Storytelling in Trial: Why It Matters
It’s a word jury consultants use all of the time. We’re always encouraging our clients to tell stories to the jury rather than merely regurgitate facts. I think the mere mention of the word takes us all back to kindergarten, and because of this, telling stories in the courtroom is often trivialized. Why in the world would a grown adult need to tell a story in the courtroom!?
Maria had just ended her shift at the plant and was walking home. It wasn’t a long walk– about five blocks– but it was 1:00 in the morning and the rest of the city slept. The roads were empty, the sky was dark and she was alone. Maria had walked this walk five days a week for the last ten years. She knew the route. She knew the sounds. She knew her surroundings as well as she knew the back of her hand. As she neared the half-way mark, it was darker than usual. As glass crunched underneath her shoes, she realized the streetlight was broken. All of the sudden, Maria heard footsteps approaching. Thunk, thunk, thunk. The sound was loud and heavy: probably the footsteps of a man, she thought. Maria quickly increased her pace, but the footsteps only grew louder and faster. The next thing she knew, there was a hand grabbing her from behind.
How do feel? Do you want to know more? Are you considering what happens next? Are you engaged? Are you visualizing the event? Have you recalled a similar experience? Can you identify with Maria? If your answer is yes to any of these questions, then you’ve just experienced the power of storytelling.
Research shows that decision-makers construct stories inside of their heads to provide meaning to the unknown and to provide a framework for categorizing and evaluating new information. Jurors use their personal stories to judge the conduct of the parties, to evaluate the credibility of the witnesses and to weigh the validity of the factual evidence. Jurors won’t wait for a trial attorney to present a story: jurors will create one all by themselves. But make no mistake. The juror’s story is not just some random once-upon-a-time thing– it has personal meaning to that juror, evokes emotion and will be used to help make sense of what is happening in the courtroom.
So why do trial attorneys need to provide jurors with a story if one has already been created?
The most obvious reason is that the juror’s personal story may not be a story that benefits your client. But the lesser-known reason is this: jurors actually rewrite their stories throughout the course of the trial (whether they realize it or not), and if they are motivated to modify their story, it becomes more powerful.
But what makes a trial story a good trial story?
The best trial stories touch on issues, experiences and memories that are familiar to jurors’ lives and consistent with their value systems. By integrating visual imagery and sensations (smell, touch, sight, sound) into the story, jurors begin to “feel” what you are saying which results in a stronger, emotional connection. Why is emotion so important? Because emotion— not intellect– is what compels jurors to act. Of course your story needs to be supported by strong evidence, credible witness testimony and believable facts, but combining logic with emotion is the key to persuading jurors.
There’s a natural consequence when jurors feel emotionally connected to your story: the facts become more relevant, the issues seem more “real,” and jurors are more engaged in the process. And guess what? Facts that are understood by jurors on a personal, emotional level are much more likely to be embraced… and advocated in the deliberation room.
Stories are not just for criminal or civil matters with an obvious human element. Every case has characters, a conflict and a resolution. Every case has a story to tell. But the trick in telling your story is to remember your audience. You’re not telling the story for you, your client or the judge– you’re telling it for the benefit of the jury. Present it from the factfinder’s point of view, not yours.
After all, what the jury hears is what really matters.