TRIAL LAWYERS AND STORYTELLING
Philip N. Meyer is a professor of law at Vermont Law School. He Emailed me about a book he has written, Storytelling for Lawyers published by Oxford Press. I have not had the opportunity of reading his book, however the table of contents shows a comprehensive list of subjects about storytelling. I recommend any well written book on this important subject.
Clearly storytelling is an essential tool for trial lawyers. The Spence Trial College teaches storytelling http://www.triallawyerscollege.org/. Learning how to tell stories about the facts of a case is a tool every lawyer needs. I’ve spent some time studying script writing as a means of learning about storytelling. My wife and I sponsored an informal class with actor Tom Skerritt and other professionals from the Seattle Film School for a small group of trial lawyers & friends because of the importance learning how to create and tell stories. I’ve published before on this subject, but Professor Meyer’s new book inspires me to post about it again.
None of us need to be reminded that the way to capture attention with children or adults is through storytelling. Lately literature about the skill of trial has been full of articles about becoming story tellers in trial. It is not just Native American culture that traditionally was oral. All mankind’s history has involved storytelling. Alex Haley in Roots reviewed the African oral tradition as well which has many similarities to the Native American. Scripture is replete with examples of storytelling as the chief means of communicating. We were brought up with storytelling either by our parents or in the books we read or the old radio programs and now by television or the movies. How many times have we heard someone say “did I ever tell you about the time…”?
Some therapists believe that listeners routinely enter a trance like state when listening to a well told story. This has been explained as being mesmerized by the unfolding story. People suspend outside awareness and concerns as they focus on the story. This allows them to be touched at the deepest level resulting in emotional responses including even tears. Story telling is a powerful tool.
Why are stories so compelling? Look at the parables of Jesus in scripture which are in story form. We see that one important fact about this form of communication is that they always make truth concrete. It is difficult to grasp abstract ideas. Most people think in pictures. Parables make truth into a concrete picture people can see and understand. Further, all great teaching begins from the here and now in order to get to the three and then. If you are going to teach about things people don’t understand you need to begin with things they do understand. Parables involve things every person understands from their own experience and from there lead to things which they need to understand. Most important, parables compel our interest because they are stories. The surest way to get interest is tell a story. The parables allowed people to discover truth for themselves. They all contain the question, what does this mean to you? Some things are best left to be discovered and stories allow you to create that in the listener. Note also that the impact on the people hearing the parable was immediate. It was spoken not read. It made truth flash upon a person with immediate truth. But also note that parables only had one point to make. They were simple and they were very understandable.
Throughout history we have communicated our heritage by telling stories and singing songs. While today we may not tell stories sitting cross legged in front of a fire or around the kitchen table, we pass on our visions and ideas from generation to generation by stories, radio, television and movies all by storytelling.
Gerry Spence emphasizes story telling at the Spence Trial College. He has argued that the most important trial technique is to transfer one’s case into a story because people are used to storytelling and because it is an effective technique of persuasion. Your client’s story should be featured in all aspects of the case: jury selection, opening, direct, cross and closing. It is in the repetition of your client’s story that will persuade the jury.
In an article published in the American Bar Association Journal April 1986, Spence wrote:
“Of course it is all storytelling – nothing more. It is the experience of the tribe around the fire, the primordial genes excited, listening, the shivers racing up your back to the place where the scalp is made, and then the breathless climax, and the sadness and the tears with the dying of the embers, and the silence…The jury wants to hear a story. They’re hard wired for it.”
The importance of storytelling in human understanding is underscored by the high intensity of communication. We must simplify and communicate in ways that will be heard in order to get through all of the information being thrown at us daily. Peter Large in The Micro Revolution Revisited says more information has been produced in the last 30 years than in the previous 5,000 years. About 1,000 books are published internationally every day and the number of books in top libraries doubles every 14 years.
Since words alone play such a minor role in communication we need to think in terms of storytelling for full impact. We know that what is said counts for only part of what is understood. Our vocal message (inflection, resonance etc) accounts for a large portion of the understanding. But, a very important part of the understanding is nonverbal. Therefore, storytelling is of great importance in our efforts to persuade.
Storytelling simplifies and focuses attention for the listener. When people receive random, unstructured information they become anxious and soon stop listening completely. This happens when information does not tell us what we want or need to know. Henry David Thoreau said it takes two people to speak the truth – one to speak and another to hear. What counts is not so much what is said, but rather what is heard or thinks was heard.
Albert Einstein has rightly observed that “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Since a trial is a war of impression and not logic successful trial lawyers must become masterful story tellers who engage jurors on a visceral level with the magic of storytelling. It is at that level people decide all important issues and reach opinions.
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