Law Tips: The Art of Telling the Story Well in the Courtroom

“A trial is a highly prepared, precise operation…. It is critical that impressions are managed and stories are clear.”

It’s my pleasure to welcome back David Mann, The Professional Education Group, Minneapolis, MN, who is sharing his expertise on the importance of storytelling for litigators. In case you missed his interesting discussions earlier on persuasion and managing rhetorical delivery, I’ll include links below. Now he delves further into constructing the story and engaging the mind:

It is often said that a case is a story. The idea is if you can tell the story well, you stand a much better chance of winning. Within the case, there are several opportunities to tell stories: the opening statement, the summation, and at various points in the trial proceedings as witnesses articulate their points of view. But despite the fact that it’s unquestionably part of a successful case, the skill of telling a story well is often underdeveloped. It is a true art which, when done well, appears effortless.

The first step is getting clear about what a story is, and what it is not. The word “story” is used liberally, but it’s not just a catch-all term for a list of facts or events. Likewise, a story isn’t complete if it only consists of a highly-charged event or interesting character. And of course, a clinical essay with a well-shaped argument doesn’t equal a story. It is important to think of it as a specific type of entity. An engaging story has these foundational elements:

  1. A good story engages the mind and emotions at the same time.

A story must be logical and coherent (mind) so that the drama and intrigue (emotions) function effectively. Clearly, these principles apply to stories told for entertainment and artistic purposes, but the same rules apply for persuasive stories used in the courtroom. Stories that tilt to far in either direction are ineffective. A narrative that covers the correct series of events may be logically sound, but it won’t capture the imagination. Likewise, a story that relies too heavily on mood and sentiment will seem spineless and soft. It’s the balance of both elements that grabs a listener and keeps them engaged.

  1. A good story allows us to see the events through the eyes of a human. We engage in a story when we can identify with the protagonist – even if the protagonist is a person who doesn’t share our values. All great stories have an engaging central character or two, because without that it’s simply a setting and a plot. Humans like to hear about other humans, and painting those characters vividly is vital to the persuasiveness of a story.
  2. A good story has a before-during-after shape. We need to know what happened, even if the events are told out of chronological order. By the time the listener hears the end of the story, they need to be able to think of it as having a logical order of events that is crystal clear. Too much “during” without enough “before and after” will reduce the sense that something important happened. The contrast makes the story come alive. A story with a clear narrative, engaging characters, and mind/emotion appeal stands the best chance of being highly persuasive.

Preference for Incomplete Information
Although it is counter-intuitive to a logical attorney, humans actually prefer to have less information. Our brains have developed over time to adapt to having incomplete information from which to make decisions. Our ancestors had to deal with potential adversaries like wild animals and neighboring tribes, and often there simply wasn’t enough time in the heat of the moment to gather sufficient information to make a logical decision. Was the animal running toward you or away from something else? Was the gathering horde approaching to make war or ask for help? Our brains made as much sense as they could of the situation, filled in the missing information based on assumptions and prior experience, then promptly acted according to that pieced-together assessment. We still do it every day.

Consider these two sentences: John felt hungry. He got into his car.

There is nothing tying those two ideas together, yet a connection is made. John must be going to get food, right? But John could just as easily be looking for a book he left in his car. He could be late for an appointment. He could be doing hundreds of other things by getting into his car, only one of which would be going to get food. Consider how often that leap of logic happens when speaking to a jury, and consider how to use it to your advantage.

Constructing a Story
Here is the quick guide for constructing an effective story for use in the courtroom.

  1. Use your case themes to anchor your story
  2. Find the story moment you want to depict and decide on a story structure
  3. Include and elaborate on important details- eliminate unimportant details
  4. Develop the story arc for drama
  5. Use rhetorical devices from the list (see link below)
  6. Choose wording for clarity and impact

I thank David Mann for his contributions. Hopefully his storytelling expertise assists you in sharpening your skills. Click on the links below for his earlier blogs. If you are interested in learning more, ICLEF’s seminar presented by Mr. Mann, Advanced Skills of Storytelling and Persuasion for Litigators, is available for an On Demand showing or by video replay in your neighborhood. Click Here to setup that CLE at your convenience.

Here are the links to other Law Tips articles on Storytelling For Litigators:
A Professional’s Advice on Clarity, Compassion and Confidence in the Courtroom
A Professional’s Advice on Clarity, Compassion and Confidence in the Courtroom – Managing Your Voice
A Professional’s Advice on Clarity, Compassion and Confidence in the Courtroom – Great Speeches

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About our Law Tips faculty participant:
David Mann is a speaker, trainer, and professional actor/director. He has a specialized focus on persuasive presentation for lawyers, and he is on the faculty of NITA (National Institute for Trial Advocacy) and Loyola School of Law. A professional theater artist for over two decades, David has performed or directed for many recognized theatre companies. He has written and performed five critically acclaimed one-man shows, and he is a recipient of a Bush Artist Fellowship for Storytelling. David is a graduate of Northwestern University, and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. If you have questions for David or would like to inquire about his coaching, contact him at david@davidcmann.com. For speaking engagements go to the Professional Education Group at proedgroup.com.

About our Law Tips blogger:
Nancy Hurley has long-standing connections with Indiana lawyers. She was formerly a member of the ISBA and IBF staffs for over 30 years. Nancy’s latest lifestyle venture is with ICLEF. We are utilizing her exceptional writing and interviewing skills while exploring how her Indiana-lawyer background fits with ICLEF’s needs. When she isn’t ferreting out new topics for Law Tips, her work can be found in our Speaker Spotlight blogs, postings on the ICLEF Facebook and Twitter pages, and other places her legal experience lends itself.

Thank you for reading Law Tips. You may subscribe to this weekly blog through the RSS link at the top of this page.  Also, you are encouraged to comment below or email Nancy. She welcomes your input as she continues to sift through the treasure trove of knowledge of our CLE faculty to share with you.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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