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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Storytelling - Making the World Make Sense

Dear Friends:

I have been blogging the last few days about storytelling, how it works from a biological perspective and the ways in which we might be able to use the unique storytelling nature of humanity to make ourselves better advocates.  I wanted to shift focus slightly in this post, and build upon the idea of narrative and how it can relate to better advocacy.  

Humanity spends each waking moment in a search for context.  We need the world to make sense.  There must be a reason for the things that do, and do not, happen to us, and an explanation that places us firmly in the world in a fashion that allows us to function.  The story of our life is the individual narrative that makes sense of the nonsensical. Making sense of things that are presented in a piece meal fashion is the charge facing every jury member.  They will begin, from the moment they are selected for jury duty, to create a narrative of their life as a juror.  Every lawyer, every witness, every party, is a character in the narrative of the jury member’s life at this point.  They will use this same process to make sense of the trial.  If this is true we should use it to tell a persuasive and believable story to the jury.

What makes for a persuasive and believable narrative?  First and foremost it must make a personal connection with the person that is the subject of the story, and with those with whom it is shared.  We can define a personal connection as one that clarifies the issues faced by the individual, simplifies the great questions in that person’s life during the story, and then provides information that nourishes both the storyteller and those who are experiencing the tale, hopefully with information that can be shared and used by others when they go through similar times.  If you think about it for a moment it is relatively simple to place the story of the parties in a civil action, or of the victim and defendant in a criminal case, into just this sort of narrative.  The question is how to do it effectively?

If you look at human nature, most of us are comprised of competing thought processes that work in very different ways and from very different perspectives.  Freud spoke of the id, the ego, and the superego.  People of faith speak in terms of the natural and the supernatural, humanists deal with the known, and attempt to explain the unknown.  Each of them is relying upon their logical reasoning, the ability to deal in abstract concepts, and the emotional responses experienced as they walk through the thicket of logic in a world filled with shadows that cannot ever truly be known.  This need for focus is paramount, without focus we cannot hope to have context, and it is the context that makes it all work for us, both individually and collectively.  It is why certain stories are so incredibly powerful, so focused on what it means to human.  You know them when you read them, you weep when you see them, and they make the cup of life both rich and bitter.  They also have certain shared components that can be identified and used by advocates as we tell our client’s story.  Simply put, the stories need to ‘stick’ with the listener.

Stories that stick with the listener are deceptively simple. This doesn’t mean that they are not complex, or unsophisticated, but the delivery of the message is simplistic so that it can enter the consciousness of the listener.  Think of it this way, when you are trying to tell someone four different things at once you wind up not telling them anything.  Simplicity can, in some sense, be equated to focus.  Simplicity makes the listener receptive to the story that follows.  This is a lesson that applies to every piece of the trial.

Once you have hooked the listener with the focused simplicity of your subject, you surprise them with an issue or event that is unexpected.  The unexpected creates contrast, and contrast draws focus and attention.  In the best stories the unexpected becomes the turning point that takes the subject of the story down a path they would have otherwise never walked.  Suddenly we need to see what happens to them - we want to know what comes next.

Once the listener commits to engaging, the storyteller needs to use concrete terms and descriptions that focus different parts of the human brain on experiencing the story.  Concrete words create physical responses within the brain and engage the narrative of the listener - committing them to your version of events.  The use of these sorts of words and the engagement of the listener at a narrative and biological level creates credibility for the storyteller. Credibility, once established, brings the listener along with the storyteller through those moments in the story that require faith and belief in something that is not tangibly present.

To accomplish all of these goals the storyteller must enlist the audiences’ emotions.  Certain situations call to our emotional reasoning.  Some are stereotypically human - puppies, little children, the sick and injured.  Others issues may not appear to have an emotional component on the surface, but good storytelling ( and case preparation) can identify the humanity beneath the issue - placing it on display to engage the emotions of the audience.  You can use the nemonic SUCCESS to remember these points.


The genus of these ideas come from two excellent books that talk about similarities between presentations (stories) that resonate with us.  If you find this topic interesting I would recommend that you consider reading “Made to Stick” by Chip & Dan Heath, as well as “Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery” by Garr Reynolds.  Both of these books look at presentation and storytelling from a different viewpoint than we might take as attorneys, but the suggestions they make have the potential to greatly increase our ability to successfully tell the story of our clients. 

Finally, and most importantly,

Happy New Year’s to You and Yours.

All the best,


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