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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Persuasion’s Holy Grail - Engaging Emotional Reasoning through Storytelling

Standing before a jury a young advocate desperately desires to make them ‘feel’ what happened, to bring them into the moment where justice still resides, where the echo of the truth can not only be heard, but felt.  It is that elusive search for feeling, for emotional connection, that resides behind lectures about factual theory, legal theory and moral theme.  The search for the words that will capture the case, the tagline, the hook if you will, is in reality an acknowledgement that in order to truly open the jury to your arguments you must find a key to the door of their emotional reasoning.  The jury’s decision is covered with a thin veneer of logical reasoning, but underneath, where opinions are formed, emotional reasoning rules the process.  The key to that door is the human tradition of oral storytelling.

Many of you reading this might think, well of course, everyone knows that storytelling is the key to empowering emotional reasoning - but have you ever thought to wonder why?  Turns out that neuroscience helps us to understand how it works.  Imagine if you will brain imaging devices deployed to observe the inner workings of the brain in response to certain stimuli.  You can literally see which portions of the brain are engaged based upon the nature of the input.  You can tell stories, read lists, show pictures, do a dance, recite a poem, all of it is observed electromagnetically, identifying which portions of the brain are responding to the stimulus.  You can then take your knowledge of what functions different parts of the brain have and posit the impact of the different presentation styles.  It turns out that presentations that focus on a logical bullet by bullet approach engage the language portions of our brain where we process words into meaning.  These are normally called the Broca and Wernicke’s areas.  Unfortunately this is the only part of the brain that is activated.  

Now when the language changes, focusing on one of our other senses, that area of the brain also lights up.  So when we use words to describe a physical feeling to an act or event that portion of the brain is also engaged.  She had a voice like butter, engages that portion of the brain that focuses and the meaning of language, and the portion of the brain that processes taste and smell.  If we had used the phrase ‘velvet voice’ we would see the portion of the brain that processes touch light up.  The more portions of the brain you can engage, the greater the potential persuasive power of the story.  But it goes beyond this, into the realm of making others believe what we believe.

Brain scans reveal that when we accept as true what we are saying, when we share a story that has shaped our beliefs and values, and when we use the right series of words to engage different sections of the brains of those listening, we can bring our brains into synchronicity in such a way that the imaging output of the speaker is reflected by the imaging output of the listener.  Research has shown that an audience will show activity in the same portions of their brain as the speaker - think of it as neural coupling, and its wireless too!  This allows us to transfer ideas, beliefs, emotions, simply by sharing a story - when it is constructed properly. Turns out the brains of the listener are engaged at a level beyond logical reasoning, in the land of emotion, and sometimes, the land of survival.

For member of the artistic world, directors, actors, authors, this is not a surprise.  Careers are built on the ability to ‘reach’ the audience in this fashion.  But for children of the law, raised to worship at the altar of logical reasoning, it is an earth shattering prospect to accept the presence of emotion and its impact on the rule of law.  Let me see if I can explain the importance, and fear, engendered by the power of emotional reasoning when the children of logic confront it.  To understand we need only turn to Celtic mythology for a reference point that helps us to understand the value and power of emotional reasoning in a logical world.

 In Celtic mythology there is a deep sense of fatalism, of balance, duality if you will, but always limited by the relationships between individuals in society and between the various Gods. A great deal of order must exist to create this fatalistic and orderly approach to the world.  Unfortunately nothing but order creates a situation where life cannot flourish, where change is not possible, where the magic of the world cannot exist - the unknown if you will.  Enter the Wild Hunt.  The Wild hunt, led by a child on a horse of white, represents the chaos of the universe, the way in which all of us are subject to the unknown.  Even the Gods are bound by, and subject to, the power of the Wild Hunt.  The world does not work without the Wild Hunt, it literally will not function, but because of its incredible power it is feared, and to the maximum extent possible, always contained. Logical reasoning within the adversarial process is much the same, without the underpinnings of emotional reasoning it is hollow and lacking, failing to ring true in the minds of those who hear it.  Emotional Reasoning is the Wild Hunt of the Advocacy Process, taming it the Holy Grail of Advocacy.  So what do we do with this?

We use this knowledge to activate the brains of the jury, to bring them to our side so that they see what we see, and believe it to have the same effect that we are arguing for.  How?  A story is a tale of cause and effect, and that is how humans think.  We observe our environment and tell ourselves stories about it all day long - the narrative of our lives is continually running.  We literally make up short stories in our head to give coherence to the world.  Because we do this we take the stories of others and relate it to our own experiences - this makes us extremely susceptible to metaphors - we are metaphors in motion, continually seeking context to our lives.  When we search for a shared experience to relate to a story we literally activate the insula portion of our brain, allowing us to better relate to that same experience, whether it be love, pain, joy, or disgust.

Here’s the last thought I would like to leave with you tonight, have some words become so common, so used, that they no longer reach into the core of our brain where emotional reasoning resides, but skitter instead across the surface of our prefrontal cortex where language is processed, like raw meat being ground into sausage? Might make some difference in the choice of words when you prepare your next story.



  1. Charlie's comments point out the major distinction between teaching at a law school of coaching a trial team and NITA's courses. The standing NITA rule about no war stories comes from the necessity of time. NITA courses provided a limited window of opportunity to work with students - between three and seven days. Many instructors only have one or two chances to work with a group of participants. Those instructors do not have the luxury of working with this same group of students over the course of many weeks.

    Because we have such a short time we ask instructors not to sharewar stories during workshop hours. When an instructor dominates the conversation by telling a war story it steals performance time from the participants. As a NITA Program Director I find that unacceptable. The students are paying good money to learn by doing - not listening. Even if the war story imparts some wisdom it does not teach as much as learning through performance.

    I do encourage instructors to spend time with NITA students outside of workshops. Some use the opportunities of breaks and meal times to talk with participants. Others prefer to tell war storis to their colleagues on the teaching team.

    Given the luxury of more time I would encourage using real life examples as Charlie suggests. Another issue is one of controlling the war stories. Some stories do teach. Others simply let students know, "I'm a great trial lawyer and don't you wish you were as cool as me." Those stories do not teach and they do not make better trial lawyers of students.

  2. I appreciate what Mark has said in his comment. The NITA 4-step critiquing method (Headnote, Playback, Prescription, Rationale) brought order out of chaos and systematized advocacy teaching in a disciplined, consistent, student-focused way. Even though I haven't taught for NITA in a couple of years, I use the NITA method all the time, even with law students. It's flexible and effective. I also use Charlie Rose's What, Why, How method, which is a derivative of the NITA method and also effective.

    When I teach law students or coach a trial team, I do have the luxury of additional time, as well as a semester-long (or longer) relationship with students. This permits me to depart from the NITA method and try different teaching methods. Some of them, such as the transformational advocacy critique I've written about, have been quite effective. If I am honest with myself, some of my experiments have been resounding failures, but it is easier to recover from a failed experiment in a law school environment than in an intense, 3-to-5-day course taught to practicing professionals.

    I agree with Mark wholeheartedly about war stories. I've been reading an old cross-examination book--one that is considered a classic--and it is in reality nothing more than a collection of war stories organized by subject-matter. I've enjoyed the book and benefited from reading it, but the author's approach is not efficient, and what is occasionally irritating about the book is that many of the stories seem designed only to showcase the author and his amazing skills as a cross-examiner.

    I learned in the NITA teacher training course that war stories
    are distracting indulgences, shifting the focus from student to teacher. This is not to say I don't tell war stories, because I do (and truth be told, probably too often), but every time I tell one, I find myself questioning whether my purpose is to teach, to entertain, or to engage in self-aggrandizement. This tells me that we have to be careful with war stories.

  3. I must echo Mark's comments about war stories and CLE training. I apologize if I did not make it clear in the original post, but NITA's position on this issue has a great deal of merit for CLE training. It is difficult to teach through stories and be both effective and time efficient. Mark is absolutely right about the need to make certain that each and every participant in the course/class/training experience is given an opportunity to perform the most important piece (at least to me) of what Mark so lovingly describes as the Tell, Show, Do aspect of NITA training. I am talking about the "do" of course.

    When Mark runs a NITA program, and he is by the way the best program director that I have ever seen, he builds in time for war stories - it just occurs over food, spirits, or at a social event that is planned and built into the schedule. If you ever get to teach for NITA in a Caldwell Program you will see the instructors sitting at table with the students and they are sharing, through stories, how the techniques they are learning transform the advocacy experience. That time, apart from the structure of the course, is some of the best mentoring you can get. Mark is the best person in the nation at creating that sort of environment and I count myself lucky to have been able to teach with him in those programs. I hope that someday all of you get to do so too.