Once Upon a Time in a Dark and Stormy Courtroom…

Most attorneys approach their opening statement with the idea that this is their chance to tell their client’s story and set the stage for their case. The operative concept here is that their client’s “story” is categorically the most important element of their opening statement.  Jurors are often inundated with facts, figures, charts and new concepts right from the start of their service. While these may be important evidentiary considerations, they are, frankly, ignored most of the time. It’s always the story that will most resonate with these real people sitting in the jury box.

Why Do Stories Work?

So why does the format of a story resonate and have such a profound impact on learning? A story is about cause and effect, which is how we think. In the midst of our daily routines, we manage to make up short stories for all of the actions and conversations that occur in our lives; “if I go to Starbucks at 8:00am

[cause], there will be a long line [effect] and I will feel rushed [emotion]”.  When we hear a story, we instinctually search for a similar experience, which in turn allows us to relate to the same feeling or emotion, whether it is pain, elation, disgust or impatience. For example, your client calls to let you know that she will be late because of a long line at the coffee shop. You know that story, and accept the implications, because you have experienced it in your own life.

The Brain Detests Boring

There are measurable physiological differences that occur in the brain when someone receives information in a story format versus other methods such as bullet points. As you might surmise, these differences do not bode well for the bullet point approach. Cliché language and stale presentation methods are attention sappers. With the constant bombardment of visual and auditory input, our brains have learned to ignore overused words, phrases and ideas. If your story includes an abundance of perfunctory language, it will essentially have the same effect as the bullet point slides. Phrases such as “at the end of the day” or “where the rubber meets the road” have been so overused that they have lost their impact. The frontal cortex of our brains, responsible for experiencing emotions, will not be activated with language such as “at the end of the day,” since this phrase does not appeal to the senses in a new way. You can see this in the glossed over eyes of many jurors when this dry, banal language is used.

Bullet Points are Passé

Stories do not need to be complex. Presenting overly complicated stories is a frequent trap that the trial attorney can fall into. There are many instances when it is crucial to keep things simple – maybe it is because of the complexity of case content, the jury’s attention span, or their education levels. Logic and precedent might suggest that a straightforward PowerPoint presentation with simple bullet points would be the best way to convey the key concepts of their case, right? Wrong.

When a person is presented with plain bullet points, it activates the language processing regions in their brain where words are decoded into meaning…but that’s it. By contrast, when a person is told a story, it activates other areas of the brain that are used if they were experiencing the story themselves. This creates synchronization between the storyteller and the audience, which increases the likelihood of influencing someone’s thoughts and emotions. The listeners will then turn the story into their own idea or experience. This is the key connection that an attorney is looking for with their jury.

Experience Equals Influence

While no one is going to relive the events of the case, it is important to create as realistic an experience as possible for the jury. In a subsequent post, we will continue to examine storytelling methods including those of astrophysicist and author and master storyteller, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson who is known for his ability to capture an audience’s attention. A firm believer in the power of teaching through storytelling, deGrasse Tyson says “to experience something has a far more profound effect on your ability to remember and influence you than if you simply read it in a book.” I would add, “or see it in a boring, bulleted PowerPoint presentation”. Stay tuned, this story will continue next week.




2016-10-12T18:02:59+00:00 By |0 Comments