October 01, 2016

Five Ways to Infuse Your Client's Story with Emotional Impact and Persuasive Power

Doug Passon

1. Tell a Story

The title of this piece makes the bold assumption that lawyers understand that their job, first and foremost, is to tell a winning story. In law school, they teach us that “issue, rule, application and conclusion” are the keys to success. They are not. That is why, for example, in a criminal case, “the government did not meet its burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt” is rarely a winner. Since the beginning of human kind, we have been using story to communicate universal truths of life. The ability to artfully connect the theory of our case to one or more of these universal truths through story is the surest path to victory. Therefore, it is incumbent on every lawyer to embark on a new education, a total immersion in the wonderful world of story. Read books. See movies. If you love the theatre, go to a play. Watch television. Study the craft! Learn from those story professionals who have moved you in ways you never thought possible. The good news is you now have an excuse to spend an afternoon at the movies and mark it down as professional development!

2. Be Visual

Use emotionally evocative images to help tell your story. Studies show that human beings are largely visual learners. We now know that a massive amount of the brain’s neural pathways (upwards of 40%) connect to the retina. Moreover, the developing science of mirror neurons teaches us that when we see something, we connect to it on a much deeper emotional level. Visuals also give lawyers the credibility we crave. Who could argue against the old adage, “seeing is believing,” in the litigation context? One powerful image can communicate more truth about your case than any words, no matter how articulate, that pass through the lips of lawyers and litigants. Visuals can be simple still photos, videos, models, or computer animation. Indeed lawyers are increasingly using video as a way to tell their client’s story for sentencing mitigation or during the damages phase of civil trials. See Joe Palazzolo, Lenience Videos Make a Showing at Criminal Sentencings, Wall St. J., May 29, 2014, http://www.wsj.com/articles/leniency-videos-make-a-showing-at-criminal-sentencings-1401395519.

3. Paint Word Pictures

If you cannot engage the eyes with stunning visuals, use descriptive language to transport your audience and immerse them in a world of vivid detail. Don’t use bland, conclusory language such as, “The victim was intoxicated and angry and threatened the defendant.” Instead, say, “This six foot two inch, six sheets to the wind, short tempered hot head with rage in his eyes, flies out of his chair, beer bottle in hand, and comes straight for Jason Smalls, who is five foot nine and scared out of his mind.” Use imagery and alliteration. Tell your stories in the present tense to transport your audience in place and time. Pause for effect. Modulate your tone. Make eye contact. Hold them in the palm of your hands. Put them on the edge of their seat, waiting with baited breath for what comes next.

4. Always Let Empathy Be Your Guide

Know your client like you know yourself. Can you even imagine how difficult it must be for them, sitting by your side, silent, while you hold their story and their destiny in your hands? How do we convince a judge or jury to see the world through your client’s eyes, to walk a mile in their shoes, when we have not done that hard work ourselves? Moreover, great lawyers understand the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy holds little currency in the courtroom. The typical internal sympathetic reaction is, for lack of any better descriptor, “sucks to be you.” People do not connect with and root for people for whom they pity.  With empathy, we turn this on its head and the feeling becomes “that could be me.” To the decision makers, our clients start out as strangers. Our job is to present our case in story and from the heart, so that the distinction between self and other falls away. That is when empathy takes hold and true persuasion occurs.

5. Don’t Be an Overt Manipulator

To be clear, as I make my case for the use of emotion-based storytelling, I am staunchly advocating against inauthentic melodrama. Grand theatrics can distract and weaken our credibility. Stories build the bridge of empathy, first and foremost, with elements that make your audience feel something. This is an area, however, where the lawyer must strike a delicate balance. Arguably, any attempt at persuasion involves a modicum of manipulation, but audiences have stink-detectors. If a presentation contains too much raw emotion, the audience will resent the tricky lawyer for trying to play on their sympathies. Consequently, effective persuaders must be subtle in their methods. Our job is to lead people where we need them to go without having them feel as if they are being manipulated. The best persuasion happens beneath the surface. Let your audience see your sincerity, your true belief in your cause. But let them be your partner in the pursuit of justice. If you tell your story in just the right way, you will not need to spoon feed them your truth. They will feel as if they solved the puzzle on their own and you (and your clients) will reap the rewards.




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Doug Passon

Doug Passon is a litigator of 20 years, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker. For over a decade, he has been combining his passion for filmmaking with his practice of law by producing short documentaries for use in criminal and civil litigation. He is nationally recognized as a pioneer in this field and teaches legal professionals across the country how to effectively integrate emotionally evocative images into their practices. Passon graduated from Washington University School of Law in 1996 and currently lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. For more information, articles, videos, and a new podcast, “Story for Lawyers,” visit www.dougpassonlaw.com or sign up to receive future updates here.