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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Storytelling Again: A Great Storytelling Example to Share with Students

I've enjoyed reading what Charlie Rose has recently posted about the central role of storytelling at trial. If you haven't taken a look at those posts yet, links to them are available here, herehere and here.  Also, a few weeks ago I posted an article on storytelling from Psychology Today that provides additional insights.

It's fair to say that storytelling is important. I think it's also fair to say that it's one thing to recognize the importance of telling a good story, another thing to figure out what makes for a good story, and yet another to figure out how to tell one. Some of my students are natural storytellers who figure out the secret fairly easily, but others struggle with it.

A few nights ago, I forwarded a couple of Charlie's blog posts to my trial team members, who are working on opening statements and closing arguments in preparation for an upcoming competition. I got a couple of emails in response, essentially stating, "Well, this is great, Professor, and I agree with it, but where do I go from here? I want to put a good story together, but how should I do it?"

I didn't answer the emails for a day or two, but at two a.m. a night or two later, I found part of my answer while watching an episode of Breaking Bad on Netflix. (By the way, Breaking Bad may be the best television series I've ever watched. I watched four seasons' worth of shows in about two weeks over the holiday break. I couldn't stop!)  Season Three, Episode 12, Half Measures, has an absolutely outstanding story in it. A character named Mike--a security man, "fix it guy," and assassin for a drug king-pin--tells the story to Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad.  I watched the story a couple of times, and I realized it could be used as a great teaching tool to help students see a good story, figure out why it was such a great story, and identify principles they could integrate into their own storytelling.

So, here are a couple of Youtube clips with the story. The first is of the actual episode itself, and the second is a fan animation with the soundtrack. I included the fan animation because I liked it.

(here's the link to the clip in case you are getting this blog post via email: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n3u-6UFLubI)

(here's the link to the second clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUuHdACg83E)

I gave the students an email assignment, a copy of which is excerpted below, and waited for their responses. Their responses were quite insightful. They rewrote their openings and closings in light of the principles they gathered from watching the clips and reading the blog posts I sent them. I think seeing and listening to a good story helped them pull together what Charlie and the author of the Psychology Today article were talking about.

Here is a copy of the email I sent them:

If you have Netflix or Amazon Prime, I'd like you to watch a segment of Breaking Bad, Season 3, Episode 12, starting at the 21:50 mark. There's a story told in this segment, about 5 minutes long, that is fantastic. I want you to watch and listen to this story, paying close attention to the facts and details that make the story work.  

Write a brief reflective paragraph about the story. Tell my why it works. Identify key details that help you remember the story. I know, for instance, there's one detail of this story that I won't soon forget. Tell me what you learned about storytelling from watching this segment and how you will use it to improve your own opening or closing.

After you've held your practice sessions with each other--whether live or via visual streaming media--I'd like each individual trial team member to send me a brief e-mail report of your practice sessions this week. At this point, I am much more concerned with substance than style. What works in your stories? What needs improvement?

Here's what I need your report to contain:

1) For your own opening or closing:

--What went well?

--What needs to be improved?

--How well did you tell the story? What holes did you leave in the story? What felt awkward or out of sync in the story.

2) For each of your teammate's openings or closings.

--What went  well? Was there a moment in the story where you felt as if you were actually there? And if so, what was that moment? How well did your teammate sustain that moment?

--What needs to be improved, and why?

--What was the worst moment of the opening and closing, and why was it so bad? 

For whatever it's worth, our practice sessions this past week were the best I've ever had with a team at this point in the competition preparation process.  Focusing on storytelling--and having an outstanding example to use as a starting point--makes a tremendous difference.


  1. 'No more half measures' - good advice. So, to draw lasting value from this post about storytelling please share with us:
    1. The key points about the story telling that the students 'picked up';
    2. How the students linked their 'Breaking Bad' story insights with their content AND their delivery of opening/closing; and,
    3. How you will change your teaching of an approach to 'opening' and 'closing' in light of these experiences.

    By the way, in fantasy moments, oh how I would like to be able to use background music for court room address: it's such an important mood conditioner.

  2. Thank you, Hugh, for the assignment!

    1. Here are a few of the key points that the students picked up:


    --They noticed the importance of details in telling a good story. They were particularly struck by the description of the woman's arms as thin like a bird's, or the taste of metal that came from entering the blood-filled room where she was murdered.

    --They also noticed the organization of the story, how it held the viewer with dramatic moments and the build-up to the ultimate conclusion.

    --Several students commented that the story was real to them and they felt like they were there. I thought this was particularly insightful, because there are no flashbacks in the television show illustrating the story; it's just Mike sitting on a couch talking to Walter.

    2. Delivery.

    --Students noted the intensity, tone and pacing of the delivery.

    --Several students commented on the power of silence--pauses--in the story.

    --They commented on the eye contact and facial expressions of the actor.

    How Student Comments Linked to Content and Delivery

    --This was the first time I ever tried this method. I think it was superior to demonstrating an opening statement, because Mike's story doesn't have a cause of action, elements, or anything else from the legal world to interfere with it.

    --What I noticed from every student was a big effort to do three things: (1) find the real story in the case file; (2) illustrate that story with facts rather than conclusions; (3) try to bring the story to 3-dimensional life to place the listener in the moment. Their success in doing this varied, but they all made the effort. When we started working together in person, even the most deficient openings and closings improved quickly.

    --This was particularly helpful for some of my students whose opening statements have more closely resembled closing arguments than anything else. They caught a vision of the power of a good story as compared to a legal argument.

    --Delivery. No one was as good as Mike in the video, obviously, but they have all tried to integrate pauses, variations in delivery, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures into the overall planning of their statements. What I noticed is that it was easier to get them to make changes, edit their own work, and so forth, because the video clip seemed to give them a vision of what they wanted to do.

    3. How I will change.

    --In my basic trial advocacy class, I started out with a storytelling module BEFORE we got to case analysis. This is a first for me. I borrowed some ideas that Judge Bob McGahey shared with me a couple of months ago, and I used them in the very first class with the students.

    --I showed my class a couple of different storytelling vignettes--not courtroom vignettes--to get them thinking about the stories behind their cases.

    --I am not using a canned case file for the first half of my basic trial advocacy course. Instead, I am using a video clip of an incident from a movie, with a police report that a graduate student helped me create based on the clip. We are going to focus heavily on trying to get our witnesses to share an experience THEY'VE ACTUALLY HAD (to the extent you can do this with a video). And we're going to evaluate the students on how well they've been able to interview witnesses and create examinations and openings/closings to bring that vignette to life.

    --For my trial team, the results so far--focusing on finding the best way to tell the story-have made for better practices than I've had in the past at this point in the process. We'll see if we get better results at our competition in a few weeks.