The Rhyming Theme of OJ’s Dream Team
“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
The most legendary trial theme of my lifetime. Probably yours, too (assuming you’re older than 30).
Those words, perhaps more than any actual evidence presented at trial, are what will be remembered most about the 1995 OJ Simpson murder trial. In the eyes of many observers, it was what cinched his acquittal (though reasonable minds can differ on that point).
Johnnie Cochran, OJ’s showboat defense lawyer who uttered the unforgettable words, undoubtedly knew the importance of trial themes (we’ve written before about the benefit of developing themes in early discovery).
But what was so special about the Dream Team’s theme? It rhymes.
It’s Rhyme Time
Rhyming goes back to our earliest childhood: it’s the first literary device most of us ever encounter. Most likely, you could recite a childhood rhyme right here and now without giving it any thought. (Apologies if this gives you an earworm.)
One, two, buckle my shoe, three, four open the door.
Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.
Brown Bear, Brown Bear, what do you see? I see a red bird looking at me!
But rhymes work with trial themes, too. For example:
The solution to pollution is dilution.
Birds of a feather, flock together.
Fake it ‘til you make it.
It does not happen often, but when a rhyming trial theme emerges, I typically get pretty excited. But sometimes clients are bit resistant. “It’s too… coy… cutesy … juvenile,” they say. Maybe. But a theme that rhymes can be not only more memorable but also more persuasive than your run-of-the-mill theme.
Rhymes Seen as More Truthful
Case in point: a psychological science study conducted by M. McGlone and J. Tofighbakhsh (2000).
In the published study, researchers paired rhyming messages with non-rhyming messages. The rhyming words in the non-rhyming phrases were replaced with synonyms, thereby creating the closest apples-to-apples comparison possible. For example: “Caution and measure will win you treasure” was paired with, “Caution and measure will win you riches.” And, “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals” was paired with, “What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks.” You get the gist.
Participants were asked to rank their perceived accuracy of each statement (e.g., 1 = not at all accurate; 9 = very accurate). Without delving into the nitty-gritty details of the study, the conclusion was this: people perceived the rhyming messages as more truthful and accurate than their non-rhyming counterparts, even when they weren’t.
The rhymed message was so influential, the listener assumed it was valid. In the world of social sciences, this is known as the Rhyme-as-Reason effect.
The big takeaway is that rhymes matter. But they do have limitations.
When participants were instructed to evaluate only the meaning of the message – as opposed to the meaning and its phrasing – the overall impact of the rhyme decreased. In other words, if the listener made a concerted effort to dissect the message only, and to eliminate any feelings or gut reactions, the rhyme lost some persuasive power. But let’s be real: who really does that in real life except English majors?
The implication is clear: rhymes have the potential to be very appealing to the listener. Any listener. Which means rhymes can be utilized in all aspects of a legal practice. The trick is to ensure they are being used effectively (and, of course, sparingly).
Here are a few ways lawyers can incorporate “Rhyme-as-Reason” into their persuasion strategies:
- When developing trial themes or influential talking points, consider word choice carefully. Can your message be captured accurately by incorporating rhyme, alliteration, assonance, or something that flows nicely off the tongue? The catchier the phrase, the more memorable it will be. And every advocate wants her message to be remembered.
- Can the message be utilized throughout the life of the case? Trial themes are most effective when they can be woven into multiple aspects of case development and are repeatable. Themes are not just for trial; they are important for persuasive motion practice and deposition testimony, too.
- Does it make sense and fit with the evidence? If you try to weave a trial theme into a story that doesn’t quite work, you’re essentially forcing a square peg into a round hole. And when this happens – rhyme or not – the trial theme typically falls flat. And flat themes are almost always rejected.
It is a rare case that lends itself well to rhyming, nor can every lawyer pull it off with conviction and credibility. But when used judiciously, a rhyming trial theme can be extraordinarily effective and persuasive.
If you discover a rhyme that works, it just might have some perks.