By now every trial lawyer has been told or has read about the importance of storytelling. Too often this kind of advice is the sort of thing we hear and read about repetitively but don’t internalize or accept as being as important as it is so we continue to do what we’ve always done: talk in narratives and as a chronology to the jury. Eric Oliver is a jury consultant of many years. (firstname.lastname@example.org) His company Meta Systems publishes from time to time a newsletter and since Eric and I have worked together on my cases he’s kind enough to send me a copy. his winter 2016 addition has an article by Leo Widridge “The Science of Storytelling: why telling a story is the most powerful way to activate our brains.”
He makes several important points worth repeating. Storytelling has been the process by which mankind has communicated and passed on knowledge. 27,000 years ago stories were told by paintings and caves which is how we are still communicating with each other and to ourselves.
He says that when we are being told a story, things changed dramatically in our brain as to what parts are activated. The part that is activated during storytelling is the same area of the brain we would use if we were actually experiencing the events being described in the story. If we listen to a PowerPoint presentation with bullet points the language processing part of the brain is activated, not the storytelling area. Science has shown that evolution has wired our brains for storing telling.
The author says that a story in its simplest form is a connection between cause and effect as if it were happening. Research shows that we make up stories in our heads for every action and conversation. We spend much of our time telling or listening to personal stories about ourselves and others.
Another important aspect of storytelling is that when we hear a story we want to relate it to one of our past experiences. We search for a similar experience in order to connect it and make sense of it. That’s why metaphors are effective because our brain is searching for a cause and effect relationship of something we previously experienced as we hear the story and metaphors serve as a shortcut.
It turns out that when we are trying to convince people we are more successful if we tell them a story why it is the best thing to do because it activates the person’s brain in an area that turns the story into their own idea and experience. Even in legal writing storytelling is a more persuasive way of presenting an idea.
The more simple the story the more successful. To put it another way the more complicated the story the less successful the goal of persuasion. We too often, as lawyers, see things in a complicated, detailed manner. However, the listener has great difficulty with a story or presentation of that kind. The simpler a story, the more likely it is to be accepted and remembered. Simple language and low complexity are the best ways to activate the brain regions that make us connect with the story.
Another point of the article is that overused phrases and words that may have been effective in storytelling of the past have lost their effectiveness. Figures of speech like “having a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more without any connection to the brain. We need to employ fresh phrases and words to activate the part of the brain we are trying to reach.