minutes. In phase two, I focus on two to three key medical concepts. If it’s a stroke case, I’ll briefly explain what a stroke is and how to treat it. If there’s a complicated medical word that won’t be familiar, for example, arrhythmia, I’ll explain it and then translate it into everyday language. If I’ve done my job and presented the facts and the story well, the jury now understands the broad strokes of what happened, and their interest is piqued.
Phase three focuses on the story of the case. I will use medical records and highlight specific parts using multimedia, such as Keynote, to narrate the story on a wide-screen TV. I’ll describe the case typically chronologically, but not always. I support the story with visuals like a text message from a doctor on trial and go through the story of the case in more detail with supporting documents and other evidence that I’m previewing for the jury. Sometimes I use video clips, which can be controversial in the defense’s eyes. 15-20 second video clips can effectively show two or three witnesses so the jury can get familiar with the people they will meet during the trial.
And once I go through that story piece, I’ll focus on the lawsuit and why we are here. I’ll bring the focus of blame on the doctor or institution. I’ll lay it out explicitly, putting evidence on a board and encouraging jurors to write notes for the deliberation. I explain to the jury that they are there to do a job: to decide on the case. This demystifies the whole process because it can be intimidating.
The final part of the opening statement is a preview of who the plaintiff is – who the injured patient is – and how this has affected them. You don’t want the opening statement to go on too long. I like to reference the jury instructions that the judge will tell the jury later in the trial. I preview the instructions so that the language starts to become familiar. In Georgia, we have a jury charge that decides on pain and suffering called The Food Lion Charge, factoring in anxiety, shock, and fear.
Some jurors don’t see how they have the right to judge a medical professional due to their background. I explain that this is not a case of some complicated medical condition or disease. It’s a case of somebody not showing up when called to help. I weave in everyday, accessible experiences that connect to a juror who is a banker, laborer, or whatever it may be.
At the end of the opening statement, I will ask the jury for a certain amount of money I believe the case is worth. The jury should know the number early to make it more acceptable once they hear all the facts. There are a lot of varying goals and agendas in an opening statement, but it all starts with a solid structure.
Thank you for following along with Face the Jury. Stay tuned for the final episodes of Season 3.