INTERVIEW: Sally Gooda, a communications expert working with Assurety

INTERVIEW: Phil Lowe, an Assurety communications trainer

Phil Lowe has drawn on many aspects of his life and career to provide communications training for Assurety’s witness familiarisation programmes. Here he explains what his role involves.

One of the most exciting things about Assurety’s programmes and the communications trainers it uses to deliver them is the wide variety of experience that they bring to their role.

Phil Lowe is no exception. He started out as an actor and stand-up comedian and did a Masters’ degree in work psychology and organisational behaviour before becoming a leadership coach. He now writes and directs independent films alongside his work for Assurety. His short film, The Driving Seat, won six awards at film festivals around the world and he is currently developing it into a full length feature film.

The knowledge Phil has gained enables him to bring a unique insight to Assurety’s programmes, both in its witness familiarisation programmes and in its effective presentation courses.

Phil says: “I come from a background of analysing performance and analysing personality. My work in the arts means that I notice the things that people are doing and look at the whole picture, and my knowledge of personality and psychology means that I can help people understand the impact they might be having on someone else and what they might be able to do to change that. At the heart of what I do is helping people make the best of what they have got, by working on their own authentic style and helping them to bring that out.”

Phil says that we all unconsciously give out all kinds of signals that can either give the listener the impression that we know what we are talking about, or which can completely undermine that. Having an upright posture, remaining still, maintaining eye contact and speaking at a calm pace, for example, are all signals that give the impression of credibility.

Being comfortable with silence is important too. Phil says: “This is quite useful in court because witnesses often say more than they need to when answering a question. Giving a very clear succinct answer and being prepared to sit quietly regardless of what the cross examining barrister is throwing at you is a big advantage. Often people feel awkward where there is silence and feel that they ought to be saying something, but that is usually a killer because then they say something they haven’t really thought about. Cross-examining barristers are very good at exploiting those kinds of weaknesses.”

The wonderful thing is that once someone becomes aware of what they are doing wrong, they are able to change it. Phil says: “We can deal with most things that people need to think about, even when they have deeply ingrained habits. We get rid of the bits that are in the way and allow them to come across at their best.”

He adds: “What I like about the Assurety process is that by the time you have finished working with somebody, they are actually behaving differently, so you get instant results. I find that very satisfying.”

OPINION: Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress

When done right, parliamentary hearings and public inquiries represent an unique opportunity for business leaders to state their case. That didn’t happen with Mark Zuckerberg, says Assurety founder Ed Williams

On the face of it, Mark Zuckerberg got lucky last week. When he appeared in front of Congress he might have expected to face some rigorous questioning about his business and its methods. Instead what he got was some over-zealous politicians seemingly more interested in playing to the cameras that in carrying out any kind of proper forensic questioning. 

From the responses he gave it is clear that if the Congressmen and women had been doing their job properly he would have quickly come unstuck. His over-prepared responses of media friendly sound bites would not have withstood the scrutiny of any kind of rigorous questioning. His answers lacked credibility and with better questioning that lack of credibility would have been obvious.

Fortunately for him, though, the committee were clearly far more interested in being seen to act tough than trying to get proper answers from him. Indeed, most of their questions were not even questions at all; they were simply statements put to him to show off how what they knew. This left Zuckerberg free to respond in any way he wished. When they did ask questions, they were too broad and open to produce meaningful responses, and when Zuckerberg avoided answering a question, they did not repeat it, leaving him free to ignore it altogether.

The sad thing is that by not properly grilling him, the politicians were actually doing not just the public but doing him a disservice. This was not just a missed opportunity for them to find out the truth, it was also a missed opportunity for Zuckerberg to prove his critics wrong. A successful business needs to show that it is open, transparent, credible and committed to making the changes it needs to. This would have been the perfect opportunity for him to show that. When done right, parliamentary hearings and public inquiries represent an unique opportunity for business leaders to state their case.

People’s attitudes to social media are changing fast, yet right now Mr Zuckerberg is clearly not showing that he is ahead of that change. He needs to be if his business is to survive. Right now, he might feel as though he had a lucky escape in Congress, but in the long run people want to see a business leader who understands transparency and will answer real questions. What we saw was someone with an extremely effective PR team.

INTERVIEW: Tom Coghlin QC, an Assurety barrister trainer

Tom Coghlin QC has been a barrister for 20 years and an Assurety trainer for over five years. Here he explains what to expect from one of Assurety’s witness familiarisation courses and why Assurety’s unique approach makes such a dramatic difference.

If you have never been cross-examined by a barrister before, it can be a real shock. As Tom Coghlin explains: “In some ways you might think it is like a normal conversation, because you are being asked questions and answering them, but it is very different. The process is really challenging and it exposes you in a way that you don’t necessarily expect.”

That’s why Assurety has placed cross-examination right at the heart of all the witness familiarisation courses it offers. Not only that, it has developed a unique approach that closely reflects the actual experience of being cross-examined in court. 

Because the law forbids trainers to discuss the details of an actual case, traditional witness training methods typically use case studies and role play to simulate the cross-examination experience. But Assurety uses a method that reflects the reality of the unfamiliar situation in a far more useful and authentic way. 

Instead of providing the participant with a made up scenario and asking them to pretend, Assurety trainers cross-examine course participants on things that are real for them. 

Tom says: “We are enabling participants to understand what the process actually feels like so that they can see how they perform under that kind of pressure. Role play training can feel sterile because ultimately the participant knows they have been given a script to read. But if you are asked to defend something you’ve actually done, it creates a particular tension which better replicates the feeling of being put on the spot when giving evidence in a real court situation.”

Tom himself is certainly not pretending. Indeed when he cross-examines a participant on one of Assurety’s witness familiarisation courses, he approaches the process in exactly the same way as if he were cross-examining a real witness in court. 

He says: “I prepare for a course with the same rigour as I prepare for a real trial. I will have prepared my questions in advance and might have spent quite a lot of time researching particular topics so that I would expect to know that topic just as well as the participant. I might look the participant up on LinkedIn or on Twitter to see if they have got an internet footprint and read their tweets. In fact often I am left with all sorts of unused cross examination material because I have over-prepared. I am not there to ask powder puff questions. It has got to be real.”

Being put under pressure this way in such an unfamiliar setting this way can reveal all kind of unconscious traits that might hinder someone’s ability to give evidence. Participants can become monosyllabic, or defensive, or emotional, or display behaviours that impair their ability to give evidence clearly and well. 

While the cross-examination by the barrister trainer is taking place, a communications trainer will be watching carefully for any sign of negative behaviour and taking notes.

Tom says: “Sometimes people start tapping their finger on the table in frustration or smirking or giving answers in an evasive or unreliable way. You need to be ready to answer difficult questions without taking it personally, and without letting yourself get distressed by the process.”

Fortunately the great thing about finding out these traits during the Assurety course, rather than in the witness box, is that witnesses at least have an opportunity to think about how they are coming across. 

As Tom says: “Our courses give you a chance to practise so that you come across at your best when you give evidence. We help witnesses to answer questions in a helpful manner for a court or tribunal.”

Tom points out that being able to give evidence effectively is not just helpful on a personal level, it can significantly help the justice process too. He says: “Cases very often turn on witness evidence, and how well people do under cross examination. A witness who performs badly can unquestionably lose the case for that party. Entirely honest people can underperform simply because they are unfamiliar with the process.  And the stakes can be very high - you can have a case worth many millions which turns on how well witnesses do.”

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