May 22, 2024

Lawyers tend to look to other lawyers for insight on how to best persuade in the courtroom.  We read the speeches of legendary advocates; we go to watch closing arguments in high-profile cases; and we bunch up at CLEs as we are regaled with war stories and the ‘wisdom’ of masters.  This insular approach to learning has some merit, as the advice comes from those who do, not from those who think or guess.

But insularity comes at a price.  The art we practice in the courtroom, when done well, is the somewhat fungible skill of story-telling.  There were story-tellers before there were tribunals, and there are story-tellers in multiple fora and venues today.  The burgeoning literature of persuasion skills for those who sell – be they politicians or businesspeople – provides a rich source of ideas and insights.

Look no further than the 2016 THE STORYTELLER’S SECRET (St. Martin’s Griffin).   Written by Carmine Gallo, the book ranges from “TED” talk speakers to business legends, tells each one’s story, and let’s each story detail a lesson or two on how to improve story-telling.  Each brief chapter concludes with a “story teller’s secret.”

The book is divided into five segments – storytellers who ignite our inner fire; storytellers who educate; storytellers who simplify; storytellers who motive; and storytellers who launch movements.  But before their stories and “secrets” are told, the author takes the reader on a brief but essential tour through both anthropology and neuroscience to identify the cultural and scientific roots of persuasive story-telling.  Gallo teaches about the release of chemicals to the amygdala, which triggers senses of pleasure or excitement.  Life experience causes the release; so too do emotionally-designed stories.

That science – and the additional science that humans hear facts and organize them into stories, or, as the book states, “we understand and interpret life experiences as ongoing narratives – stories that contain conflict, characters, and a clear beginning, middle and conclusion” – drive the book.  Gallo writes, correctly, that

Effective persuasion relies on telling a good story.  If we can put our ideas into narrative form, it helps your audience understand the world better, giving them a common set of references and, ultimately, is more likely to encourage them to support your point of view.

And what are among the “secrets” and insights?  Here is a sampling:

  • Gallo conducts a ‘diagnostic’ of brilliant oratory, a talk by Bryan Stephenson, measuring it against classic rhetoric principles. “In Stevenson’s TED talk, 65 percent of his content fell into the category of pathos (triggering emotion through narrative).  Stevenson told three personal stories in 18 minutes.  Facts, figures, and statistics (Logos) made up 25 percent…Information intended to bolster his credibility (Ethos) supplied the remaining 10 percent…”
  • “Great stories start with great headlines that capture then one key message behind an idea…’Say what you mean and mean what you say and preferably in as few well-chosen words as possible.’”
  • “Video has become an essential component of delivering a story. Successful storytellers embrace the medium in a personable, friendly style that makes the viewer feel as though they’re having a one-to-one conversation with the speaker.”
  • “If you simply hear information, you will recall about 10 percent of the content. If you hear the information and see a picture, it’s likely that you will retain about 65%…”

Two particular intriguing concepts come from Pope Francis and Pixar.  From the Pope comes “the rule of three,” a subset of the principle that people can’t retain more than seven items [think telephone numbers without area codes] in their short term memory.  Finding three organizing points for your story, or three facts or events the jury will know to listen for throughout the trial, makes the opening memorable and reinforces the story.  As Gallo elaborates,

The world’s greatest storytellers stick to the rule of three because…

  • It offers a simple template to structure your story.
  • It simplifies your story so your audience can remember its key messages.
  • It leads to the ultimate goal of persuasion – action!

And from Pixar?  Gallo details the seven steps of each Pixar movie, commencing with a hero who proceeds in the normal course until conflict emerges, and then a series of occurrences follow “until finally” there is a resolution of good over evil which reveals the moral of the story.  Not merely for children’s movies, the Pixar strategy is a template for most any trial story.

The “secrets” are no longer the property of the few.  And if lawyers look beyond their own numbers the power of persuasion is sure to improve.



Gallo, THE STORYTELLER'S SECRET (St. Martin's Griffin 2016)