The phrase, gilding the lily, comes from a Shakespeare play, King John.  The line in the play is actually, “to paint the lily.” The quotation reads, in part, “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily / To throw a perfume on the violet. . .. / Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.” What it means is simple:  when you already have something beautiful, e.g., a lily, gold, a violet, don’t attempt to make it more beautiful.  All you do is risk ruining it.  For a cross examiner, this is a golden rule – DON’T GILD THE LILY.  In other words, once you’ve gotten the answer that you wanted or a good answer, leave it alone, don’t attempt to make it better because you really just risk making it worse or ruining it.  How?  For example, you’ve gotten the witness the admit to describe the room in which he says a crime occurred that he personally observed incorrectly.  Leave it alone.  Instead, so many questioners in search of the “dunk” or in an effort to “make the point even clearer” ask further questions and clue the witness in that he made a mistake.  For example, rather than leaving the wrong description alone, the lawyer follows up with more:

  • Q:Now, you’ve described a room with a single bed right?
  • A:I believe so.
  • Q:You mean a narrow bed as opposed to a queen or a king, right?
    • (now the witness is clued in because the lawyer is going back and trying to make this point again.  Realizing that he made a mistake, he backtracks on the lawyer)
  • A:well, I might’ve been a queen or king size bed. I wasn’t really paying attention that closely at that point because I was so startled by what I saw.

The lawyer has gilded the lily.  Rather than leave the answer alone, he tried to improve on it with more follow up only to ruin it.  In Episode 17, I explore this phenomenon and encourage you all to stop, respect the good answer and don’t gild the lily to make it better.

Please be aware we are relying on impressions, recollections, memories and interpretations.

Listen/Watch Episode 17 Now