Stories are our past, our present and our future. Each generation of our forefathers has presented a story to be shared with the next generation so that history can be told again, and the present can be shared with the future. Stories are a means of preserving our heritage and are also a means of communicating and sharing our humanity and a means to connect with each other.
Storytelling is also a critical part of persuasion and influence. Some of the greatest storytellers are able to bring disparate people from all walks of life to come together to listen to the story and create change. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is simply a man with a story of the future; yet that speech has inspired millions to take action. As attorneys, negotiators, and mediators, we can use stories to help us to persuade, convince, explain, and guide people to a better place.
There are several types of stories that attorneys can use to communicate and persuade. One of the first stories that attorneys must develop to help persuade another party are stories about themselves. In order for a person to believe your position, they need to believe in you. Stories allow people to gain an insight into what makes you work. People are more connected if they know each other’s history. If that history reveals an imperfection, that connection can get even closer. For example, J.K. Rowling publicly presents her story as a failure; she failed in life’s pursuits before writing her first Novel, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Her honest portrayal of her failure makes her human, makes her someone like us, and makes her no longer a multi-billionaire successful author, but instead a woman who has experienced life’s tribulations, just like us. As attorneys, people need to trust you first before they can believe you. Your story can be an important part of creating that trust.
Stories can also be historically based. Many people who attend mediations deride the use of war stories in mediation by mediators. However, the stories are not really what people oppose. They oppose the use of such stories at an inappropriate time simply to elaborate on the supposed talents of the mediator in a prior life or because the story has nothing to do with the situation at hand. On the other hand, a well thought out, well-timed, and relevant historical war story can be very powerful. Winston Churchill famously addressed this point when he stated that “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” A good war story at the right time can be a very powerful tool in helping another party avoid the mistakes of the past.
Attorneys and mediators alike can use history lessons to influence and persuade the audience whether that audience is a jury or an opposing counsel or a participant in a mediation. One of the benefits of using history as a lesson is that it doesn’t directly attack the subject of the lesson. After all, this is a lesson about the past and not the present. As a mediator, it is much easier to criticize a person’s actions by referring to a historical-based fact or story which will teach the same lesson. For example, if a party is being overly optimistic about its chances of success at trial, that party might benefit from hearing about a story where another party was on the eve of trial predicting their success in the upcoming battle.
The story could explain how confident that party was in its own success, and it also can explain how that party’s hopes, expectations and dreams came crashing down when the jury didn’t agree with them. That history lesson allows the mediator to comment without making it personal. Rather than saying, “you are going to be devastated when you lose,” the mediator allows the party to use its own imagination to transport themselves into the story and to experience the feeling of a surprise loss.
Another powerful story that helps to persuade others is the futuristic story. One of the most powerful and persuasive stories of the future is that of Star Trek. Without exaggerating, Star Trek is easily responsible for some of today’s most advanced technologies. The cell phone is the modern communicator; the tricorder is todays’ ultrasound machine, the transporter is now a 3D fax machine, and the universal translator is now part of Google’s many tools. The stories of the future influenced the actions of the present. Just as Gene Rodenberry influenced many, the attorney can influence the present by discussing the future. For example, an attorney might talk about the future of society if juries were to allow verdicts to skyrocket. On the other hand, a mediator might answer the question, “will I win my lawsuit in the future?” by predicting that the future may change in a number of ways. The future may be riddled with difficult litigation that can be soul crushing or the future may be a simple walk in the park. Either way, contemplating both possible future realities can help to convince the party in the present to decide which direction he or she wishes to travel. Stories of the future can help the listener engage his or her creativity about what they envision for the future.
Another important part of storytelling is the fact that stories engage people at a fundamental and purely intrinsic level rather than at a logical level. According to Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor, a good story reaches past people’s defenses and engages their imagination. Once people experience a story, it becomes part of their emotional memory and they feel and learn from the story as if it was an actual event. When you relate a story, you invite the listener to experience it with you. The drama, the intrigue, the surprise all occurs together.
Indeed, in advertising, researchers have discovered that the best commercials that have the greatest success are not the ones about sex, but instead the ones that have a good story. Case in point, the Super Bowl story about the Budweiser horse’s friendship with the puppy which lasts a lifetime just as your affection for Budweiser will also last a lifetime.
Just like a good commercial, a good story does not have to be long, but it does need to connect to the audience. According to Peter Gruber, former CEO of Sony Pictures, and author of Tell to Win, a good story needs to be authentic, demonstrate an interest in the listener –not the speaker- have a goal, and finally be interactive.
Gruber’s comments bear direct witness to the storytelling that takes place in the legal arena. If the audience doesn’t believe the story to be authentic, they turn on the narrator like a pack of wolves. In addition, where many stories fail, whether they be sales pitches to a jury or pleas to settle in mediation, is on Gruber’s second prong – focusing on the listener and not the speaker. The story means nothing if it is only valuable to the speaker. If it doesn’t connect with the audience, and doesn’t relate to the audience’s needs, it has no meaning. Asking a jury to vote for a plaintiff in an automobile accident (the goal) focuses on the plaintiff’s needs; asking a jury to vote for public safety on the streets focuses on the jury’s needs.
Gruber explains that when a person hears or sees a good story, they have an emotional bond with that story. Consider the story of the man who lives at home with his mother until he goes to war and returns as a hero only to marry his childhood sweetheart – a story also known as Forrest Gump. Every person who has ever seen this story has an emotional connection – whether with Forrest in search of his love, or Forrest’s loyalty as a friend, or son. No one can avoid the emotional bonds celebrated by that story. According to Gruber, emotional connection combined with facts are powerful allies in the battle of persuasion. That emotional connection doesn’t happen unless the story is focused on the audience’s needs and not those of the speaker; that too is the reason that many war stories fail in mediation. They don’t focus on the interests of the listener.
Finally, Gruber’s fourth point about stories needing to be interactive in order to be effective is always an issue with lawsuits. Whether the story is to a jury, a mediator, the negotiator or the opposite party, the story always has to be interactive. It has to engage the listener and needs to respond to the changing needs of the listener. Part of being a good storyteller is listening to the other person to understand what they need, and what will emotionally connect with that person.
Storytelling is as much a part of our legal culture as it is societal history. The first lawsuit was simply a story of a person who had been wronged by another. There are many stories that can be communicated during a lawsuit, but each story must have a focus and purpose and must be genuine and honest. Without an honest interaction with the listener, the stories we tell will fail.
Published in the Daily Journal in September 18, 2015.