A Sputnik Moment

October 4, 1957, 10:29 p.m.  A rocket lifts off a secret launch pad and hurries into the night sky above Tyura-Tam, a small settlement of cattle herders in present-day Kazakhstan.  Thirty-four feet tall, its payload is a metal sphere just 22 inches in diameter, weighing 184 pound.  The Soviets call it “Prosteyshiy Sputnik 1” — Simple Satellite 1.  The Americans call it the “Sputnik Surprise.”  The Space Age had started and the Space Race begun.  The Advanced Research Projects Agency (now DARPA) was established four months later in 1958.  NASA opened its doors by that year’s end.

For 21 days, Sputnik traced an elliptical path around the planet.  Passing overhead on a cloudless night, it could be easily viewed by unaided eyes — sunlight glinting off its polished shell.  Even when it could not be seen, it was heard.  A shortwave radio transmitter inside the sphere emitted a “beep-beep — beep-beep” to signal its coming and going.   To see or to hear the world’s first artificial satellite was to be transported irrevocably into a new realm.  Sputnik captured the American imagination, and what we imagined — Soviet technological supremacy — scared us to action and re-shaped national priorities.  Within twelve years, an American astronaut would climb out of a spaceship to step down onto the surface of the Moon.

Come down to Earth with me now, back to the humdrum reality of daily existence and our petty squabbles.   You are a trial lawyer, after all!  Today, you will conduct voir dire and select a jury.  Tomorrow, you give you make your opening statement.  How will you launch your case, and capture the attention of your audience?  How will you get jurors to really pay attention, to focus on what matters most for your client?  Even the best storyteller struggles with this.  Let’s tell the truth — trial presentations are not always dramatic and exciting.  Plan around that fact.  Identify elements within your narrative that command attention, that challenge jurors to think deeply and to care genuinely about what is happening in the courtroom.  If, in the early moments of a new trial, you are able to capture the jurors’ attention, then you can have it back any time just be referring back to that touchstone of thought.  Start fast and give jurors an early taste of what they most crave.  What is it they crave, you ask?  To make a difference, and to be changed by their experience.  Give jurors a brief glimpse of that shining object in the sky.  Let them hear why the trial matters to your client, and why it should matter to them too.  Mark a spot in the case — a point of departure — that serves to separate the “before” and from the “after.”  Ask yourself, “what is my Sputnik moment?”

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