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The Power Of Story In The Courtroom

May 10, 2011

Story is the portal through which we enter other people’s lives, connect with them and discover our similarities. Stories are the source of human connection; and, storytelling is, perhaps, the most important component of effective communication. And, effective communication is the means to achieving your goal as a trial attorney: justice for your client.

A hunger to hear stories is ingrained in every human being. From the time that our ancestors sat around fires in caves, up through today, human beings seek out and thrive on stories and storytelling, in order to connect with their fellow man, to pass down history and to teach. Story is the currency of human contact. As Annette Simmons (storytelling expert) writes in her book, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence and Persuasion Through the Art of Storytelling: “Telling stories and being curious about the stories of others is a way of life as much as it is a technique of influence.”

Our insatiable appetite for stories is fed daily through movies, cable television and the internet. Stories permeate our everyday lives, from the moment we wake, to the moment we fall asleep. Stories even inhabit and invade our dreams. Stories are everywhere, because more than anything else in our culture, stories move us.

But, some stories draw us in and move us more than do others. In the courtroom, we need to grab the jury’s attention, to hold it and, ultimately, to move the jury to action on behalf of our clients. This is not an easy task.

One of the most difficult tasks that you face as a lawyer is finding out about, or, rather, discovering, your client’s story, the one that you must tell at trial. What parts of the story are important? Where do you begin? Who are the characters, or important players? What facts do you need to prove the client’s claims? And, most importantly, what story will move a jury to deliver justice?

You cannot give jurors the actual experience of your client; but, you can provide them with the next best thing. According to Annette Simmons, “Stories interpret raw facts and proofs to create reality.” You can bring your client’s experience to jurors through story; by weaving a story that is so vivid and detailed that jurors feel as if they are actually there to experience the events of the story as they are happening. Simmons goes on to say that, “Story is a re-imagined experience narrated with enough detail and feeling to cause your listener’s imaginations to experience it as real.” Even though the jurors cannot be witnesses to the actual event, they can, through the use of psychodramatic tools, bear witness to the re-imagining of the experience.

One of the first things that you must do to fully explore your client’s story is to abandon your agenda: to focus not only on the elements of the cause of action asserted in the case, but to, instead, look at all of the facts, all the points of view expressed and the perspectives of each witness, including the opposition’s. In this way, only, will you get the whole story. You need to take a first look at the story as a human being, not just as a lawyer, so that you can relate to another group of human beings: jurors.

The case may be about an automobile accident, but the story is about much more than the accident itself. If all you do is focus on the actual event giving rise to the cause of action (the accident), you will miss critical parts of the story. Those other parts of the story will help a jury to understand, not only the accident itself, but also how the accident had an impact on your client’s life, and, ultimately, how not holding the defendant responsible could have an impact on each of the jurors’ lives. (This is not, incidentally, about violating the Golden Rule; rather, it is recognition of the universal truths that are part of our lives. Many of us share similar life experiences, albeit with slight variations; this means that our stories are largely the same.)

Traditionally, you begin to explore a new client’s case through an initial interview. Unfortunately, most lawyers limit themselves to looking for facts that fit into various boxes tending to prove the elements of a particular cause of action. This is, after all, what you were taught in law school. This stock-type of analysis, though, will not serve you well when it comes to finding the story that will result in the successful outcome of your client’s case, because this sort of baseline work-up does not take into account emotions, or the universal story, or stories, that have arisen out of the events. A story, to be effective, must evoke feelings in the listener or observer.

In a trial, human beings, not automatons, are the decision makers. These human beings are the people whom you want to convince that your client has been wronged, and is now deserving of redress. Despite what many law professors teach, people make decisions based on their gut, on their instincts, and their feelings, rather than on rationality and the application of intellect. As human beings, our feelings play a large role in our decision-making. After all, a verdict really reflects the decision of human beings who use their intellect and rational analysis to support the decision that they “feel” is right.

Limiting yourself to a cold analysis of facts, and pigeonholing those facts into neat cause of action checklists, is far too limiting. It may result in your missing powerful and persuasive aspects of your client’s story, specifically, feelings and emotions that will lead a jury to mete out justice on behalf of your client. Annette Simmons says that, “[F]acts aren’t as powerful as human emotions. Feelings alter facts, at least the impact of facts.” The most effective way to elicit an emotional response from people is through psychodramatic methods, that is, the “show me, don’t tell me” method.

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One comment

  1. Just wanted to post how much I love your book. It was recommended to me by a friend and fellow TLC Alumni who told me psychodrama would finally make sense after reading the book. He was right. I learned some things at the ranch but it wasn’t until reading your book that it all came together for me. Too bad they don’t make your book required reading. Most of my fellow classmates were lost. And a majority of the staff, with a few exceptions, really weren’t all that helpful in explaining things, especially psychodrama. If Gerry and TLC really wanted to help us be better trial lawyers, they would not only recommend your book, they would have us read it before attending. Feels like they want to keep students in the dark so they have to keep coming back to other programs. Your book was so clear and helpful. I am looking forward to attending one of your seminars. And I hope to meet Carl Bettinger and read his book too. I have heard great things about it as well. Thanks again!



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