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Storytelling in Trial

The story is an incredibly powerful tool of persuasion. Storytelling has been around for since at least the beginning of recorded history. The story has become central to human communication and thinking. As a result we have become accustomed to hearing and reading stories as a primary means of digesting information. If you look at the greatest speakers of all time they are all good story tellers. Abraham Lincoln was renowned for his ability to teach through story telling. It was his story telling ability which allowed him to captivate the interest of his audience. As a result of natural tendency to learn through stories people have become accustomed to interpreting new information and new stories based on stories they have heard previously. Stories do more than simply recite facts. Stories give jurors insight as to motivation for actions. Stories speak to the emotional intelligence of the audience.

As a trial lawyer it is imperative that you become a strong story teller. Trials require us to bombard jurors with information so that they can make intelligent decisions. As a result of this information overload jurors will be selective as to what they listen to and as to what they tune out. If you present information on a purely factual basis without any underlying story to captivate your listeners attention then you can be sure they jurors will be zoning out more often than not. If your jurors are going to sleep in trial it is likely because you are simply reciting facts as opposed to delivering those same facts through story. Properly told stories will engage your listener. Stories also develop rapport between you and your listener. Stories also give the listener a framework from which they can organize the information presented to them. Perhaps most importantly, stories elicit moral judgment. Moral judgment is an incredibly powerful tool of persuasion.

There are a variety of ways in which one can tell a story. Here, however we are talking about how to tell a story in trial. Trials are complex animals given the rigid rules in which information must be presented. As a result we want to simplify the process as much as possible. As a result, it is probably best to proceed linearly, in chronological order. Remember, that we need to be good teachers for our jurors. If we plan to teach we should present our story in a way which is easy to digest. So tell the story of your case chronologically.

When telling a story we need to focus on people and we need to focus on people doing things. This means focus on people taking action. Action is what propels the story forward from beginning to end. We need to maintain momentum. As soon as the momentum of the story slows down or stops the audience stops listening. So keep the action moving forwards so as to not lose your listeners. If you are handing a personal injury case they you need to be focusing on the Defendant's actions. This is especially true on opening statements. In the opening statement the jurors are thinking about one job. That is the job that they know they are in court to complete. That job entails determining who did what wrong. This goes for virtually any type of case. Thus the jurors, especially early on in the case, are focused on determining this one fact. As a result, if you spend your time talking about your client the plaintiff, then the jurors are going to start assessing what your client did or did not do wrong. If on the other hand you focus on the Defendant, then the jurors will assess what the Defendant did or did not do wrong. Thus keep the focus on the defendant in your injury case, particularly in opening.

Some trial advocacy teachers will tell you not to start with anything such as "let me tell you a story". Others will say this is ok. David Ball, who I personally look up to more than any other advocacy teacher instructs trial lawyers to use those exact words. The reason for this is that as soon as you use that phrase "let me tell you a story", the jurors immediately begin listening. People love stories. Thus when you say these words you capture the attention of the listener and the listener begins paying attention to your story. Some trial advocacy teachers don't want you to call it a "story" as it is not a "story". I disagree as the jurors are smart enough to know that you are speaking to a real chain of events which actually befell your client. Alternatively, prior to telling your jurors that you are going to tell them a story you can begin with a teaser. A teaser is a phrase or some action you take which grabs the jurors attention. Teasers work well but you need to make sure your teaser goes directly to the heart of the case. Your teaser should be something memorable and something that you would like your jurors to repeat in their heads all the way through trial and into deliberations.

Within the personal injury context it is good to start with the rule of your case. You want your jurors to thoroughly understand the rules which govern the defendant's conduct. You also want the jurors to know these rules early on. In this way the jurors can assess all of the Defendant's actions as they are presented in trial, based on the rules in play. Thus starting with a rule is very strong. After you open up you need to be getting to what the defendant did. If at any time you are not talking about what the Defendant did then you need to be using visceral communication so as to appeal to the listener's emotional state. Before you even begin drawing up your opening statement begin by thinking about what visceral facts and issues you can play with in your case. This could be danger, greed, betrayal and the like. Think of big picture concepts which arouse an emotional state in the juror.

After you write up your opening statement you can go through it line by line. Make sure that each and every line either describes some action which moves the story of your case forward or otherwise engrosses your audience by playing to the listener's emotion. If any of the information does not do one of those two things then cut out that language. As always, less is more in trial. Your number one focus here is to keep the jurors engaged. Presenting stories in this way keeps them engaged. Superfluous information which doesn't move the story forward or appeal to emotion simply bores the jurors and causes them to lose interest in your story. You know you have reached the end of your story when you have nothing left to say that moves the story forward. Since you are focusing on the Defendant that thing, in an injury trial, should probably be the actual injury itself. If this is a car accident case then it could be the crash itself, for example.

These are some basic story telling concepts which I learned from David Ball. Beyond being a towering intellect Mr. Ball has a strong background in theater, he is an outstanding trial and jury consultant as well as a terrific trial advocacy teacher. For more information on this subject I direct you to any of his seminars or his publications. The information above comes primarily from his book, Theater tips and Strategies for Jury Trials.

Categories: Personal Injury