Jan 18 2024

Improvisation Meets Science: Enhancing Courtroom Communication in Forensics


In this interview, Laura delves into a unique workshop hosted by Julie Burrill and Josh Rich at the 34th International Symposium on Human Identification that integrated improvisation with scientific communication aimed at enhancing the communication skills of forensic scientists, particularly in courtroom settings.


Julie and Josh’s collaboration at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science focuses on combining theater-based techniques with specific scientific knowledge to aid forensic experts in courtroom communication. Their goal is to make complex scientific concepts understandable to non-experts, such as juries.


Courtroom settings provide a unique form of communication in which a lawyer asks questions of an expert witness who then provides answers to a jury, who does not respond. Utilizing principles of improvisation, such as active listening and presence, their workshop aimed to demonstrate ways expert witnesses can improve in testifying, such as reading the body language of the jury to ensure a point is understood before moving forward. The workshop itself involved interactive exercises and feedback sessions, helping participants apply these skills in their professional settings.


Julie highlights the need for more communication and testimony training embedded in forensic education and stresses the importance of admitting when one doesn’t know an answer in court, maintaining professionalism while being honest.


Josh discusses the value of peer feedback and sharing experiences within the field and encourages analysts to practice communication skills outside their professional sphere to gain perspective on how their audience perceives their information.


Together, their holistic approach aims to improve the clarity and effectiveness of scientific testimony in legal proceedings. To learn more: https://www.aldacenter.org/





Laura: Hello and thank you for tuning in to the annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. Today we’re here with Julie Burrill and Josh Rice. Julie and Josh, you have a very unique workshop that you’re presenting. I can’t wait to hear more about it. It involves improv, which is something I don’t think we’ve had here before. But before we go into details, why don’t you each tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?


Julie: Sure, yeah. I’m Julie Burrill. I work at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, as well as the Leverhulme Research Centre for Forensic Science over in Scotland. I’m sort of co-sponsored and my background is really in forensic DNA for the most part. I’ve also worked at a public defender service, so I got to watch a lot of experts testify and a lot of different criminal proceedings. So that sort of combined interest got me really sort of invested in how people talk about science and how they testify about it. And I sort of used my professional experience and then my work in forensic DNA to sort of help people get better at that and help us figure out in this new landscape of forensic DNA, how we can testify about it more accurately and effectively.


Laura: Wonderful. Josh.


Josh: And my name is Josh Rice. I come to this work from the theatre world. So, I’ve been an actor, teacher, performer, puppeteer, improviser for about 20 years. And I’m a lecturer in improvisation at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. I’m an Alda certified facilitator. So, in addition to this curriculum, we also have curriculum for climate scientists for communicating science to policy makers. There are varying kinds of specialties within our science communication that I also develop curriculum for. And a lot of the work that I did as a younger person was working with medical students and training them in empathic communications, especially in working with patients, and how to just talk to people in a way that makes them feel like they’re really being cared for, especially in those really vulnerable moments. So that’s how I kind of first got interested in the field of communication and applying theater toward communication. And that’s very much what our workshop is about.


Laura: That is fascinating and something that I think could be incredibly valuable, because you don’t hear that being talked about too much. You know, we’ve been doing the symposium for 34 years, and it isn’t something that we’ve ever had here. So, we’re extremely excited. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what the workshop includes and why it’s so important?


Julie: Yeah, we’re very excited to be here, too. I know that saying we’re doing improv and theater is a big reach for a lot of people. It’s a very different type of skill set than a lot of forensic DNA experts come in. But we’re hoping to sort of take people on this ride a little bit and teach them some new skills and use a lot of that really valuable improv based communication stuff that Josh has such a wonderful background in and marry that with an understanding of the research about how we communicate and how we learn things and how we hear and how we listen, and how we process quantitative and scientific information, particularly if we are not trained as experts in that field. So, the workshop is really to sort of hone in on some of those skills, I think.


Josh: And in terms of the improv aspect, we really want to tell participants and assure them that we’re not here to make them actors. That is not part of the workshop. We’re not asking them to engage in things that maybe they might feel a little inhibited to try to get into, but rather taking the really important principles of improvisation that Julie had mentioned. Really active listening, being present with somebody and taking in the things that they are saying, as opposed to thinking about what you want to say next and being able to adjust in the moment, trusting you know what you know and being able to adjust what the next thing is you want to say based on what’s coming or how people are reacting to you. And it’s really about just a presence and an awareness and being more in the moment, which is really hard to do in 2023. I think anybody in any field might say that, but being able to take some of these principles, ask participants to go through an exercise where you explore one of these principles in particular, and then we ask them to debrief the experience that they just had and tell us how they can find the applications to their work as communicators in a courtroom. So it’s very experiential. They do most of the work. Julie and I guide them through and facilitate the getting them through the experience of it. And then we facilitate that feedback discussion so they’re able to draw the connections for themselves and hopefully spark some aha moments.


Laura: I think. What you just said about active listening and the last three years. I mean, I think it’s been more difficult than ever for people to be present. And I don’t know how many people have talked to me in the last week alone about how they’re struggling at work because things are just so different. So that I think this is a fascinating workshop, and we definitely had a long list of participants lined up to take this. And being forensic scientists, sometimes there is more focus on the science and not as comfortable in other aspects. It’s stereotypical and it’s not for everybody, but it can be scary if that’s not your skill set. So, I think it’s amazing what you guys are doing. How did you team up and come up with this?


Julie: Well, so we worked together at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which really focuses on creating this kind of partnership. They do a broad range of science communication, professional development trainings. I think they’ve trained something like 20,000 scientists. They work with a lot of different major institutions. And Josh does a lot of different trainings, and I do a few other trainings as well in broad science communication. But whenever a sort of project arises where they want to develop a specific curriculum, they make it a real effort to partner up people with Josh’s really great facilitation, theater, improv background, and then this sort of message design or subject matter expert that I bring with my background and expertise in courtrooms and DNA and forensic practice in general. And so that’s really the sort of the basis of it is it’s a great partnership and it’s very deliberately made.


Josh: So and just an interesting topic area. I think when they approached me to say, hey, we would love for you to work on this project with Julie. Here’s what it is. And it’s like, oh, wow, forensics experts. That’s an area that is really interesting and fascinating. On top of the challenge of when you’re in a courtroom setting, there’s communication coming to you kind of in one direction, and then you’re trying to communicate to the jury over here. But they can’t communicate back to you, at least verbally. Body language is another thing that we ask them to pay attention to. But that’s a separate thing. So the challenge inherent in a courtroom communication situation is really interesting. And that, I think, is what makes kind of this collaboration really fun. Julie can tell me a lot about what people have faced with Julie has seen in her experience what the literature is saying, and then try to solve and address some of those things through applied improv and theater.


Julie: I feel like that is so important. We actually are focusing a lot this year on testifying and what that means, because a lot of forensic scientists, and certainly our students and people who are newer to the field, don’t really grasp that that’s going to be a part of their job. And some of the programs don’t even cover that in much detail other than a class or two. So, it’s becoming so much more important. You talked a little bit about a few of the examples, how this is applied, but maybe you can give us some others how this relates to forensic scientists in particular.


Julie: Well, one of the reasons as you said, that people aren’t getting trained. I think that’s such I think that’s such a loss for the field because many we do all of this communication work with a lot of different types of scientists. But forensic science specifically exists to be used in a communicated context, right? It is basically its raison d’etre is to be shared with investigators, lawyers in a courtroom, a legal context. Right. That’s what forensic means. So, I think it’s a real disservice that we are not embedding more communication and testimony training into forensic training. A lot of people get sort of the standard moot court in their part of their on-board training for their lab or their office or whatever, and they do it once and they have a supervisor watch them, and then they’re sort of signed off. And there’s not a lot of feedback that comes from the jury. You don’t actually get a lot of input on how effective that was. You sometimes get supervisors and other people watching you and saying that looked really good, and sometimes that’s really valuable, and sometimes you’re missing a feedback or an input opportunity to really to really focus your communication and your exchange of forensic science ideas on the jury, on the people who need to understand this information to make a decision.


Josh: And to add on to that, a big part of the design of this curriculum is allowing participants to work together and then get feedback from one another. So, they’re talking to peers in the field going through it. They’re knowledge sharing. They’re talking about experiences. They’ve had challenges. And others that maybe have more experience are able to then communicate back to them things that they’ve experienced in the past that might work and address that challenge. So the peer sharing and feedback aspect is so important and something that we always try to work into our curriculum.


Laura: So this is an amazing start for people who haven’t had this kind of training or are interested in getting into it in a deeper way. How do you help people keep up on that skill set? Or what would you recommend for people so that they can continue to practice that, since going to trial can be a very occasional event?


Julie: Well, one of the easiest things that people could do is really take the time to talk to people outside their lab, whether it’s at home, over the dinner table or in a classroom of fifth graders. Whatever it is, you learn so much about what other people are hearing when you talk to people who are outside your little world, don’t talk to your lab members or your peers. Try starting from the beginning and explaining the results of a case, and how your DNA analysis worked to your cousin over Thanksgiving dinner or whatever it is and encourage them to ask all the questions that they want to ask to get that clarification, because it really clarifies for you what is being heard by your audience. If you can have that interaction with someone outside your field. So that’s an easy first step, right? Take the time to have those conversations. That’d be my first set of advice.


Laura: That’s a great answer. Josh, anything to add?


Josh: I think just trusting that your peers can be a really useful tool for you. And even if it is running what you might be asked to say and anticipating some questions and having your peers maybe ask you those questions as a direct exam or a cross exam, and then trying to answer and then stopping and pausing and checking in and seeing that answer this right. I’m worried that I’m doing this. Can you tell me give me some feedback on this thing or what did you hear that that made you feel like I was communicating to the jury really well? The ability to just rely on our peers and get that feedback, I think, can sometimes be so useful and integral to it. So that’s another thing that I would say is just practice with people that you trust.


Laura: That’s great advice for everybody. I think in any field, Julie, with your background especially, are there mistakes that you have seen that have been made that maybe this training can help address or help people adjust for the future?


Julie: Well, I think a lot of people are running into and it’s not so much a mistake as it’s just a tricky area is now we’re getting into this place where people are very comfortable testifying about the substance of their results. But then we get into a hypothetical scenario about transfer DNA, and could it have happened this way? And if I shook his hand and then I did this, and could it have done this? And could we see that result? And we are testifying to these likelihood ratios about evidence under varying hypotheses. And that’s incredibly difficult to express to a jury. So, I think what the trap people are sort of falling into is they maybe haven’t practiced a professional and actively listening way to say, “I hear your question. This is where I think you’re coming from. I want to meet you there. And I have to say that I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t actually have enough data to provide you with a reasonable estimate about the likelihood of the event that you’re asking me”, and that’s an okay thing to say. It’s really entirely fine for an expert witness on the stand to say, I don’t know. That’s beyond the scope of my expertise. I don’t have sufficient data to provide you a reasonable answer to that, and you can do that and still remain a very reliable expert witness. You’re not compromising your professionalism doing that.


Laura: I think that is the best advice you can give anyone. I think everybody feels compelled to answer when they’re asked a question. So, fighting that urge and realizing that that might be your best course of action.


Julie: Yeah, and really, I think the improv helps in the way of staying in the moment when people feel like they’re getting backed into a corner on a cross exam scenario and really listening and trying to meet that person and engage. This is a real conversation rather than this interrogation gauntlet to survive, but as an opportunity for us all to learn and say, let’s talk about what we do know and what we don’t know, and how we know what we know, and engage everyone in that process.


Laura: Interrogation gauntlet I love that.


Julie: I think that’s how a lot of people see examination.


Laura: I’m sure people feel that. I think I would feel that a similar situation. Yeah, absolutely. If you each could pick your most important piece of advice that someone could take away from the workshop that you’re doing here, what would it be for each of you?


Julie: Yeah, I’d have to think about that a minute. Probably try and think about this whole experience as an opportunity for learning to happen. That although your professional presence is important, the bottom line of you being in that courtroom is for the jury to understand your results. It’s not strictly for you to perform in a professional manner and get everything right and nail it. The point is for the jury to understand your results. That’s a successful testimony. And sort of uncoupling your ego from that experience is really difficult to do, but I think so worthwhile in terms of the quality of the fair administration of justice in a trial, which is what we’re all going for.


Josh: One thing that I might suggest for folks is when you’re really being present, you’re reading all the cues that your audience is giving you. So, if you’re paying attention to jurors facial expressions, you might know that that term you used was something that they were unfamiliar with. And if you can pick up on that little subtle cue, which they happen in milliseconds, but we do this every day, so we know when someone doesn’t understand us. You can see it in their faces. Taking maybe that moment to then clarify what you use to then be able to move forward. And in that way, as long as you’re paying attention and seeing nods of affirmation, you know you can keep moving forward. If you’re seeing quizzical looks or crossed arms. Body language. Maybe that means things aren’t resonating or being understood, and that I think if you are able to pick up on those things, can allow you to be a little bit more flexible in the language and the concepts that you’re using.


Laura: Those are both great pieces of advice. Now, we had such a long waiting list for your workshop. So, for those who weren’t able to attend or weren’t able to attend this year, as is the case with some people who rotate years, are there other ways that they can work with you or other opportunities to train in this area?


Julie: Yes, definitely. They can reach out to me. They can reach out to the Alda Center. We have information, we have flyers. We have a website. You can Google us. I think it’s AldaCenter.org is probably a good starting place to find out about a variety of the trainings, including the one that we have done for forensics. And we deliberately keep them very small because it is this very interactive, experiential learning. And so, it’s just because of that, we couldn’t let everybody in to this particular conference, which was a was too bad because it’s always fun.


Laura: Okay. That was wonderful. Thank you. Anything that we’ve missed, anything interesting from. We’re really catching you day in between your workshops. So, we so appreciate that. We’re honored that you’re willing to speak with us right now particularly anything we’ve missed that you want to make sure that we add anything from this morning that was particularly interesting or stood out.


Josh: You know, I think the inhibitions that people might have when they hear things like theater or improv and the fears that they might have of what the workshop might entail because of that subject area. We do our best to really be responsive teachers and facilitators, and if we see someone might have a little bit of anxiety around something, we’re going to work to make them feel as comfortable as possible and as cozy as possible. And that’s for every participant. But we’re always really cognizant of how you might feel about this idea of improv, or the idea of trying an exercise that lives in a more theatrical context, as opposed to a communications context, and then connecting the dots for them by seeing how they’re feeling, assuring them that we might try something that might feel a little uncomfortable at first. But when we sometimes lean into those areas of discomfort, then there’s a really great growth opportunity on the other side of that. So we’re really approaching things with kind of a really soft touch. We’re not making anyone do anything that they wouldn’t want to do, but we encourage them. We give them lots of really positive feedback and hope that they will try something and maybe find those connections on the other side for them that they maybe wouldn’t have otherwise experienced.


Julie: Yeah, and I will add to that, that people have really been wonderful so far in this at this conference. We’ve had a lot of fun doing it. And I think people, although they’re outside of their comfort zone, have sort of come in with open minds and willingness to try something new. And that’s been really lovely and wonderful to work with people like that.


Laura: Oh, that’s so good to hear. I really enjoy this week. Every year. I know we were so happy to have you. I can absolutely see you coming back if you have the time. Is there a reason that you selected ISHI and you were willing to come and work with us? I know there are a lot of opportunities out there. We always like to ask that. You’ve covered some of that, but if there’s anything to add.


Julie: No, we were just excited to have such a sort of platform, to be able to talk to DNA analysts who are doing this sort of work in the field. And we have done this workshop with a sort of mixed participant list. So, it sort of it’s designed with all types of forensic analysts in mind and having the opportunity to do it here, where it’s really almost exclusively DNA experts. And we can sort of hone in on some really specific challenges that people face because they’re talking about STRmix or likelihood ratios or whatever the particular challenge is. It’s been really interesting for us. So that I think because that’s my background is in DNA, it’s been really engaging for me personally to get a chance to sort of hone in on those challenges specifically and try and work with people to help them communicate this area better that I’m so passionate about.


Laura: Josh, anything to add before I move on?


Josh: I think it’s always a fun challenge to have a mixed group of forensics types of experts, and then also a group that might feel a little bit more within the same discipline. And that I think allows for sometimes richer conversations. So, I think the opportunity to work with DNA analysts specifically allows certain parts of the workshop to really build and knowledge share in ways that maybe it might be a little bit more difficult for someone that works with documents, trying to talk to somebody that works with DNA. Sometimes that can be a little bit different, but DNA to DNA, they have so much more in common and more knowledge to share. And that is such a lovely thing to be able to see amongst participants.


Laura: Well, you two are fantastic. I mean, just from the short time together. Now I want to take your course.


Julie: Please do. We’d love to have you.


Laura: It would be great from different angle. Or maybe it doesn’t matter from the same angle before I ask this question, because obviously this is a fantastic thing you’ve put together and you really know what you’re doing. How long have you been doing this together? The two of you.


Julie: So we’re sort of still in the early rolling out days of this. It’s a relatively recent process. It’s, I don’t know, maybe a year and a half. We’ve been working on developing stuff and rolling it out and having these ongoing meetings. It’s a very iterative process to develop curriculum. We sort of do something. We try it out, we talk it over, we revisit, we get feedback from participants and our own peers at the Alda Center. We’ve got a lot of really wonderful colleagues with great curriculum brains who help us sort of sculpt and sort of scaffold the learning in appropriate ways. So, yeah, it’s been an ongoing process for maybe a year, but we’ve been rolling it out for a few months now, and so far, it’s going really well.


Laura: Oh, that is wonderful. And Julie, how long were you in the field?


Julie: Well let’s see, I worked in a couple in a lab for a while. I worked with the public Defender service for five years. I’ve worked in a couple medical examiner’s offices briefly, so I probably after college, maybe spent ten years doing various eclectic things related to forensics and forensic DNA. And then I went and got a PhD in forensic DNA because I just loved it that much. I wanted to study it, and now here I am.


Laura: It is the most fascinating field. If I could go back and have a second career, that would be it. I mean, I really enjoy learning more about it, you know, being at the symposium every year.


Julie: Yeah, so do I.


Laura: So this is a question that might apply to you. We’re coming up on our 35th anniversary so we’re asking and it’s optional, but what have you seen over your ten years plus now working in the field that’s been the most surprising to you?


Julie: Oh that’s a big question. I feel like what has been really surprising to me has been the range of answers to the same question. You know, it’s kind of like an experiment in chaos theory or something, where you have what you think is the same set of results, and you’re going to go in and testify about it. And then depending on the lawyers, depending on the jury, depending on the other facts of the case, you don’t even know about, it plays out deeply differently every single time. So, the same set of evidence comes across in different ways. And there are inherent problems with that structurally that maybe we should address as a community. But it’s always surprising and interesting to me to hear a new way that someone is talking about the same type of evidence. And I found that very interesting and surprising over the years.


Laura: Now that we have AI and we’re on the verge of quantum computing, I feel like there’s a chart or there’s a there’s something, a graphic in there that could be put together of all of the chaos that’s out there.


Julie: Yes, certainly. I think that’s true. Yeah. It’s going to change. Keep changing a lot in the future. It certainly doesn’t stay stagnant.


Laura: No. Do you have any ideas what the future might hold? This is speculative. But a best guess. Again, this is more of a 35th anniversary. Let’s see what everyone says. And then we’ll check back and see just how wrong and right we were. Oh my goodness.


Julie: I mean, we’re going to come to a crossroads with how we testify about statistical calculations made by a software that people sometimes understand and sometimes don’t understand. And we all understand that you can’t cross-examine a software. So, if they’re the ones making an opinion, there’s an inherent problem with that. But if we fully understand it and are just using it to guide our expert opinion, that’s different. And I think we’re going to come to a real it’s challenging for everyone now, but we’re going to come to a real point of reckoning, of figuring out this is how we’re going to need to talk about this, and this is what we can say, and this is what we can’t say. And we need to be able to do it in a way that is accurate and appropriately limited and effective and clear to a jury. And that’s a big ask. That’s a lot of requirements. But I think that we’re going to get there. I think we’re we have to we’re on the cusp of absolutely needing that. So, I think in five years you can check back with me and we will have come to some sort of conclusion about it.


Laura: Okay, I love that. And I love that answer. Julie, Josh, thank you so much. This was really wonderful. We so appreciate you cutting your lunch short and thank you for attending with us this year. It’s been an honor and thank you.


Julie: Thank you for taking the time. It’s been a pleasure. We’ve enjoyed being here.


Josh: So it’s fun to talk about the work. So yeah, thanks for the opportunity.


Laura: I love hearing about this work and I can’t wait to see what you guys do next.